Using Native Plants in Home Landscaping

John Vivian shares about using native plants in home landscaping. Take your home place (almost) all the way back to nature.

A growing number of thoughtful country people are taking their share of the fate of our threatened globe into their own hands. Not through the rowdy demonstrations, national boycotts, and sit-ins of my youth (and perhaps yours as well–or maybe it’s your parents who remember the ’60s; and ’70s?). These folks are taking action quietly and–dare I say it?–maturely by using native plants in home landscaping. And they’re doing this back home in their communities and neighborhoods, in their own backyards, woodlands, vacant lots, fields, and gardens.

Why the Change for Natural Native Planting?

Society and the environment aren’t half way out of the woods. There’s a great deal of work to be done. But most remaining major issues are global in scope and not amenable to individual or even unilateral national action. Certainly, we should support tougher U.S. clean air and water standards and contribute to the common-land purchases of The Nature Conservancy. Woodworkers among us should refuse to buy rosewood pillaged from a rain forest or California Redwood plundered from an old growth stand. But–besides voting thoughtfully and supporting foreign aid and UNICEF–what can you and I, The Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, or the entire U.S. Marine Corps in full battle gear hope to do about factory smokestack emissions in China? Or pollution of the Volga?

Not that much. Because of this, many serious environmental activists are looking homeward and inward. As MOTHER EARTH News founder John Shuttleworth put it so wisely two decades ago: “Think Globally, Act Locally.”

Near my hometown in coastal Maine, a high school class is working to restore the long extinct local Atlantic Salmon run, not by boycotting Tony the Tuna and strike-sitting at Bruce Babbitt’s office, but by hatching salmon eggs and raising the smolts at school, and then releasing them into a local stream that they first cleaned of trash and deadfalls, in the hope the tiny fish will go to sea in their mysterious way and return some day to spawn.

The soil of the Great Plains was once topped by 10 foot deep loam and a lush high grass prairie that supported the great bison herds. But “mined” for decades by mechanized, chemical monoculture, it has lost its tilth and eroded to a fraction of its volume. In the process, it has become laced with chemical residues. But in Kansas and bordering states, and in Ontario and Provinces to the west, local groups are taking over marginal farm land and letting snowmelt and rain cleanse the soil. They are restoring it to native prairie with plants having common “weed” names like Witch Grass or Johnson Grass that have been savagely eradicated by lawn keepers and farmers.

Their objective is to create islands of diverse native habitat that will perpetuate the plant and animal gene pools that nature in her wisdom evolved since the last ice age 10,000 years ago, which we have despoiled in the past 150, but which will surely be needed someday to maintain our planet’s balance and health.

Individual Action

Individual small landholders across the continent are doing something similar. They are making their home places into little havens of environmental sanity amidst the global chaos of alien plant and animal invasions, sheep-cloning, and plant bioengineering, endless city expansion and subdivision construction, and conversion of farm fields to the new “no-till” farming that reduces erosion but requires even more chemicals.

In the balance of this article we’ll present some habitat restoration ideas you might consider adopting on your own place. During the coming winter, when next year’s garden seems too far off for you to start leafing through the seed catalogs, you can sit snug beside the wood fire and draw up a plan to convert your home place into a miniature Eden. We’ll begin in the place you might imagine is the most ecologically diverse spot on your property.

Going Wild in the Garden

Nearly everyone these days has come to agree with the ranks of all-natural “organic” gardeners–once branded as kooks–who nourish plantings by feeding the soil with natural plant foods and use the least amount of naturally occurring pest repellents that are sure to do minimal harm to the environment.

Creative Corn

Some of us are going a step farther and planting old-time heirloom varieties like 8-row Golden Bantam corn rather than the SuperXXX Cross varieties that are as sweet as candy but lack, to my taste at least, that good old-time corn flavor and bright, fresh aroma when shucked.

Golden Bantam maintains peak quality for 24 hours at best, and so must be picked and eaten when it’s ready. It can’t be chilled for a week and shipped to suit the whims of produce vendors; its sugars turn to starch. When let go for just a few days, it firms enough to make a sturdy corn chowder or hold up to parching, the process by which parboiled kernels are thumbed whole from the broken in half cob, fried in a little hot oil, and eaten like popcorn. Let go a little longer still, until it is chewy but not gone to starch, it is also perfect for sweet corn relish, a cooked, hot-packed sweet pickle of corn kernels, onion, green and red bell peppers, cider vinegar, sugar, and pinches of salt and turmeric boiled till thick with a little cornstarch. This process turns thin-skinned modern corn varieties to mush.

