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Sunday, July 9, 2017

Better than lawn

It took longer than I anticipated, but this week I finished planting my new perennials--and two shrubs--in new mostly-native beds next to the deck. They made it into the ground none too soon. Despite frequent watering, they were close to broiling where they stood, in planting position, in their containers in the July heat. 

Roots in the ground just in time

     The layer of black loam the contractors had spread was just starting to sprout weeds when I eked out a thin layer of pine-spruce bark mulch from seven large bags from the garden center. It didn’t feel right using purchased mulch, but last year’s leaf mulch was all gone.

     I was standing in the kitchen looking out over the new beds when I had an attack of buyer’s remorse. Had I made a terrible mistake? Now we won’t be able to seat guests in lawn chairs on that erstwhile patch of grass. 

Studying on the lawn circa 2003

They can sit on the wide bluestone path, or we can put chairs on the lawn circle that’s farther from the house. But a party tent over the deck is no longer an option. Had I spent money, fossil fuel energy, and many hours of work in the hot sun on a folly?

     While I was fretting about this, I noticed a swarm of bumblebees eagerly working a new St. John’s wort (Hypericum ‘Magic Universe’). The yellow flowers were already open, and the bees were making the most of them, circling as they searched for the best landing spots.

Bumblebee loading up on pollen

     In all the decades that the same area was covered with lawn grass, I’d never seen pollinators get any benefit from it. Those bumblebees reminded me of why I’d made the change. It wasn’t just for fun. I got a lot of enjoyment from picking out the new plants. Watching them grow, bloom, and fill in is going to be a pleasure. But the new beds are also designed to offer food and shelter for the bugs.

    When I started my garden in the 1980s, English-style perennial borders were all the rage. I was going to emulate Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West with elegant perennial beds. 

Not my yard

To my disappointment, that was not to be. Even if I’d had the skills, we didn’t have the space or the unobstructed southern exposure for those long sunny borders. I spent the next 30 years learning about what to grow in part to full shade.

Shade has its rewards, such as this bloodroot in early spring

    This summer’s new beds represent a paradigm shift, as well as a new time of life. Since the seismic change in my gardening point of view induced by reading Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home, I’ve started seeing my garden as a community of plants and animals, not just my own personal play space and blank slate for design experiments.

    In 1985 I might have seen those bumblebees as stinging pests. Now they’re very welcome harbingers of a new era, with pollen and nectar for all.


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