I worked with a wonderful gardener last year and during one of our conversations related to knowing what plants to put where for optimal environmental benefit, it became apparent that we still have so much to learn.
My response went something like, we may not understand all of what our bees and butterflies need—how could we, really? But Nature knows… What I meant by this is that there are processes that have been happening since the beginning of time.
If you think of nature as a symphony (as described by landscape architect Anne Whiston Spirn in 1988 journal article “The Poetics of City and Nature”), then you start to get a picture of the life and actions/reactions swirling around us at any given moment.
Complex and hard to fully grasp is this stew that has evolved over millions of years. Cycle of life, food chains, migration and hibernation, prey and predator, camouflage and mimicry, seed dispersal/zoocory and so much more.
So, when I think about what nature knows, I realize that it may be a good idea at times to take a back seat—to be witness and passenger, and in awe of the vivid life that surrounds us.
Lesson 1: Let it be or edit
I have three magnificent trees around my house. One was human-planted over a hundred years ago when my home was plotted and constructed next to the Chicago River. Another is just outside my back alley gate—it is a white oak that has a form that thrills me every time I see it. The third is a four-year old sycamore tree that grows next to my rain garden and creates a wonderful backdrop and view from my greenhouse door.
My oak was planted by a squirrel or blue jay hustling to stash some food for winter; the sycamore is a product of wind dispersal from a neighboring tree. This planting spontaneity has a wild and wonderful aesthetic in my landscape that is a constant reminder of all the ways that our planet evolves and shifts. I tend to leave some of these arrivals in place, though when the daisy fleabane, sweet cicely, and other “very successful” plant species show up, I edit—sometimes just removing the seed heads before they ripen and other times pulling up the entire plant.
Lesson 2: Enhance as needed
My neighbor has a strip of asters that grows wild between the concrete drive next to her classic Chicago bungalow—some sky blue and others short's or heath that established there as a result of a more relaxed maintenance style. Much of the season they are an unassuming mass of green, but come September this mound is transformed into a billowing blue and white cloud that is visible all the way down the block.
She adds to it in constrained quantities as to not disrupt the feel of wild nature—some common milkweed or Rudbeckia are dotted through the center to add texture and to brighten things up earlier in the season. Enhancing your natural garden can also come in the form of the artful addition of non-plants such as downed tree limbs, large strips of husky bark or other natural features to frame the area.
Nature makes us and those around us happy.
Gardening can do so many things. It makes us and those around us happy. With a bit of restraint, gardening can also reveal nature. We can observe species planted by ants and birds or those with seeds that travel on the wind. This season try to relax a bit in the garden and let nature have a say as well, you will be happier for it.
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