I always plant an Eastern Indian mix of dent type grinding corn, winter-keeping squash, and pole beans that are allowed to grow up and dry on the stalks for dry keeping or “common storage.” Like the famous “no work” gardener Ruth Stout, and MOTHER’S favorite hand powered gardener Mort Mather, we keep the squash in a bed of hay in a low wooden box that slides in and out under the big bed of our unheated bedroom.

Other Indian varieties I’ve tried include amaranth, grain sorghum, and broom corn, all producing small, loose kernels that can be ground for flour, boiled for porridge, or popped like popcorn. The plump red or gold amaranth seed spikes produce prodigious quantities of tiny poppy-like seed that is nutritious and has a rich nutty flavor. Treated like buckwheat flour, it makes excellent hotcakes and pan breads that do not exacerbate common flour allergies. The only problem I’ve had is that the heavy heads of some weak-stemmed strains will “lodge” or bend over and spill out their grains in heavy rain or high winds.

You can use the whole plant with these ancient grains. Sorghum stalks can be crushed using an old-fashioned clothes wringer with the rubber rollers replaced by grooved wood dowels, and pressed in a cider or wine press, and then boiled to make a rich, sweet syrup. Good on hotcakes, it was once widely used as a sweetener in cooking and in baking and as a feedstock to brew into spirits. Of course, that isn’t legal any more. Or so they tell me. The sweet stalks, fed whole or left after crushing and pressing, drive livestock silly. If set aside for a day or two so the sugar ferments a little, it will make them sillier still.

Combed free of edible kernels, the heads of broom corn can be formed into sheaves and bound tight around a short stick to make old-time round-head hearth brooms. The multi-strand stalks can also be rolled, split out and separated into fine broomstraw that’s bent double, triple-stitched across the bend, and mounted on a long handle to make a broom.

The remaining stalks and sweepings make good stock roughage. Fresh green sweet-corn stalks also contain sugar, but not enough to press. Along with the shuckings, they make prime goat, sheep, or cattle feed.

Well-dried cobs make mediocre stove fuel burned whole, and excellent long-lived mulch when run through a shredder-grinder. When dressed in long gowns or pantaloon outfits of water-soaked dry husks, and given shoe-button eyes and long hair of cornsilk–blond at the base, brunette at the dry ends–they make adorable boy or girl dolls just like little the ones pioneer children played with. One young crafter-couple in my neck of the Maine woods sells them to city tourists during the summer for enough free cash to spend the winter on the beach in Panama City, Florida where they only have to work a day or two a week making palmetto-frond and seashell dolls to sell to tourists down there.

Sorghum and the corns I mentioned are all open pollinated crops. They aren’t selectively bred (hybridized) or cloned for identical characteristics. Their pollen is carried on the wind so they share genes back and forth with wild plant relatives, the native grasses that rim any old-time cornfield. Nature picks the variations at random, offering the plant species a huge and ever changing menu of traits to confront an ever changing natural environment. Only the fittest survive in nature.

And, from time immemorial, the fainter or gardener has chosen or “re-selected” the best traits for human use from the natural diversity provided by each year’s crop.

Corn, sorghum, and amaranth are just a few of the plants that heirloom seed savers and sharers have to choose from. Thomas Jefferson grew over 250 different vegetables at Monticello. How many do you see on the grocery shelves today? How many in most seed catalogs? I counted less than 60 in one excellent catalog, and that is including parsnips and celeriac.

Who Needs a Lawn?

On the part of the open area surrounding the main house at Monticello that wasn’t planted with all those vegetables, Thomas Jefferson decided not to put in the sweeping lawns that the owners of neighboring plantations favored to imitate European aristocracy. He maintained a variety of native meadow habitats and kept growth in check by tethering sheep nearby. If we accept Jefferson as our model in home horticulture as in so much else that makes us what we are, his precedent brands today’s solid sod lawns as positively un-American.

Only in water and land blessed North America has a detached home surrounded by lawn become the standard dwelling.

