Have you ever noticed how some gardeners love to show off their mulch? Every plant or species group is carefully set far enough apart from the next to grow neatly, like little islands, in a sea of brown mulch. These curated clumps of vegetation may be arranged into an arc or grid or another clever scheme.
If shrubs, they are neatly sheared often enough to keep them in their intended shape. And the whole scene is surrounded by a sharp bordered sea of fresh mulch to demarcate the planting space.
I see these neatly manicured beds at the entrances to shopping centers and upscale neighborhoods, always anchored by a few rounded, evergreen shrubs. The color plants usually get switched out seasonally, with a few dozen little Begonias planted in April or May, replacing the ornamental cabbages and pansies planted last October. Once the cabbages flower, they look weedy, and are goners.
Of course, one must weed to keep it in shape. Seeds blow in from everywhere, so one must weed by hand, or spray periodically with an herbicide, to keep things neat. And often the answer is simply piling on more shredded bark mulch over the old, hiding what has faded. Mulch piles creep up the trunks of any larger trees like little brown mountains, beneath their leafy canopies.
This Aristotelian garden style asks us to make a lot of choices. First, and most importantly, what is a desirable plant, and what is a weed? What makes one plant desirable, and another not? The gardener always gets to choose.
One definition of a ‘weed’ is any plant that is growing where you don’t want it. This puts all the agency with the gardener, and the garden is subject to her taste and whim. If I plant a Bee Balm over here, and it spreads itself over there where I would prefer to grow an Iris, does the Bee Balm become a weed when growing where I didn’t plan for it to grow?
When we first moved to this garden, any number of flowering plants cropped up where I hadn’t planned for them. I didn’t know their names or their manners. I saw their first leaves emerge and had to decide whether to allow them or pull them out. I was busy planting in those years, bringing home tray after tray of ‘desirable’ plants, defining my new planting beds, spreading mulch, and trying to keep things neat.
But eventually some of those unknown wild things flowered, and I learned their names: Conoclinium, Rudbeckia, Solidago, Packera aurea, and Erigeron. And things I planted grew, and spread, and moved out well beyond those neat borders of their beds.
People are generally happier mingling with friends at a party than sitting in a grid of desks in a classroom, or standing at attention in neatly gridded lines for inspection. We want our friends and family around. We want to move around from here to there, choose where to live, and move on to new spaces occasionally. Why should plants be that different?
Nature makes a good companion in the garden when we work with her. She has a larger view and a better understanding of the complex webs of life our postage stamp of a garden can support, when allowed.
You have heard it said that ‘nature abhors a vacuum.’ Any bare spot of earth in our region soon sprouts and blooms with a huge variety of ‘volunteers.’ Those little plants attract their own community of pollinators, birds, fungi, insects, and other small animals sustained by them. If nothing else, moss will sprout to cover the clay or stone.
Dense planting of ‘desirable’ plants, and using plants that will naturally spread themselves around, can help control the type and frequency of volunteers. Allowing plants to move themselves around and grow with friends allows for beautiful associations I could never have planned. Plants blur the borders of our beds and weave themselves into a living mulch, layers of verdant life and activity beyond our limited knowing.
Seeds and spores float about on the breeze, settling into any available spaces to grow. This spring I’m finding volunteer ferns sprouting from mossy paths. I’m finding new redbud and paw paw trees cropping up in ‘the lawn’ my partner likes to mow.
We’re having a conversation, now, about the sea of Erigeron that grows inches each day, and is nearly ready to bloom, in an area he mows in summer. ‘The lawn’ is also studded with tiny blue Glechoma and Viola flowers, yellow Taraxacum, and who knows what else this month, with Trifolium soon to follow.
If I told you my lawn was full of dandelions, creeping Charlie and violets, you would likely suggest a good herbicide. But these companions bring color to the space, feed early pollinators, and cover the ground in green throughout the year, growing among the grasses. I tell my partner that at the botanical garden we plant Erigeron, native wild daisy, and stick a label beside it. He remains unimpressed and itching to mow.
The problem lies with Erigeron’s exuberance and desire to spread itself around. Its nearly two feet tall now as it prepares to bloom. But nature is exuberant, isn’t it? And we gardeners are a part of nature.
What we do in our gardens is as natural as what the woodpecker does in the top of our beech tree, what a deer does to tender growth on a shrub, or what a squirrel does with a fresh acorn. Let us be good companions to all the creatures who share the land with us. Let us recognize the exuberance of life and guide it for the greater good of all.
We are the gardeners, and the work is most joyful when we find our place within the web of life, when we cooperate rather than control; when we show respect for our companions on this planet.