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.

Pastorale

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Mormor's swing, tucked into a corner under the maple tree that in springtime was full of naturalized trilliums, bleeding heart, wild currant, Scilla and other northwest treasures, and in summer, covered with Clematis durandii from foot to arbor . . .

This coming week I get to have consultations for bids on redoing our yard landscape! As I’ve plotted the Q&A lists extensively over time, I have been more and more recollecting my mother’s gardening style and values, and beyond that, returning to her father’s–Gramps’s. Their influences remain deeply embedded in my own ethos of gardening, to be sure.

I won’t be able to strictly replicate either of their styles or efforts, nor should I, since neither the climate and conditions of my current home nor my own personal imprint would make it useful or meaningful to do so. But what was truly valued by both of them in the general sense was upheld in their methods and the lovely and personal and hospitable outcomes of both because it was about combining the sensible and practical with the sort of building and design that would enable them to do more of the tasks of gardening that they each enjoyed, and fewer of those that they didn’t. In short, they were both ‘sustainable’ garden advocates long before there was such a popular trend, and they still both chose plants and arrangements and additions to the yard that suited their sentiments and likes.photoFor Gramps, of course, there was a strong influence of frugality that came from being first an immigrant (and even before that, presumably, from being raised by typically scrupulous Norwegian savers) and then a hard-working General Motors employee (he worked on the crew that produced the first amphibious vehicles). After all of that he was an independent farmer, mainly of sheep, and then also a longtime carpenter and home builder. He was never in any get-rich business, and he appreciated old-fashioned things and earthy things, so it wasn’t a stretch for him to look with his carpenter’s eye and see in his shed the makings of all sorts of fine pasture fencing, outbuildings, picnic tables, benches and more.

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Gramps's compost bins, quite beautiful in their own right and certainly very practical, as well as the models for Mom's own bins later . . . and, perhaps, mine yet to come . . .

His idea of plantings began with the practical as well, so if there was any space at all there was always a beautiful kitchen garden with corn, raspberries, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, rhubarb, and all of that sort of loveliness, and between that and his fishing trips and raising lamb there was a lot of good eating. But beyond raising fine fruit and vegetables on his property, furnished with rich home-cooked compost from his lovely row of hand-built bins, Gramps did have a graceful nature-inspired aesthetic sensibility, capitalizing on the canopy of majestic Douglas-firs and filling in with the native understory treasury of dogwood and trilliums (the source, of course, of Mom’s first ones), azaleas and rhododendrons, ferns and primroses and bleeding hearts and yellow and fuchsia-colored wild violets. For a person who gruffly eschewed frivolity in the main, he had a mighty tender, bleeding heart of his own when it came to the beauty he saw in nature, and he capitalized on that very well in his garden.

His daughter learned from it, and being more overtly sentimental, added yet another layer of appreciation for those marvels and jewels of the natural world that she could nurture to their fullest expression in her own garden and yard, wherever she lived. She adopted her father’s practical and often laborious attentions to getting the most out of the existing landscape and quickly put her own imprint on it and enriched it over time to the degree that her yard was always rightfully an enviable small park for visitors’ delight. By the time I finished college and then spent three years working near to and therefore boarding with my grandparents, thanks to the ridiculously affordable living there–then finished grad school and started working near my parents’ place and moved back to take advantage of the ridiculously affordable living there (anybody sense a theme? I blame the genetic link to Gramps’s frugality)–I had a much greater appreciation myself for both what it took to create and maintain such glorious properties and how much respecting nature’s own local inclinations would be a value-added approach to healthy, sustainable, logical, creative and gorgeous design.photoI had the bonus, while living at my parents’ again, of not only the privacy and flexibility afforded me by their frequent travel for his work, but the opportunity to practice my own incipient garden design skills both while following Mom around and learning the names and natures of things and while taking things into my own hands whenever they went out of town for any length of time. First of all, having learned a couple of useful things about how to treat some of their plants, I practiced my sculptural pruning skills on them, opening up the lacy umbrella of a laceleaf maple, making faux bonsai out of some of their smaller evergreens, and limbing up tree trunks to clean and open up the space for all of the pretty understory things Mom had brought in as starts from relatives’ gardens, from her trading with friends, and from various nursery expeditions over the years. It was during this time that I especially fell in love with trees. The craggy Garry oaks native to that area are a fairly uncommon yet extraordinarily lovely and impressive variety and I nurtured a seedling or two myself along the way in hopes that sometime long after I’m dead they too will be magnificent and grand old trees sheltering their homes and their denizens like the massive ones already in town.photoHere in Texas, it’s the two stately post oaks and that lithe red oak in back that endeared our home to us at first notice, along with our two splendid Bradford pear trees. There’s quite the community of sweet oak seedlings sprouting in their shade, and I hope very much that I can manage (with lots of help and advice from the local experts, of course) to relocate a number of them to foster a natural-style mini-grove in a back quadrant of our property over the many years to come. That will help create a fitting foundation for the whole wild, native and well-adapted collection of plants intended to fan out from all of that into the rest of the property. Fun times ahead!

In addition, I love to incorporate some traditionally indoor materials into my gardens so they feel a little more like an extension of the house and invite leisurely visits. I’m thinking of things like the burnished brass chandelier you’ve seen tiny glimpses of in previous garden photos, a little cozy kitchen-style seating on the patio, and a bench or chairs for shaded stopping on the front porch as guests arrive for a gathering. But although I see lots of lovely yard swings around town and love them, I never see people sitting in them–it’s almost always too terribly hot and often very bug-pestered here–so there won’t likely be an investment of money and labor to create a swing like the arbor swing (above) that I designed and my brother-in-law built with my semi-able assistance, to surprise Mom with a little long-fostered-wish fulfillment, while she and Dad were off on one of their longer expeditions.photo

Still, I do want our yard to invite exploration and to be particularly attractive from all angles inside our air-conditioned house, year round. So many possible ways to accomplish that, that I am excited to see what I can learn and be inspired by, even from a first conversation with each of the landscapers who will visit here this week. I suspect I’ll need to be getting out all of the tools I have, and then some, and it’ll take a bit of a while to get the whole project well and truly underway. I know I’m a little rusty at some of this, having lived with tiny yards for quite some time before buying this house, and will have to relearn much and discover many new things in my new climate. But oh, how invigorating to begin!