Since we suburbanized following the big wars, any land that wasn’t cleared of native vegetation for farming, eliminating the furry little native mammals, bugs, and birds that once thrived there, was cleared to be wasted in acre after acre of short trimmed grass suitable only for growing Japanese Beetle grubs and for frustrating lawn-mowing Dads. May we offer a modest proposal? Let’s require lawn permits, with a hefty fee to be charged for any home turf area much bigger than a badminton court or croquet field or maybe both, or maybe a football field or a baseball diamond if it’s a really big family. Proceeds would be used to preserve threatened native habitats.

Before Tiger Woods came along, I’d have suggested imposing such a fee on private golf courses as well.

Create a Wildflower Meadow Instead

Have you ever seen a real wildflower meadow? Not a farm field gone to hay and mowed for years so that only stemless grass plants can survive, but a long-established native meadow so crowded with a broad variety of flowering plants that grasses have to take a share of the space and no one plant can take control. Grasslands such as the American Great Plains or the Serengeti are dominated by grasses, but they are not a natural flora; they’re mowed by huge herds of grass eating critters.

A meadow exhibits a succession of colors, usually featuring a predominant flower shade each season: the pink of clovers in spring, the blue of chicory and asters in late summer, the yellow of goldenrod in the fall.

These are sprinkled all year with white petaled, yellow eyed daisies and brown eyed, golden petaled daisies which are not native, but are too lovely to root out, and with the lacy white of Queen Anne’s Lace, domestic carrot gone wild, another lovely and tasty invader that came over on the boat with the Pilgrims. There are also hundreds of less familiar blooms, grasses, and foliage plants, many of them scarce to endangered in today’s artificial environment.

Many lawn busters are accepting the challenge of reestablishing a wildflower meadow. They learn quickly that there is more to it than emptying a can of seed mislabeled “Instant Magic Meadow” on the lawn and selling the rotary mower. To give the tiny seeds half a chance, you must kill or remove the sod. Spring is the best time to do this.

Even organic purists might consider one of the new “glooph” herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup or Finale from AgrEvo of Germany. These are not classic poisons, but sophisticated enzyme-like compounds that confuse a plant’s metabolism long enough to send it to that great compost pile in the sky. Then they biodegrade away, all in less than 18 hours. That’s overnight!

Killing sod by repeated tillings would take a month or more and use up the growing season. Doing it with sun blocking mulch is feasible, but would take as long, and require a whole lot of sunblock. Renting a power sod strip cutter to remove the sod is less problematic. You can arrange to sell your sod to a new home landscaper or roll the strips and stack them to to add to the compost heap.

If you have the time, it is good to let the bare ground rest so any remaining weed seeds can germinate to be dispatched. Most authorities advise lightly liming high acid soils, but feel that any fertilization beyond a thin cover of compost will encourage lush and flaccid leaf and stem growth rather than tough, sturdy stems and large, vibrant flowers.

Cultivate the ground thoroughly but no more than an inch or two deep to create a finely pulverized surface. Scatter a climate and region correct mix of annual and perennial wildflower seed and rake lightly to cover the seed with soil. Covering with thin, coarse-woven landscape cloth can help keep bare land from dusting up, but it is not cheap.

Most crucial is to keep the soil evenly moist for a month till all seeds are sprouted and the young plants are well established. In dry spring weather and on a large meadow, this can require large sprinklers and use of a great deal of water.

Select your seeds carefully. Inexpensive mixes of dubious content are sold by the can in discount stores and low priced catalogs. Those who’ve tested seed mixes claim that many are full of undesirables like thistle or even crab grass, or are made up of coarse, largely alien species.

For best assurance of quality buy from a reputable wildflower seed specialty merchant. Get the mix of species best suited to your climate.

Native Meadow Varieties

Wild plant seed mixes containing all native species or intended to reestablish a special habitat, such as the mid-continent tall grass prairies, are not sold commercially, but are available if you look. Contact a local garden club for leads. Land-grant Universities are setting up local seed depositories and the agriculture school at your State U. may be a great help.

Or you can do what I do: plant what grows wild around you by harvesting local grasses and flowers when they go to seed in late summer to early fall. I’d prefer to restrict my new meadow plantings to natives, but I’m not schooled enough to tell an alien invader from a local variety.

Besides, I figure that once established, a foreign organism becomes a welcome immigrant unless it’s a real threat, like the kudzu that’s eating the southern country-side, the water hyacinth that’s clogging southern waterways, or the zebra mussel and water chestnut that have invaded Lake Champlain and threaten the Great Lakes.

