Monday, July 29, 2013

The un-garden

For a laundry list of reasons starting last year, I knew that this summer would find us behind on projects and losing ground. So I decided to not do a vegetable garden, for the first time in 15 years.

It isn’t total withdrawal: I popped some carrot and lettuce seeds into the planters nearest to the house, and filled the rest of them with bright annual flowers. Then cover-cropped the veggie beds with buckwheat to avoid raising a fine crop of quack grass and milkweed. (Also to attract our scarily shrinking population of bees.)

This, in addition to the loss of my mother’s help (see “R.I.P. Garden Elf,” September 1, 2012), has meant a yard and garden scruffier than at any time during our residence. Since spring we’ve mowed only three times and I’ve trimmed only once.

Such neglect has created an interesting new environment . . . proving the adage “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Anywhere a spot was bare or unattended, plants moved in, creating a natural garden of delight.

Borders normally groomed have exploded in daisies and black-eyed Susans, asters (still to bloom), and campanula; plus the more weedy species such as lamb’s quarters, amaranth, pigweed, dandelions, thistle, yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, and all varieties of clover. Not to mention every form of grass.

Wildflowers not seen in the yard before have grabbed corners and crevices between rocks: various mints, joe pye weed, and the indomitable burdock. Dropped bird seed from winter feeders has sprouted into mixed varieties of sunflower, over here and over there.

In areas where trees were harvested last fall, ferns and jewelweed have run rampant, as have the bee balm and phlox, overrunning the borders of abandoned perennial beds and popping up in areas far across the yard. I can no longer get to my compost pile, as it has been consumed by flowers.

My favorite surprises are the daisies and black-eyed Susans that took over the walk and terrace. For almost a month, we had to hitch up our legs and climb over them in order to get in the front door—I couldn’t bear to cut them back until after they bloomed. I also love the single, sentinel sunflowers that have appeared in the middle of the lawn, thumbing their petals at the cultivated ones struggling on the edge of the garden. Nothing I planted (galliardias, nasturtiums, marigolds, zinnias, morning glories) has done half as well as wild things that grabbed a molecule of dirt and grit between cracks or in disturbed soil.

This unconstrained growth proves something I talked about five years ago in my book Open Your Heart with Gardens. You don’t have to actively create and tend a garden in order to enjoy one; nature will take care of that herself. So even though I’m not actively cultivating this year, the yard is full of color and beauty and food in spite of me. Many of these wildflowers are edible, and of course there’s the berry patch. It, too, is going insane this season, overgrowing the firewood stacks despite pre-season cutbacks. In the past three weeks, we’ve harvested no less than 20 pounds of perfect, thumb-size red raspberries!

It is restful to step outside and just enjoy the bloom for a change, instead of having to haul watering cans and hoses and fertilizer, patrol for pests, set up and take down protection. I’m almost tempted to make a habit of it, though I’m sure by next spring I’ll be back to drawing plans and buying transplants and seeds.

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