Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Great Compromise

Over the past two years of this journey, I’ve come to hate lawns.  We live in a suburban neighborhood with great expanses of turf.  I’ve learned these green spaces I once thought  the
Front lawn
epitome of good suburban landscaping are in fact, an ecological wasteland, often the source of much air and water pollution, and a huge waste of the opportunity to do good with the land.  So I’ve wanted to rip out the front lawn and put in a native wildflower meadow.  But my wife was concerned the neighborhood would complain about a wild looking garden and see it as a weed patch.  She was adamant; no front yard meadow for me.  So we compromised and struck a bargain.  This would be an experiment.  I could put in a small butterfly/pollinator garden in the front near the street, bordering our neighbor’s yard.  If I would agree to deadhead the plants and keep things looking tidy and formal, she would go along with a trial.  If successful, then I could create a larger butterfly garden on the other side of the driveway eliminating more lawn.  Fully understanding it might take three years for the plants to get established, and experimenting with different ways to make this a formal garden that met her appearance criteria, we struck the deal. 

Late last summer I carved out an area approximately 13 feet x 8 feet set back about 5 feet off the road and bordering our neighbor’s front yard.  With a desire to create as much biodiversity as
Fall 2012 new butterfly garden
possible and having something blooming throughout the growing season, I bought 13 species of native perennials suitable to the clay soil and partial shade of the site.  To save money I bought plugs, the smallest size of plant.  Two of these, Purple coneflower and Smooth aster were already growing in an adjoining area.  So the idea was that these two would extend down into the new garden helping to tie the two areas together. 

The late summer morphed into fall.  As was expected from first year seedlings, none of the new plants bloomed.  Fall came and headed for winter.  Then winter came and off and on covered the plot with snow.  When spring made itself known, the seedlings showed they had taken last year to set their roots and rewarded me with vigorous growth.  They spread out to fill in what looked last fall like a pretty sparse planting. 

Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
The Foxglove Beardtongue was the first to bloom.  The little towers of light lavender and white blooms attracted many bees.  As those flowers faded, several transplanted Ohio Spiderwort opened up with a few colorful blooms.  The Purple coneflowers had taken hold and over several weeks opened into their normal eye-catching display.  While they were still blooming the Butterfly milkweed transplants started to show signs of blooming.  This species of milkweed with its deep tuberous root sometimes doesn’t take well to transplanting, but last summer I thought I’d give it a go anyway.  They did produce a couple of very small blossoms but quickly shed them possibly in an effort to better establish their roots in the hard clay soil. 
Sand coreopsis

The Sand coreopsis burst into a huge splash of yellow.  Watching the numerous species of native bees and other pollinators vigorously working over the flowers was a daily delight for several weeks.  These plants produced so many blossoms and were so full of life.  Nonetheless I became concerned when all the flower stalks fell over and lay on the ground.  They continued to bloom but didn’t help give the appearance of a nicely tended garden that I needed.   Next the Black –eyed susans opened their bright yellow petals.  Those faded pretty quickly and the plants looked pretty sick.  It was only then that I learned that this species is a fairly short lived perennial.  I pondered what to do with the sketchy looking Black-eyed susans. 

Each morning I was eager to check out the garden and see how it was looking.   My early morning visits would flush out a small flock of American goldfinch feasting on the Sand coreopsis seed.   And that’s when trouble began.  While I thought the seed heads just looked natural, to my wife the spent blossoms looked unsightly and she felt the birds had plenty to eat from the numerous native plants in the backyard.  I struggled with my vow to keep the plants deadheaded.  The Purple coneflower blooms had now also finished and gone to seed.   The Goldfinch and other birds also liked to harvest these little pieces of protein.  Several spirited discussions ensued and it was hard for me to realize my wife was really trying to live up to her side of the agreement while I was struggling.  She offered to help me cut the seed heads off.   So we did it together.  I had to reluctantly admit that this trimming made the garden look more tended.  But ouch!  We were losing a part of the benefits these native plants provide.  My wife wasn’t pleased as I mumbled unhappily during our deadheading sessions. 

Gray-head coneflower
Wild bergamot
Now the Gray-head coneflower and Wild bergamot were blooming. And my gosh, I’ve never seen so much life, so concentrated in one little patch of land.  At least 5 different species of bees, several different butterflies, and skippers worked over this small but colorful group of plants from morning until night.  Even in the windiest conditions, I’d see pollinators eagerly harvesting the bounty these native plants provided (1 min video:  But these plants too went to seed and more “discussions” ensued.  Again my wife had to remind me of our pact.  I harvested some seed to donate for use in our Wild Ones events and the winter seed swap program.  Then begrudgingly I went about cutting off seed heads.   My better half was aggravated and asked why I was so reluctant to honor our bargain.  That really made me stop and think about it.  I knew the native planting was good for the pollinators, birds, and the planet and I didn’t want to give up any of the many benefits these plants provided.  At the same time I was also disappointed the way the garden was looking.  It certainly wasn’t the grand showcase I had imagined. 

