Blowing through the Wild Grasses

Weed or wildflower? Messy or naturalized? Everyone has an opinion, and they often differ distinctly on the same little plant or plot. Part of the pleasure of good company will always be in its variety and the interest that it brings to life. Gardening tastes are very much in that vein.

Digital illustration: Wild Grasses

As a sometime gardener, however amateur, I can think of few styles of landscaping that I don’t find appealing and attractive in their own ways. I admire the near-perfection of elaborate, formal palace gardens and magnificent, fountain-filled parks with their follies and allees. I am fond of a rustic campfire-side bramble patch, punctuated by straggly hydrangeas run wild, down by the lakeside. There is both soul refreshment and eye appeal for me in a delicate Zen garden with bonsai, laceleaf maples and a barely rippling koi pond.

When it comes to my own gardens, I tend to walk just a little farther on the wild side. I hate to fiddle and fuss at length with the hard labor of a garden. I greatly prefer the genteel pleasures of the design of the garden, and perhaps the occasional artistic pruning to shape a rhododendron or sapling tree. But I’m not so wild about back-breaking rock picking and digging; I moved from incredibly rich but equally rocky volcanic glacial till of western Washington to the cement-like red clay of Texas, both places where putting a one-gallon root ball into the ground requires a pickaxe.

My first garden was an exploration of the beauties of cottage style gardening. Washington, temperate and moist, was ideal for a grand assortment of bulbs, flowering shrubs and cutting flowers, so I had profuse blooms and constant green with little effort. The traditional cottage style allowed me to squeeze a massive amount of lively growth into a normal city house lot, and the more I wedged into the ground, the less room there was for volunteer and invasive plants. Weeds had a tough go of it there, so it wasn’t especially hard to keep ahead of them.

There are plants I don’t invite to my parties. Much as I enjoy and admire most, I’m no friend of those pest plants that choke out others, cause massive allergies, or stab at me with cruel thorns, or those that threaten entire ecosystems, mine or others’. Good riddance to misplaced English Ivy, kudzu, poison oak and wild blackberry canes. Conversely, one of my particular favorite garden options is to find ways to encourage native plants to thrive. The more a plant is suited and accustomed to its environs, the more it will grow and be healthy and attractive and weed-proof.

Texas has reinforced that love in my aggressively. It’s a harsher climate than the Pacific Northwest’s in which I now garden, so what I plant and tend must needs be up to surviving and flourishing in those more demanding circumstances—or die. Even desert plants don’t necessarily have what it takes, since north Texas can still get true freezes in winter, and occasional snow, hail and ice. This last winter, a relatively mild one, still killed off a lot of specimen agaves and prickly pears and even cut some mighty oaks down to size.

I’m finding that the area’s status as an extension of the country’s central prairies may be the key to what will survive and grow here long term. When anything will grow, that is. I’m tending to my little wildflower meadow out back, to see if I can’t reintroduce something a little more self-sustaining than those long cultivated but seldom successful hard turf lawns that were popular in our area and surrounded our house when we bought it. Even better than the wildflowers, I’m finding, will be the ‘amber waves of grain’ I seeded in  among the wildflowers, the native prairie grasses.

Prairie grasses have some of the deepest, toughest and most tenacious root systems of any type of plants, and along with the leaves that sway in every breeze, often creating symphonies of susurration, they go to seed in many attractive ways. So I really am enjoying ‘sowing my wild oats.’ And Little Bluestem, Fountain Grass, Weeping Lovegrass, and many more. My backyard creatures will enjoy them, and their varicolored, many-textured attractions will beat any struggling, forced lawn that ever tried to eke out a living where its native cousins once roamed free.

Wishful Gardening

 

photoIf you haven’t already guessed it, gardening in the temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest is a mixed blessing. Yes, you can battle long, murky, cool, overly rainy winters that seem to last seven months of the year, so the easiest things to grow are mold and mildew, possibly between your fingers and toes. You want a green roof? Get yourself a rooftop Japanese moss garden without even trying just by positioning your house close to any healthy shade tree. I can’t promise you’ll feel very Zen about it, because like the fiendish imported English ivy, such moss is mighty hard to stop let alone kill, and eats buildings faster than you can spell ‘plague’. Mud is perhaps a given, but so, in the territory of a once quite active volcano is the euphoniously named glacial till that means Rock Picking becomes a competitive sport among gardeners and anything larger than a teacup had better be excavated for with vigorous pickaxe action and the tenacity of a Welsh miner. Slugs grow to mythic size and are believed by small children to be capable of swallowing their pint-sized innocent selves without chewing.photoBut the mildness of temperature and plentiful rains also mean that one can practically put a piece of two-by-four in the ground and grow a tree, or at the very least, can make greenery and flora proliferate in an almost jungle-like exuberance. Heck, though outsiders might doubt it, you can grow big healthy palm trees and citrus and big fat figs right there next to the cold waters of the Puget Sound, mere crawl strokes away from the chilly dark not-really-Pacific Ocean. So the P-Patch allotments of Seattle are rich; why, even a parking strip along a city street can support a dandy raised-bed vegetable garden full of tempting green and vitamin-packed leafy goods.photoOne of the things I’ve missed greatly since leaving the west coast is an incongruously tough plant, one evolved to withstand the vagaries of coastal wind and salt and coastal dwellers’ neglect with remarkable stamina and glamor. The Ceanothus, sometimes known as Farmer’s Lilac, is one of my very favorite plants for this combination of ruggedly handsome looks and ease of care. I am fairly certain that an experiment with one or two of these heady-scented, blazingly blue delights is in my Texan future. They come in such a variety of heights and breadths, leaf sizes, shades of blue and purplish, and even both deciduous and evergreen types that there’s sure to be a sort that will withstand even north Texas trials. Now that I’ve been back amid them in full-blast bloom, I know I can’t keep going sans Ceanothus without giving them a good old Texas try.photoThe other thing I miss most, perhaps, about Northwest gardening will likely be much harder to replicate in my newer, ahem, digs: cottage gardens. Besides that native-born northwesterners are not much inclined toward formality, their access to easy growing conditions make them quite fond of that crowded, colorful and slightly overblown style of gardening, not least of all because it leaves less room for weeds, which of course also love the mild and friendly weather. But in hot and dry climes it can be a little too stressful on the water meter and long for greater shade than is easily procured by the average gardener. Clearly, it’ll take some tricky thinking to overcome those obstacles. Our recent negotiations with the fellow who will likely supervise our landscape overhaul when we can manage to do it have been a solid reminder not only of the limits of NTX nurseries and their resources but how much it’s going to cost us to do any adventuring in the fuller development of our patch of ground. Our recent house plumbing near-disaster and a couple of automotive ones, not to mention the trip we are making just now, all send pretty clear signals to our budgetary brains that it’s yet a while before we can tackle much renovation or revivification in our happy little greenbelt-hugging home zone. So for now it seems all the wiser to me to store up all of the brawny, brainy yet beautiful garden ideas I can and savor my short stay back in cottage-garden country to help me suss out just what I can do to bring a semblance of it back home with me when the bank account has been fattened up a bit more again.photophotophotophoto