Gathering wild meadow seed requires several paper bags, a deft touch, and an intimate knowledge of a section of wild meadow that hosts the grasses and flowering plants you like most. Begin patrolling in July. As soon as seed heads develop to the point that seed is loose in the sheath, put a small bag over selected flower or grass seed heads and shake out the seeds. Some varieties need to be banged hard or ground up in between your fingers to loosen the seed. Some need to dry further. Cut off the seed heads of the stubborn ones and take them home for harvest.

You can collect one species to a bag if you like; I jumble them all together along with the chaff and straw. Ground fine between my palms, the extra bulk makes it easier to sow the often tiny seed. The seed is programmed to be planted immediately even if it needs to spend a winter or even two in a dormant state. Plant as you would wild flowers.

You’ll find that seeds differ in shape and configuration from familiar garden seeds. Many grasses have little snaggers on them to catch coats of passing animals and hitch a ride to new ground. Others such as mature milkweed are so light and fluffy they’ll fly off in a light wind which is their natural distribution method.

In any wild garden you must keep unwanted varieties, especially aggressive alien invaders, from growing large. During the first year of a wildflower or native prairie planting, a thorough weekly overhaul is in order. Be especially alert for persistent perennial weeds such as tap-rooted burdock which is also called the prickle-burr plant and for any wiry stemmed vine or stinging nettles. They must not be allowed to get established.

One year of pulling newly sprouted crabgrass, plantain, and purslane will encourage you keep the nearby gardens well weeded and to mow surrounding sod clear to the roots or turn it all to meadow. Just learning to identify the good new seedlings from the not so good ones will make you a meadow plant expert in no time. You’ll need good wildflower and weed identifications handbooks. The Audubon, Taylor, and Peterson Guides are all excellent.

In time, you’ll find yourself being asked for advice by all manner of passers-by attracted to the mass of bloom in your new meadow. Passing along the information on saving our national plant heritage is a major part of the satisfaction you will feel.

Attracting Birds to Native Gardens

I won’t repeat all the bird attracting information you’ve read in innumerable magazine articles and can find in any number of books. We all know to keep a shallow pool of fresh water in a birdbath for small birds to drink from and splash in and to feed tiny black thistle seed in special feeders to attract American goldfinches, sunflower seed for jays, and ears of corn on revolving sticks for squirrels. We know not to feed into the fall unless we plan to continue through the winter and we know not to leave dry corn out in the yard for our restored populations of once scarce wild turkeys, or they’ll give up foraging for a living and we’ll have flocks of gobbling beggars hanging around the barnyard all winter looking pitiful and threatening to waste away.

Our eastern and western bluebirds need help. They can’t compete very well with aliens like starlings. If you have an open field, set bluebird houses on freestanding posts high enough so that you can clean out the old nests easily. Have the entrances face south or downhill. Get new houses out before the end of January in the Washington D.C. latitudes and prior to the end of February up to Canada. Bluebirds come prospecting for nests earlier than you might think. Keep starlings, squirrels, and housetree swallows out of the houses until the bluebirds have had first choice of a residence. Here are some more hints:

Hang a good hummingbird feeder where you can watch it easily, and fill it with a mixture of one quarter cup sugar to one cup of water. I add a tiny squirt of lemon juice and they seem to love it. Get the feeder out early in the spring to attract them when flowers are scarce. I was late this year and walked into the living room one morning to find a succession of hummers buzzing up to where they expected their feeder to be, and hovering a bit before buzzing away with that peeved hummer look. One larger than usual female I recognized from last year came up to the glass and pecked it!

Nail half oranges to the tops of sunny fence posts in spring to attract orioles that, along with many other tropical species, have just flown up from Latin America and look for the familiar color and sweetness of tropical fruit.

The colorful songbirds that summer with us and winter in the tropics are losing habitat at both ends of their range and their numbers are diminishing. There are things we can do:

Southern-state bird fanciers are growing stands of cover and food plants along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico to host mixed flocks of songbirds that chance the long, exhausting cross-Gulf flight north. Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, and Florida Panhandle readers might contact the local Audubon Society to see if they need help. About all we can do up north is bell the cats, keep them inside during spring nesting season, grow berry bushes, and put out feeders to encourage our Latin tropical feathered guests to stay around, eat a lot on us, and make lots and lots of baby birds.

