I was looking around the internets and saw a piece offering (I can’t believe I just wrote that) “20 Types of Blog Posts” for bloggers who want to seem creative and interesting. The author mentioned that one of his readers decided to take up the challenge of writing one post of each type over the next twenty days. What a clever idea.
Blog Type #1: Instructional: How to Become An Unruly Gardener
1.) Consider what it means to be an Unruly Gardener: turning away from what many people regard as traditional landscapes: rich green lawns, neat rectangular flower beds, lush ground covers, manicured trees and shrubs. You get the picture. We’re going for bed hair here, not a teased & hairsprayed coiffure held in place with 1,000 bobby pins.
Your neighborhood may still embrace the antiquated Greco-Roman pride in taming nature by imposing order and admiring the squandering of precious natural resources. Prepare to be a trailblazer. (Image of flamethrower as piece of garden equipment appears in my mind, but fleetingly. Best not to employ flamethrower.)
You may encounter some puzzled looks or even out-and-out disapproval. Unruly Gardeners like this sort of thing.
A good first step is to copy someone else’s idea and make it your own. Since the very word “unruly” means not amenable to discipline or control, stealing ideas presents no ethical problem whatsoever.
It happens on occasion that people walking by the sidewalk garden express interest in planting native and well-adapted plants in their own yards. I always suggest that they go around town and take photos of native-looking plants and landscapes they find attractive. Lack imagination or the freedom to try something madcap in your landscape? See something you like? Copy it.
2.) If you haven’t overthrown your rule-bound mind yet, get to work on it. When I go around checking out what gardeners have been up to, I see too many landscapes that look like they were copied from English gardening books. This is fine if you live in Devon. But if you live somewhere else, and you are unruly enough to believe that only native and well-adapted plants make sense (because Unruly Gardeners have a whole lot of things to do besides baby-sit, feed, and water plants that won’t otherwise be happy), check out natural landscapes near you. Include places where nobody lives (woods, abandoned fields, old cemeteries, etc.).
If your mental image of a garden involves lots of graph paper, right angles, neatly-trimmed hedges and symmetrical plantings, you are holding back your Unruly Gardener Potential. Set it free.
3.) Consider your little piece of heaven: how big is your yard? How much work do you care to put in? (Weeds are native too, you know.) Do you have full sun, partial sun, shade? What time of day? Do you have slopes? Sunken places? What about your soil: when you grab a hunk, does it crumble in your hand like dust? Can you squeeze it into an impenetrable ball with which you might construct a fail-proof bomb shelter?
Take some photos of the places where you want to plant. Put a sample of your soil in a plastic bag – take several samples from around your property. The people at your nursery should be able to advise you about soil improvements you might make.
It would have been cool if you’d thrown down a few handfuls of native flower seeds last fall, but that was then and this is now. Better to start late than never. Make a note on your phone to throw down some seeds next Halloween (or whenever you’re supposed to do that where you live).
4.) Get yourself, your photos, and your soil samples to local nurseries that specialize in native and well-adapted species. Drive right past the big-box stores unless the one near you is doing something truly extraordinary in their nursery department. (A nursery that smells like a chemical factory should be crossed off your list instantly.)
You may have a university extension service nearby; that can be a great resource. Your local TV or radio may have gardening programs – that’s how I first became interested in native plants. I first became aware of John Dromgoole, our local gardening hero, on the radio. His rants about non-native landscapes appealed to my unruly self. When a caller would ask about problems with their St. Augustine lawn, John D. would light into them in a way that reminded me of my poetry professor whose favorite shouted critique was, What the *%#@& did you put that in there for?!?
If you are reading this, you also have access to the amazing World Wide Web, and so you can find all kinds of suggestions about what to plant where you live.
I have a few gardening books; they fed my daydreams for years when I was clueless about what to plant where. One of my favorites is by Howard Garrett, considered by many to be the father of organic gardening in Texas. He’s another one who does not hesitate to scold you roundly for using laboratory-created chemicals in your yard, or to write “DO NOT PLANT” in big letters beside photos of popular but unjustifiable plants, shrubs, and trees.
5.) I myself personally give some thought to color in the landscape. However, one of the benefits of native plantings is that whatever color they are, they go together just fine. Nature knows how to make surprising color combinations work. If you’ve never experienced a drive through Texas in the spring, at least look up some photos. If Lady Bird could take her cues from wild places, so can we.
But even if you’re not altogether unruly yet, and favor a landscape with one color of flowers, that’s okay. Nativeness is what’s most important as far as caring for the earth and its limited resources are concerned; and native plants want to thrive, which is a reward in itself.
5.) If you are still nervous about your Unruly Gardener self being unleashed upon the world, start small. Try a few native plants in one spot. Watch them thrive as you ignore them to pick whiteflies off your wax begonias and go begging on street corners to pay your hydrangeas’ water bill.
Resolve to turn your back on plants that don’t want to live in your area. Before you know it, your Unruly Gardener self will be going after them with shovels and tossing them on the yard waste pile, telegraphing silent scorn to anyone who refuses to come into the 21st century.