As I spent time reluctantly removing the dead flower blossoms per our agreement, I noticed that the Sullivant's milkweed had not done well at all.  The Gray-head coneflower was flopping over like the coreopsis.  The Virginia Mountain mint was struggling.  The only plant that was truly thriving was the Sneezeweed.  In spite of all the life that flocked to the year old garden, the whole space didn’t look very good.  Huh?
On my early morning inspections I wear a pair of slip on boots to get me through the dew laden grass.  One early fall morning I found the Sneezeweed had bloomed magnificently.  The bright yellow flowers were already alive with the bees and a few butterflies.  This plant had grown to about 4 feet tall and showed no signs of falling over even with the heavy burden of the flowers.  As I walked to the edge of the bed bordering the neighbor’s yard, I heard the sound I hadn’t paid any attention to all summer long.  Squish, Squish, Squish.  Oh my gosh!  The ground was soaking wet.  What’s going on here?  I was puzzled but had to leave for an appointment and solve this some other time. 
The next morning I went out earlier than usual and found the answer to the soggy ground puzzlement.  Apparently all summer long my neighbors had their underground sprinkler come on for a short time early every single morning.  Yikes!  So that’s why the Sneezeweed was so happy.  It really likes moist conditions.  That’s why most of the rest of the plants were not doing well.  For the most part all these were prairie plants with deep root systems, well suited to the dry soil where they evolved. 
OK.  Now I’ve got several problems to solve.  Why can’t I happily tend this garden as my wife and I agreed?  After all, it’s better than the ecologically dead zone that used to be here in this 100 square foot of lawn.  Even without the benefit of seed for the birds, it’s still way better than lawn.  And furthermore, if I meet the tidiness and formal appearance criteria needed for a continued happy marriage, I get to make a bigger garden on the other side of the driveway.  Even less lawn, more nature, pollinators, and butterflies.  OK.  Now I’ve got my head into the game and vow I’ll spend the time to do this. 

The second problem is that I populated this garden mostly with plants that don’t like having wet feet.  I can’t get the next door gardener to change his watering regimen.  Their lawn’s roots are only a couple inches deep and need a lot of water in the hot dry summers we’ve been having.  And they like their lawn green and lush all summer long.  I’m not ready to turn this garden back to lawn so I’ll replace the plants with ones that like a lot of moisture. 

As I dug out the plants and relocated them to other areas until I figure out where they should go permanently, I realized I had crammed way too many species into this small area.  I had gone for biodiversity and placed 14 different types of plants here.  Grudgingly I had to admit there is no way that would have created the stunning garden that caught the neighborhood’s attention in a favorable way.  With the crowded species necessarily growing through each other, it was a far way from a formal design.  OK, I’ll limit the new arrangement to no more than six species.  With a tape measure, paper and pencil I measured and roughly sketched out a new design. 

Eastern black swallowtail
Now excited to get this right, I knew I needed to get plants that like the moisture, and a variety that would provide color all season long.  I couldn’t find a way to get an assortment of colors for each season without growing the list to seven.  And with that there was only one spring bloomer, the Foxglove beardtongue.  Armed with the design and plant list, I headed down to the native nursery.   Fortunately it is nearby and the owner, Jan Hunter, has been rigorous in preventing me from buying plants that won’t do well in my clay soil.  She advised adding one more spring plant.  Golden Alexanders bloom in the spring, like the moisture, and is a larval host plant for the Eastern black swallowtail butterfly. 

The revamped garden awaits
 next years growth
I'm frustrated because  I'm starting over and have lost a whole year and a half in developing this garden.  But I’ve learned a lot about garden design (I hope), and something about myself as well.  Now all the new plants are in and I’m enthused about how this should turn out.  Now, dear neighbors, please don’t turn off your watering system next year. 


Leah said...

Interesting post. In about a year, I may be where you've been (i.e., rethinking what to plant). I'm planning a native plant rain garden and have already acquired 17+ species. Probably it'll look too messy and disorganized.

Out of curiosity, what was your final list for the new wet-tolerant garden?

the Native Plant Neophyte said...

Hi Leah, Good question Thank you - I should have posted the species I ended up using. I'm in northwest Ohio and these are all natives (no cultivars) to this area: Cardinal flower, New England Aster, Golden Alexander, Blue flag Iris, Sneeezeweed, Foxglove Beardtongue, and Wild bergamot. I can look up and give you the scientific names if you like. I know common names are not the best to use in specifying the exact species. The Sneezeweed, Beardtongue, and Wild Bergamot are left from the original plan. While the Sneezeweed really flourished, the Wild bergamot, and beardtongue were doing ok. We'll see how they hold up. - I like your blog. I'm putting in on my follow list. Let me know how your garden does. - Hal

Leah Chock said...

That sounds like a really nice set of plants. We have most of them in my region too. I hope they'll grow well for you.

Thanks for reading my blog! It feels good to know that I'm not talking to an empty room.

Jennifer said...

The change is dramatic and will only increase in life! Great work. :) We are so enjoying the benefits of gardening for wildlife here!

Heather Holm said...

Hi Hal,
What a puzzle, glad you found the sprinkler. So much potable water going to waste watering lawns isn't there? Love your Monarda video, I've been trying to video some pollinators too but don't quite have the right set up yet to pan the camera and keep it steady. Keep up the great work! Heather

ghrease said...

Interesting article! lot of things to learn, i had a similar feeling when i thought of increasing the green inhabitants of my garden! But then I thought of adding only those plants back which had been removed once! I planted some great Australian native grasses & plants ordered online!

Unknown said...

First-time reader here, I found you while looking for a list of plants native to the Toledo area. I have to tell you how much I am enjoying your blog - and your "growth"!
The nursery that you mentioned, is it near Haskins or Bowling Green? Years ago I stumbled upon a nursery that specialized in only native grasses, but I can't remember the name or exact location. Our back yard has been shrinking for years, and we plan to have no back lawn at all this year. I am looking for native plants. Can you point me in the right direction? Thanks, and please keep writing. Pat Thompson

the Native Plant Neophyte said...

That's fantastic Patricia about reducing your lawn and increasing native plantings. Naturally Native Nursery in Bowling Green on route 582 is the place to go There are some other sources for natives during specific plant sales from Toledo Botanical Garden, and Wood County Park District. Seeds you can get at Seasons - the gift shop at TBG. Send me an email ( and I'll send you some more info. - hal