I have discovered that the best way to attract spring and fall migrations of shy, fast moving, and nearly impossible to identify finches and other small species is to plant a north to south hedgerow containing a mix of wild berry and seed-bearing shrubs that runs past your bird watching window and does its best to connect at each end with the nearest woods. This gives the birds a flyway offering full cover all the way across your property. Whole flocks will flutter past, nibbling as they go, staying in or near the confines of the hedge line. Once a flight discovers such a well protected feed stop, they’ll return year after year.

You can also transplant for the birds. Dig out any bright berry-producing shrub you locate when collecting raspberries or other wild plants and incorporate them in your hedgerow.

The Wild Orchard

For most wild plants, the growing secret is simple: free them from the savage competition that characterizes all wild habitats. Liberated, they will reward you with rapid growth and phenomenal fruit production.

In wild clearings everywhere on our continent you can find local species of blackberry or red raspberry or both, their long, thorny canes poking out from dense thickets of mixed vegetation, straining for the sun and a chance to expose their few small and seedy fruit to passing birds, bears, or to you and me in the hope that we will scatter its seeds and perpetuate its genetic heritage.

But what if we liberate it from competition? Dress in stout boots and thorn-proof jeans, gloves and goggles, arm your self with a machete or brush cutter, locate the plant’s base deep in the thicket and clear the underbrush all around it so the leaves have clear sun and airflow and the roots have plenty of soil to themselves. Then, risk a terminal thorning by pulling out the old, broken, and diseased canes and culling all but the half dozen strongest. Give the plant a gallon of compost tea or liquid fertilizer, mulch all around it, dust it with sulfur if molds or mildew threaten in humid weather, and, most importantly, keep the soil moist during fruiting. This fall or next you’ll enjoy a great harvest of big, plump, juicy berries with a rich flavor that will put any commercial variety to shame.

Even better is to transplant and semi-domesticate wild fruit. In late August, I like to roam the roadsides, under high intensity wires, and in woodland clearings in search of wild cane-fruit plants with especially large berries or super sets of 20 or more to a spray. I transplant these to a plot near the house. You can grub out these hardy wildlings any time of year: just dig up the shallow, fibrous mots along with a good shovel full of soil.

At home, replant on any open patch of land, mulch for a yard all around, and keep moist for a week. Bury tips of long green canes next to the parent plant. They will root and increase the plot. Next year you’ll have a wildberry bonanza.

Shrub-style semi-woody plants such as elderberry are a little harder to transplant. It’s best to identify them in the early summer. Their great umbrella-like sprays of purple, bittersweet fruit on 6 foot or taller shrubs with rich glossy foliage are unmistakable. In winter, when plants are dormant, prune down to a few short branches, and dig out as much root mass as you can carry. Replant near the house and be patient as the plants regrow.

Try domesticating wild strawberries, blueberries or raspberry-like dewberries if they grow wild near you. Wait till these low to the ground plants bear fruit, choose the best producers, dig the plant’s roots, adhering soil and all, and transplant to the garden. Strawberry plants have a deep root and the same three-lobed leaves as their domestic cousins.

Dewberries grow on semi-thorny ground-hugging vines with shallow roots at every node. Low bush blueberry plants are woody with an extensive root system. All may self-prune the first year. But keep them free of competition and you’ll be rewarded as they spread and produce more and better quality fruit than they would if left untended.

Our woods are full of wild apple trees sprouted from seeds picked up from orchards by birds and deer. Seedling apples never grow true to type. Good fruiting spurs are grafted to good rooting trunks for all good bearing trees. You never know how, or even if, a wild apple will produce.

Whenever I come across a gnarled little tree with a few misshapen apples during my fall woodland wanderings, I taste the fruit. Once in a while one will have a wonderful tang or sweetness. Then I thin out dead and broken limbs, scrape the bark, and clean out the underbrush all around it. I tag for the cordwood pile any trees that shade it or I prune off shading limbs. This liberation from competition alone will improve yield. If the fruit is especially tasty, I’ll trek out with sprayers loaded with dormant oil, wettable sulfur, or a mix of rotenone and pyrethrin at the proper times to control pests and disease.

