A garden is not made by a gardener alone, or in a day, or even in a generation. It is a sort of hereditary thing that goes on and on, needing cooperation between one and Nature. Nature teaches the person and makes the gardener as well as the garden.
This is a garden of constant change, both according to the whims of Nature, and of my nature. It is definitely informal, wildflowers and annuals springing where they may, many being allowed to reseed freely; only removed or thinned when they become so thick as to rudely crowd their neighbors out or get crushed underfoot.
The “lawn”, as we laughingly refer to it, is a Persian carpet of wildlings: spring beauties, wild phlox, clover, dandelions, bluets, starry chickweed, oxalis, star of Bethlehem and buttercups in the spring. It reverts to a mix of grasses and other green stuff in early summer, when it finally gets mowed. Clover has recently sprung up and is taking over large areas; I can remember many years ago when clover was actually sold as a lawn seed, before lawns became perfectly manicured swards of green with fescue or Bermuda as the preferred grass. I don’t mind. It’s always fun to find a four-leaf clover once in a while and bees and butterflies love it. I steadfastedly refuse to let anyone put weed killers on our lawn, only reseeding with bluegrass in bare spots where digging squirrels, grandkids and droughts have caused bare spots.
Shade moves across this almost-acre, leaving us with very few sunny spots and mostly dappled, shifting light under which my beloved wildflowers thrive and multiply, some in beds which circle the stone cottage which shelters us. Some, such as ginger and violets, line the paths, wandering down into the woods where colonies are established under the trees.
Others simply grow where they want to, and sometimes not in the same places every year. It is always a surprise when a whole group of black-eyed Susans, veronicastrum, columbines or Queen Anne’s lace takes a notion to move 50 feet away to the other side of the house from one year to the next.
A brick patio, rock garden and pond now occupy the space where the original one-room house once stood. An herb garden replaced a thicket of mock orange some twenty years ago. Most of those herbs are gone now, but the beds and paths remain, with perennials filling out beds where once grew thyme, sage and lavender. The remaining herbs have been moved to a small fenced garden where vegetables once grew. I gave up on the dream of fresh vegetables from our own garden when I got tired of feeding deer, groundhogs and raccoons. The herbs are not to their taste and they leave those largely alone.
These days we buy most of our veggies at the farmer’s markets and let those growers deal with critter problems. But even that may change this year as we experiment with straw bale gardening in a corner of the herb garden. It got off to a slow start due to the wintry weather but it’s almost ready to plant with radishes and cole crops now.
Our street-side garden will see new developments this spring. For nearly a year, water company contractors have been laying a new line along our street, and in the process they have made a hash out of part of the very old iris bed in front of our house. In spite of their promises to “make it look better than it did before” I’m not holding my breath. They claim to be done now, but no one has shown up to fix anything. My patience wore thin so finally I took matters into my own hands; using some big rocks from the property line rock pile, plus rocks and gravel the contractors left lying about, to edge the length of the iris bed and make a rock garden.
Amazingly, patches of crocuses and daffodils have survived, blooming as if they had never been disturbed in spite of being buried in a foot of gravel and then scraped over with a backhoe scoop.
One patch of creeping phlox was somehow missed by that backhoe. This week I added a dozen more to drape over the rocks in front of the remaining irises and daylilies. Low-growing sedums, dianthus, and a few other spreading rock-garden plants will make a living tapestry with them as they grow.
New color variations of creeping phlox are available now in addition to the old pinks and blues, including a pink and white one called “Candy Stripe”. Creeping phlox is perennial, easy to grow, long lived, spreads rapidly, and needs little care except for a bit of light trimming once it has finished blooming, or not. I always forget and it still looks fine. It’s an attractive, hardy ground cover year-round, resembling a needle evergreen. Barely 4” tall, it effectively smothers out encroaching weeds and is fairly drought-resistant. Blooming (normally) in late March and early April, it invites swarms of early pollinators, bees and butterflies galore to sip of its nectar-rich flowers.
Creeping phlox loves full sun and good drainage which makes it excellent for growing over retaining walls and down steep slopes as groundcover where it’s difficult to mow. This is the perfect time of year to plant it, in pockets of good compost-rich soil about a foot apart. Be careful not to bury the stem when planting and keep it well-watered until established. Long spreading stems of old plants may get thick and woody and stop blooming well. These can be cut back to encourage new growth that will produce flowers again.
As we experience more and more effects of climate change, and the weather is seldom “as usual” any more, we need more like these plants that are “bulletproof”, whether they are natives or not. I look forward to many more changes coming to the Chaotic garden.
"One of the worst mistakes you can make as a gardener is to think you're in charge."
"If there's one thing I can say about my garden, it can always surprise me."
----David Hobson, The Mad Gardener
Sandy Parrill, "Speaking of Gardens" column, The Joplin Globe, March 23, 2014