I’ve been spending a lot of time lately in this forested trail near my house.
It’s lush, beautiful, and full of life. And yet, no one tends it. No one spends hours weeding it, dousing it with Sluggo, pruning down the branches, or planting annuals each year. Somehow it manages quite fine on its own thankyouverymuch.
I’ve spend some time pondering this and reading books such as Gaia’s Garden (about $17 on Amazon), which suggest that maybe a better, simpler way to garden would be to work with nature instead of fighting against it. After spending some time making observations, I’ve come up with 7 lessons that the forest can teach us about gardening.
Lesson One: Incorporate perennials in your yard & garden. Perennials are plants that stay year after year and can really become the backbone of your landscape! If you enjoy edibles, consider planting blueberry bushes, raspberry canes, fruit trees and even some vegetables such as asparagus. Many herb varieties are perennial or will simply come back the next year if allowed. (In my yard, the chamomile and mint is starting to pop up again!). Perennials often require less care and can be a cost savings over time. They can also become a habitat for insects and birds in your yard.
Lesson Two: Some (edible!) plants can tolerate the shade. So often we hear that food crops have to be grown in full sun. While this does seem to be true of many plants, have you ever noticed that many edible berries grow in the understories of forests? In the forest near me, salmonberry abounds! Also native berries such as red huckleberry and salal love the shade. I have a part of my garden that’s very shady so I ended up purchasing three huckleberry plants from Raintree Nursery this year. If you’re struggling with what to grow in the shade, consider purchasing native plants that you find in forests near you.
Lesson Three: Forests don’t mind insects and wildlife. I understand you can’t make your garden a salad for deer or let the aphids do away with all your basil. Don’t get me wrong: there are some times to intervene. But how often do we react so quickly (and harshly) to the unknown bug we find on our raspberry canes or lettuce leaves instead of taking the time to assess what made our plants vulnerable to attack in the first place? What’s more, did you know that as many as 97% of bugs and spiders in your yard may be beneficial (source: University of Maine)? One of the things I’ve come to accept is that my commitment to gardening without the use of chemicals will result in some bugs. I’ve decided I’d rather deal with some insect holes and occasional food losses in exchange for not using chemicals. And I’ve (slowly!) had to tell myself that not all bugs are bad and that a wait-and-see approach is sometimes prudent.
Lesson Four: Recycle. The forest is a living compost machine! Leaves and trees are constantly being decomposed by slugs and fungus and turned into rich soil that provides vital nutrients to new plants. The freshly fallen leaves act as a natural mulch for the young plants below. The forest is a good reminder to continually put back into the soil what’s taken from it.
Lesson Five: The forest is not a monoculture. Walk into a forest and what you will not see are acres and acres of neatly grown rutabagas, all in a row. No – what you’ll see instead is a riot of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, flowers and grasses all living together. When planning your garden or landscape, think about growing a variety of plants – trees for shade (and fruit!), shrubs (perhaps some berry bushes and/or native plants) as well as your intensively cultivated annuals. Think about not just the parts, but the sum they come together to form. One thing I’ve focused on doing is making sure I have blooms in my yard and garden for as many months as possible for bees! I have both spring and summer bulbs, lots of berries, plus I’ll work to incorporate edible flowers such as borage and nasturtium for double duty. Think about how your plants can support one another as well as beneficial insects and even wildlife.
Lesson Six: Put plants where they want to grow. Sometimes we fight an uphill battle putting plants in conditions they were never intended for. You’d laugh at me if I said I’d want to grow banana trees in my backyard, yet how many of us put dry-loving shrubs in moist slopes? Or tomatoes in full shade and hope for the best? In many plant identification guides, notice how you’ll be told not only how to identify plants but where you’re most likely to find them. For instance, look for stinging nettle in moist, disturbed areas. Or red huckleberry near decaying wood. Think and take time to learn about the growing conditions of plants before you place them in your yard to work with nature and not against it.
Lesson Seven: It doesn’t have to be pretty to be beautiful. So often we’re quick to find what’s wrong with our garden instead of stepping back and admiring it in its entirety. If you look close in a forest, you’ll see lots of “imperfections” too. The next time you’re nitpicking one aspect of your garden that isn’t working, try stepping back.
I’d love to hear from you – what else do you think the forest can teach us about becoming better gardeners and stewards of our property? Have you ever had an “aha!” moment when it came to gardening – perhaps something you realized you were doing wrong? Other tips for designing gardens that work with nature and not against it?