A young tree, with trunk still smooth and not yet covered with mature, flaking bark, can be transplanted with effort. Prune and clean it up. Then, dig a foot deep trench all around the dripline, the circle described by the outer perimeter of the branches. Fill the trench with grass and meadow trash and let it rest for a season. The roots you premed off will regrow in the soil inside the dripline. In early winter, when the tree is fully dormant, prune about a third of the branches to create a classic open centered bowl shape. Dig out the trench again and undercut the root mass all around with a stout cutting spade until the tree, roots, and a bushel or two of adhering soil can be lifted out. Bind the rootball in a tarp or large square of nursery burlap and replant it back home.

As with all transplants, you need to dig a hole twice the size of the root ball. Enrich the soil with compost, loosest heavy day soil with sand, lighten it with leafmold or peat moss, and sweeten it with a little lime. Set the tree in the ground a bit lower than it grew originally and pack soil all around it. Make a water catchment dish around the trunk. Water thoroughly initially and weekly for a month or till the sod freezes. Nest spring, prune any branches killed by the winter. Water it during any dry spells and protect it against insect buildup or leaf molds the first year. In another year or two you should begin harvesting half-wild apples. With a conscientious program of IPM, or integrated pest management, where organic pesticides are used only as required, you will begin harvesting half-wild apples that may be smaller and more tart than store bought apples, but that are unique.

Ponds and Bogs

I’ve read that for some harried modern folks, the sound of flowing or falling water is better therapy for the stresses of daily life than Valium or Prozac. What better excuse for building a pool with a fountain or waterfall in the backyard?

I’m fortunate enough to have a little brook gurgling past just outside the bedroom window. It sings all winter and summer, till the water flow diminishes and there are a few weeks of silence in the fall. It also breeds biting black flies, gnats, and no-see-ums, so it’s a mired blessing. With a fine screen on the partly open window, I can let the water sing me to sleep nights year round.

I’m in the process of digging out by hand a patch of rushes and marsh grass to restore a small, long silted-up beaver pond that once filled what is an uncharacteristic piece of flat land just to the north of the stream bed.

In our historical drive to “improve” nature, we Americans considered every little patch of marsh an insult to agriculture, so we drained and planted each one. Recently we’ve learned that shallow wetlands under both fresh and salt water serve as essential nurseries for wildlife, filters for the water supply, and homes for increasingly threatened amphibians and other water creatures. Wetland protection laws are properly tough, and penalties for violation justly severe, so check with local authorities before you drain a marshy area, permanently alter a water course, or change the water supply or water level in a marsh, even if it is entirely on your own land.

I’m not changing anything, just restoring the pond to what nature created a hundred years ago, but I still can’t build even a log based corduroy road to get a truck or cart-pulling ATV into my little marsh without getting into permit hassles. So the soil must be carried down to the garden with a handtruck. I built a little dam and spillway on the downhill end of the pond site and I cut through the bank during spring melt to let the stream refill what I’ve excavated of the pond.

When finished, the restored body of water won’t be large enough to support more than a few trout, but it has already begun restocking the woods with frogs, toads, turtles, salamanders, dragon flies, damsel flies, and other water breeders. I anticipate seeing a kingfisher or two hunting from the trees. I’ll plant wild rice and install a grain feeding station out in the water to attract migrating water fowl. I’ll also set wood-duck houses in the trees, hoping to attract those brightly colored and noisy little denizens of woodland ponds.

If your land is high or too poorly watered for a natural pond, you’ll have to consider installing an artificial one. These are becoming all the rage in suburbia. You can find heavy gauge plastic waterproof liners to fit over a smooth gravel base of any size and shape excavation. There are molded plastic pre-formed ponds in many sizes and shapes, fountains, pumps, filters, fancy aquatic and pond-margin plants, and fancy fish. There are available through retail outlets, mail-order catalogs, and magazine ads. They even sell colored plastic waterfalls, jungle grottos, and flowing springs. Poke plastic flowers in holes around the plastic water channel, get one of those plastic frogs with a motion sensor built in so it croaks when you pass, and turn on the chlorinated, double filtered, fluoride laced city water that can still be full of cyclosporidium or lead. Well, maybe you may be able to make it look nice anyway.

I’m sorry. I know that Public Health Departments work long hours to keep city water clean. And any backyard body of water is better than none, even if it is contained in plastic.

