Design with care: “Re-wilding” gardens

I know it is December. I know I live in the northland. It is 4 degrees outside, snow on the ground with a wind chill of 11 below zero. Yes, it December 7th. But I am a gardener and more importantly a gardener that did not get to garden much this last summer. (high heat, drought and a broken wrist are to blame)

Thinking about gardens in the summer rain – my garden helper

So now as the 2022 garden catalogs hit my mailbox I have begun to think and plan. The plans, however, are not the usual “what seeds do I order?”.

My garden is long over do for a reworking. The plants are over grown, the trees and shrubs are too large. This means many sun loving plants are now being shaded, many shade plants are lost under large branches of lilacs or red dogwood bushes. One of the evergreen bushes is half dead due to the tiny yew bush that is now huge and taking over most of the corner garden. The green Hosta’s were eaten down repeatedly this last summer as rabbits were looking for moisture in the heat of the drought. I am not sure these Hostas will return this next year. I am sure the rabbits will. (darn it- I don’t like rabbits in the garden) Also during the drought many of the lilacs dropped their leaves. I am not sure which will return next year. I did notice a few branches did set buds before winter came but we will see if there is enough ground moisture to keep them going until next spring.

tomatoes shared with my garden friend

This description alone tells you I am in need of some real big changes but there are other factors that are driving this changes as well. My neighbor past away this last summer. He was my garden companion. My go to when I wanted to discuss anythings plants. I have been gardening his 6 raised beds for the last two years. (He had been ill for a long time.) Now he is gone and his wife can no longer keep the other gardens going so this land will be returned to green grass next spring. My/His six sunny veggie beds will be gone. I understand and knew this was coming long before we lost him. It is all hard since I was planting this last year with the thoughts of him at least watching from the window and could enjoy seeing things grow and eat what veggies came out of the garden. I always left veggies at the front door as things began to ripen. Cleaning up these beds was difficult this fall knowing he was not there to watch. I left the flowers blooming for his wife until the first light snow. Now they sit bare and quietly waiting for their own change.

My gardens now needs to take on the veggies as well. There will not be as much space since I live under trees with big arching branches and shade. Veggies love sun not shade so the farmers market may become my friend once again unless I can talk my daughter into gardening some of her new found sun at her new house. All that remains to be seen. Best for me to plan on what I can here at home.

My age and arthritis makes it harder each year to tackle the big garden projects. My yard is not huge but there is lots to do and my hands are not willing to work for 8 hours daily any more. Neither does my back like all the crawling and pulling of weeds that I do. This means taking time to plan a garden that is doable as I get older. I need to be realistic. This is something I am not very good at when it comes to plants.

Then there is the changing of our climate and the changing of my understand of what a garden can and should look like. I have always had a more wild garden. I am not a gardener who has a lawn that looks like a golf coarse or gardens so manicured that you feel stiff and tight while you walk through the area. I have however planted flowers I like or flowers from my past that seem fun. Which is great but some of those flowers are not native. They are beautiful but do not support the birds, insects, or other wild life here in this zone. I have not gardened thinking about the bigger world and how my little piece of land fits into the whole. I have not thought through how this piece of land could make a difference. How can it be a supportive habitat for critters? How can it use water resources in a more sustainable way? How can I recycle most of what is grown right here instead of bagging and shipping it off to be recycled else where? (bags even though they are paper and recycled, gas for trucks driving around the city do add to our pollution) Can I make a small difference here on this piece of land?

It is time. I have come to the decision that this garden can and should support more, help more and also be more self sustaining since I can’t do as much as I use to. I am not hanging up my tools and walking away but I am trying to be realistic about what it takes to manage a garden well both for me and for the environment around me.

This means not just sticking in plants wherever I want or which ever plant looks pretty. It does mean thinking carefully, reading and organizing both what I already have in this space and what needs to be added and what may need to go or be reduced. I am sure it means a change in the hardscape as well. The hardscape is the structure of the garden -the pathways, rocks that make edges around beds, the raised beds I currently have and the stone patio/fire pit that has never really worked quite right.

This is a big redo. This has me excited and a bit overwhelmed. I have begun now to sketch out rough plans. I have gathered several design books on creating a more wild garden. A garden that has parts that are more like a mini woods with bushes, small trees and an understory of woodland shade plants to provide food, shelter and shade for critters, included the rabbits that I don’t care for!

Wild Ginger growing in the back garden

This redo means moving some large stones to open up a woodland area in the back of the yard. It means creating new raised beds in a partially sunny area in back to plant a few veggies. The current raised beds have rotted away and are not being used well. It means possibly terracing a small sunny hill to plant with both perennials and veggies instead of grass that is hard to mow.

It means rethinking everything. How space is used? Where the sun now really falls in the yard? How can we reduce the amount of grass that uses both a great deal of water to keep green and growing and then just needs to be mowed because it grew. Lawns are really crazy when you think about it. We work so hard to grow the darn grass and then we cut it down just to water it so it will grow more. That cycle needs to change or at least be reduced in this yard. (oh our mower died this fall, as well, on the last big leaf mulching day. We handed the poor thing off to a small engine guy who was happy to use it for parts but we now are without a mower – another reason to change the growing of lots of grass.)

As you can tell I am off on a big adventure. I will be working to create a “wild” space in our yard. Not wild in terms of a mess but wild in terms of a natural environment of animals. Wild in terms of using more native plants that will support birds, insects and others. Wild in that I may not have a neat set up veggie bed and flower beds but they may be blended together having both kinds of plants side by side to use space more efficiently. It is a big change that will happen slowly I think.

This blog will change over this new year also. It has been a place I just share my thoughts on anything that is going on but I want and need it to change for now. I hope to have it be my journal of thinking, planning and doing in and around the garden. A place where I will explore this journey of changing a typical city yard into a more ecological space and a space that is more fun to be in as well as garden in.

For most of us writing with Two Writing Teachers the writing a Slice of Life each week is about what comes to mind each week, what small event happened that you wish to share. It is about finding a moment or slice of your life to share in words. Mine will change from that slice of life for a time. Now hopefully it will be a slice of learning around gardens, ecology and what works for an aging gardener. A more focused blog about a garden also becoming more focused.

Each year we have looked for the one little word (OLW) to follow us into the new year. For me I think I have found it early this year. I had thought all along it would be about change but the bigger word that fits this is sustainability both for myself, for my blog (I have struggled to find a moment to write about for months now – time to move on and focus) and for the world around us.

I am beginning this process with reading and learning so the next few weeks I plan to share what I am reading and learning and importantly how what I learn can be applied to my little piece of land here in the northland.

So here is to exploring, learning and developing a wild sustainable garden in 2022!

About Joanne Toft

I am a retired Minneapolis Public School teacher. I walk, garden, care for my Grandson and write. Life is good!
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2 Responses to Design with care: “Re-wilding” gardens

  1. arjeha says:

    Sounds like you have your work cut out for you. This is a big undertaking. Like you, I have always planted what I like and not necessarily what should be planted for the area. I wish you well on your planning and regrouping.

  2. Your post resonated w/me for so many reasons. My summer garden was an epic fail due to outdoor critters. Now I am planning a winter garden inside “Fort Knox.” Your thoughts about your garden, global warming, environmental issues and your sentiment about your neighbor all were heard clearly by me.
    Now you have given me something else to think about. You have made ME think about sustainability. Thank-you!
    Good-luck w/your garden and its’ planning.

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