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Nature's context builds new, wild gardens

June 03, 2013
  • Annette Ipsan
Yvette May/Staff Photographer

One of the best parts of my job is spending time with great horticultural minds. Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a state conference that featured not one, but two talks by always impressive author/designer/photographer Rick Darke.

His focus was naturalistic gardens and design ethics. His premise is that true wilderness doesn’t exist, but that wildness is a renewable resource that is all around us. In other words, man has left a footprint everywhere, but there is much we can do to preserve and restore what we have in our own backyards. 

He encouraged us to take a broader view of our gardens as part of a larger ecosystem. Knowing how habitat works, what plants and animals need to thrive, is crucial. Smart choices allow us to actually rebuild and rejuvenate habitat.

Look at what’s working well in your backyard. What plants are getting along without your intervention? These are the ones that are well-suited, adapted and adapting to the habitat. They belong. 

“Let things be that do well and perpetuate themselves, seed here and there. They’re happy and need nothing,” Darke said. 

He suggested we look at everything within context. It’s not just a single plant. It’s part of the ecosystem. Does it fit? Will it take care of itself? 

I find myself focusing more and more on reliable performers in my own garden. Many are native plants that naturally do well since they are intrinsically adapted. They look good, flower well, resist disease and do what they’re supposed to do. Who doesn’t want plants that do well?

So, I’m comfortable rogueing out temperamental plants. If they’re not happy, they don’t belong.

I mimic nature more and more. Nature lives in layers: trees, shrubs, perennials, ground covers. Layers are lovely and make sense. You’re creating a community of plants.

Darke showed stellar slides of his own naturalistic gardens that generated “oohs and ahhs.” Layers everywhere. Plants flowing into other plants with no gaps and no mulch.  (Yes, no mulch.) A rich mix of texture, color and organic, curved edges. 

Beautifully blended into the surrounding landscape, Darke’s gardens are the epitome of naturalistic landscape. There was no end to his garden and beginning of the wildlife preserve beyond. It all flowed.

So, I have something to which I can aspire. I’m going to look at my garden with fresh eyes. I will plant more and mulch less. I will add layers where they are missing and be more comfortable with a less designed, more natural look.

I will build good soil and habitat, focus more on well-adapted plants and let my plants seed more freely. God’s designs are generally better than mine, anyway.
 
This approach is already working in my garden. Foxes, hawks and owls visit often. Bluebirds and pileated woodpeckers wing over my meadow. I’m on my way to a new, wilder garden that works in concert with its environment. It’s livable, sustainable and beautiful to my eye. 

I hope you, too, will embrace a wilder way in your garden and help to support our vital ecosystems. 
 
Annette Ipsan is the Home Extension educator for horticulture and the Master Gardener program in Washington County for the University of Maryland in Washington County. She can be reached at 301-791-1604 or aipsan@umd.edu.

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