Any closed pool system must be tended, like the giant outdoor aquarium it is, with filters, water tests, giant water snails and algae-eating fish to keep the bottom clean, algaecides to keep the water clear, and periodic doses of antibiotics to keep the fish healthy. Most are furnished with hybrid waterlillies and Japanese Koi, a bright multicolored variety of carp. Much water garden plant and animal material is imported, vulnerable to frost, delicate, and expensive. City folks have no alternative and they do keep some mighty lovely pools. I’ll refer you to one time distant neighbor Helen Nash and her books and lovely new bimonthly magazine WaterGardening, Zionsville, IN. It’s a bargain at $20 for 6 issues.

You shouldn’t use a native water supply to keep Koi and fragile plants “lest undesirable native creatures invade” as the instructions tell you. I may be a little too rough around the rim, but rather than paying for sterile water-grown water iris and a Japanese hybrid miniature lily and having to chemically fertilize them–lovely and dependable as they are with proper care–I prefer to put on high boots, wade out into a local pond and muck out my own native, if slightly less colorful, species with a long-handled manure fork.

I know a pond where a deep red, miniature flowered native lily grows in abundance, and several others that host particularly lush growths of pickerel weed, tall aquatic grasses, reeds, iris, and great rafts of floating duckweed. These native plants are vigorous, their roots come packed in mud loaded with small but hardy native snails, and all will survive the winter without harm if the water around their roots is kept from freezing solid. And another thing: they’re free.

About the only concession I’ve made to modern pond keeping is a pump to keep the water level up and to create a waterfall. It seems to run forever with little tending.

You can buy several-hundred-dollar submersible pond pumps, complete with integral filter containing disposable elements. Mine cost $20 from a surplus outlet and is housed in a miniature pumphouse made from a plastic milk jug. In time, I hope to create a natural rocky waterfall on the uphill side of the pond. For now, I use the pump to carry water from the spring to the pond when the stream slows and the pond threatens to get low in late summer. I ran the 1/4″ rubber fuel hose outflow pipe up the trunk and out an overhanging limb of a pondside black willow. When the stream is silent, the water drips, dribbles, and tinkles into the pond creating a gentle water music.

Bog Gardens

My little marsh is filled with rushes. They make grand baskets and scoops, so I don’t want to dig them out. But where the little stream flattens out down below, the soil is boggy and I plan to introduce some purchased, farm-grown bog plants some day. Almost all bog pants, especially the carnivorous natives–pitcher plants, sundew, and venus flytraps–are protected so we shouldn’t harvest any from the wild. You might want to try planting a bog garden if you have a low place that stays moist most of the year. Some species are truly exotic in appearance and habit.

Some ambitious natural-pond builders establish a bog at the outflow end. At the downslope end of the bog area, they dig a well to collect water as it exits, cleansed by the bog, and pump it back to the pond’s inflow. If water volume is good enough, this eliminates artificial filters and the need for all those snails. I never have liked snails.

Mushroom Gardens

Everybody knows that eating wild mushrooms can be dangerous. What everybody does not know is that–thanks to global warming, some suspect–ordinarily scarce species of deadly Amanita “Death Cap” mushrooms are spreading across America. The pretty, cream-colored mushroom in your yard just may be a killer. Don’t let a youngster play with a wild mushroom and don’t let anyone taste one unless you’ve been trained in fungus identification. This requires familiarity with the plant’s appearance at all stages of growth. At the emergent “puffball” stage, many species, both edible and deadly, look identical. You also need to use a hand microscope to field examine gills and the delicate veils under the cap that help identify some poison varieties, and to take spore prints. You’ll need a strong enough magnifier to examine individual spores and the experience and guidebooks to positively identify which species go with which spores. This is a lot of training just for a light snack.

If you go to the trouble of learning the trade from experienced mushroom hunters like my late Uncle Miles and his upper Michigan fishin’ and mushroomin’ buddies, you can have a mostly edible mushroom garden. It helps if, like us, you have a mature oak tree in your yard.

Many mushrooms thrive on oak roots or on the tannic moss that grows under large white oaks. Most years, we see a half dozen to a dozen wild species. All, so far, are safe and one, the least frequent, is delectable. Note, please, that I’m not presuming to describe or identify in unreliable print any particular species, not even the succulent morel with its almost unique appearance that is almost unmistakable from its dangerous look-alikes, the several toxic false morels.

