The Bliss of Going Wild

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Native flowering currant is a pollinator magnet

Rewilding Our Property Plant By Plant

My favorite garden spaces always have at least a touch of the wild about them. Sometimes it’s a matter of allowing plants to tumble over the edges of beds and borders, erasing hard lines and blurring angles. Sometimes it’s offering an area of native plants as a bug bank, dormitory and mess hall to serve pollinators and pest predators, from ladybugs and lacewings to birds and bats. At best, such gardens merge seamlessly into natural surroundings, as when a flowery meadow is encircled with tiered shrubs that lead the eye upward in gentle steps to the tree line. With larger properties, there’s an opportunity to allow the natural progression of pioneer plants such as alders, willows and hawthorns to sprout and weave together into young if miniature forests. Even a single cluster of trees and shrubs will quickly become home to thousands of small creatures that help keep the world in balance.

Allowing at least some part of our property to remain or revert to wildness is such a generous act, and one that rewards us hugely. In exchange for NOT mowing, pruning, watering and fertilizing, we get to watch the land heal into wholeness, attracting and supporting a host of living beings, from native plants to wild critters of many kinds and sizes. Instead of hearing and smelling mowers and blowers, we hear birdsong and smell the mysterious perfume of plants in community. What a relief to let go of our endless control seeking and relax into the rewilding process. I recently read about a large scale rewilding project in England where an old family castle estate has been turned back into a wilderness. To support the shift, the family brought in wild pigs and let them root and wallow in what had been groomed grounds for centuries. As they made their seemingly destructive way through the formal gardens, they dug up exotic plants and created puddles and mud holes that attract wildlife from bees and butterflies to birds and mammals. In their wake, native plants and creatures returned to the increasing habitat.

The Bountiful Land Of Long Ago

Not that long ago, probably less than a century, our back yards looked much like the magnificent forests that draw thousands of visitors to our region. Tall firs and bushy cedars rose above thickets of flower-and-fruit bearing shrubs; huckleberry and snowberry, salmonberry and thimbleberry, currants and wild cranberry, wild apple and wild cherry. Foamy ocean spray frothed above wild roses and hazelnuts, flowering currant and salal, mock orange and honeysuckle. Rhododendrons and maples throve under the high canopy, interlaced with annuals and perennials, ferns and mosses. The woodlands supported huge numbers of birds and other wild creatures, including several hundred species of native bees and other pollinators. They also supported Tribal people who knew how to coexist with the natural environment that provided everything they needed.

Today, these same places often look pretty much like a yard in Anywhere, USA; some lawn (often mossy), a few classic (ie non-native) shrubs, maybe some perennials. Oh, and lots of bare earth (so tidy!). How did this rather bleak model become a standard of “proper” landscaping? There are many factors, including conformity, the urge to control and tame nature, and favoring a simple yardscape that doesn’t require much thought to maintain, all understandable. For people moving here from other regions, whether a century or a year ago, wild woods may seem intimidating and it might feel comforting to have the same kind of yard they knew back wherever.

Welcoming Homes

Unfortunately, such bare bones landscapes are not hospitable places for wildlife or people. As the world is changing, fewer places are hospitable and most are getting less so each year. Though we can’t control corporate solutions, everyone with a patch of land (or even a patio) can make a home for the living things we share space with. Many native pollinators have a very limited range and even a small patch of native plants can become a haven for them, and for birds and frogs and other critters as well. I’m often asked if we have to give up all our beloved garden plants and grow only natives. Not at all, as many non-invasive garden plants, from kale to crepe myrtles, provide food and shelter for wildlife. However, one practical way to make our landscapes more hospitable is to remove any plants on weed watch lists and replace them with natives. Which plants should be removed? Your County Extension Agent and/or local Weed Board can provide a list of noxious weeds; mine includes butterfly bush (buddleia, aka lilac, though it is not related), ivy, purple loosetrife, and tansy ragwort. Since these plants are sadly common, many people don’t realize that they can outcompete natives and infiltrate wild areas.

In my area, among the most invasive are English laurel, English holly, Scotch broom, Scotch thistle, European daphne, European hawthorne, European mountain ash, European viburnum, Norway maple. Do you detect a theme? Plants brought by early colonists came across country with them, seeding themselves freely along the way. When invasives are removed, we can replace them with a native version; vine maple, Western hawthorne, Western mountain ash, Western viburnum, Western mock orange, and many more. A wonderful guide, Plants Of The Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, contains both illustrations of native plants and lore about how native plants have been used by Native people for millennia, making for fascinating reading. The more we learn, the more we come to admire, respect and even love the plants that were here from time immemorial. Onward, right?


This entry was posted in Birds In The Garden, Butterfly Gardens, Climate Change, Easy Care Perennials, Garden Design, Gardening With Children, Growing Berry Crops, Health & Wellbeing, Native Plants, Plant Diversity, Plant Partnerships, Pollination Gardens, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Teaching Gardening and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Bliss of Going Wild

  1. Aly says:

    So very true! In my .5 acre in urban Vancouver WA we inherited some natives; Big leaf Maple, Snowberry, Thimbleberry, a patch of Trillium and a few Oregon grapes. Over the 25 years we’ve added Vine maples, ferns, Osoberry, Red Flowering currants, and Oceanspray. That’s just in the back where many birds hang out. For curbside appeal in front we have Erythronium, followed by Camassia, and a native honeysuckle climbing up a hogwire fence. We found that Pacific Wax Myrtle makes a lovely hedge.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Aly, that sounds so lovely! I’m noticing the camas lilies are thriving this year despite the harsh weather and the heavy clay soil they’re in. No wonder you have so many bird visitors with all the goodies you’re offering them!

  2. Martha PAGE says:

    Hi Ann
    I’ve got your books and established my old garden (20 years ago) using the fabulous info and ideas in them. Really enjoy your current blog….very uplifting.
    Thanks for your effort.
    Keep your light shining bright.
    p.s. could you advise me as to whether or not I can obtain and grow crepe myrtle here in Victoria, Vancouver Island.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Martha, Crepe myrtles are being bred to be much hardier than in the past and if you can offer a very sheltered spot that doesn’t get a lot of winter wind, you may well be able to grow some of the newer hybrids. That said, several young crepe myrtles planted in recent years have failed after several days below freezing, so it’s a bit of a guessing game. I’m planning to grow the replacements in large container that can be sheltered under cover next winter and perhaps for a couple of winters before being planted in the ground in the hopes tht they will be large enough and well rooted enough to survive another challenging year. Good luck!

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