To “transplant” mushrooms, collect mature ones you are sure of, lay the caps on a thin layer of moist peat moss and let them shed spores till they shrivel. Then scatter the inoculated moss around in a shady spot, water it, and hope it will take. I keep trying to field-grow those fancy mushrooms they sell in magazine ads and the shed-grown shitakes and other gourmet varieties you can buy in stores. I’ve had no luck so far, but I’ll keep on trying till I get the results I want.

Even if the domesticated varieties take, I’ll be sure to identify them positively, and will sample small bits before trying a large serving. If not absolutely 200% sure–and if in doubt, I’ll double-check with a more experienced mushroom hunter or two–they will be left where they belong.

Frankly, I enjoy the mythic look of a mushroom garden, with its leggy, inky caps, dainty fairy rings, and several spotted cap and ivory topped varieties, even more than the eating.

More Edible Landscaping

Too few of us take advantage of native varieties of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs that produce fruit that is less than store quality but still good to eat. Last fall I tilled up a long strip of soil for what will be a fence of mixed fruiting shrubs planted in the spring. I’ve already had success with Hansen bush cherries. These 6′ tall shrubs produce quantities of large and juicy red cherries at the stem rather than out on the branches. Stones are fairly large and flavor is bland compared to Washington State Bing or Tartarinan sweet cherries, neither of which have a prayer of producing in New England. The bush varieties taste better eaten from the bush and, with extra sugar and a shot of cherry liqueur, make better pies than the tiny and bitter sour cherries I have managed to grow.

Interspersed with the bush cherries will be two or three hardy varieties of bush blueberry, an elderberry or two, and plants of rosa rugosa, the rose–hip sadly not a native but a naturalized immigrant from Asia–that grows well along our rocky coast. True native roses that produce hips grow in warmer climates. The seedy but tart fruits, packed with vitamin-C, are produced in abundance over most of the summer. Like elderberries and our native fox grapes, when mixed with fresh apple juice they make a fine jelly or wine.

This hedge of wild, semi-wild, and domesticated fruiting bushes will grow high and dense enough to provide a visual barrier. Because it is prickly, it will function as a fence for livestock, deer, and dogs, and will provide a succession of fruit, from spring elderberry blow, the succulent flower heads that you can dip in egg batter and deep-fry, to a mid January tea brewed from the last rose hips dried by the frost.

I will keep the hedge pruned to 7 or 8 feet for ease of harvest and so we can toss a series of willow-branch hoops over it to support bird netting to keep out “those bad, bad blueberry birds” as my then three-year-old daughter Martha called the jays that flocked to an earlier blueberry bush to harvest the fruit just before it was ripe enough to top off her breakfast cereal.

Trials I will attempt in our climate include native fruit trees such as mulberry with its bland but abundant blackberrylike fruit, paw-paw, and persimmon strains bred for cooler climates. I’ll try an Osage orange or two for its bow-making wood; its fruit is inedible. And in a marsh, I think I’ve located a local variety of bush cranberry, a viburnum, that I might be able to transplant.

I’ll also plant violets as a fast-spreading native summer ground cover in a sunny border. It will replace the ubiquitous Vinca minor or myrtle, a slow growing, expensive evergreen furriner. Have you ever eaten fresh spring violet salad? We mix it with young dandelions from what remains of the lawn. The white Canadian violet and somewhat less hardy purple violet are both delectable and will grow in full sun or dappled shade if transplants from the woods are kept free of weeds for the first few years and fertilized each fall.

Please join us, then, in perpetuating, celebrating, and just plain enjoying our natural plant heritage by growing your place just a little bit wild.


You know that dragonflies are great biting-fly and mosquito-catchers. They’ll
naturally come to your pond to lay eggs that will hatch into voracious
aquatic larvae. The best way I know to attract them to open areas around
your house is to give them places to perch and lie in wait for a meal.
This works even if the pond is still just a dream. At the margin of a
woods, shrub line, or flower bed, in full sun, place brush or small logs
so that two foot or longer lengths of bare stick run horizontally, a
foot off the ground, in an open, low, brushfree area. This is so the
insects’ wide, non-folding wings won’t get snagged as they buzz in and
out. Such perches are scarce in nature, and by late summer you’ll find
the winged marauders fghting one another for a landing spot.

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368