|By Richard J. Ehrenberg
Six articles about my fourteen-year-old
natural landscape were planned
and had been written. Green Gables
was a wonderful experience for
me to share in writing. At that
point I was hoping to retire on
the royalties and promotional tours
when Journal Editor, Maryann Whitman,
asked a very significant question, “What
have you learned while implementing
your landscape plan?” A good question
deserves a thoughtful response.
Summer in bloom: Prairie Garden. Phlox, branched
coneflowers, cup-plant. Photo by
Richard J. Ehrenberg.
learned that I would do it again,
in spite of all the effort and
work involved. The visual richness
of the great variety of flowers,
leaves, seed pods, and fruit, as
they appear through the growing
season, that is in addition to the overall
meshing together of herbaceous perennials,
various shrub forms, and different sculptured
tree configurations, is worth all the effort.
It is experienced each and every day whether
opening the blinds in the morning to greet
the new day, or when taking the last stroll
of the day in the yard. The unique smell on
a spring day of moist leaves on the ground
gives one a sense of living in a real forest
environment. Even in winter, when all is frozen
and dormant, the structural features are enhanced
by a backdrop of white snow and gray sky.
My landscape has become an
integral part of my life – who can say
that of an acre of lawn?
that creating a natural landscape
is more difficult than following the traditional
approach. Purchasing an expensive
riding mower would have been a
simple and easy maintenance solution
for the extensive lawn area which existed
when I purchased the property in
1993. Mowing gives a manicured
look to even a weed-infested lawn. No plant
knowledge is required. In fact, the first year
of living at Green Gables, when I left the
back yard unmowed prior to plowing under the
sod in the fall, someone, in the dark of night,
left a broad hint in the form of a power mower
in my back yard. I never was able to find out
who was so generous, but I did
use it for five years to mow paths and the
small areas preserved in grass.
A yard full
of native plantings requires work – pulling
and cutting vines, dead branches,
dead flower and grass stems, excessive shrub
and tree growth, perennial growth of exotics,
and even pruning for aesthetic and functional
considerations. However, unlike a manicured
lawn, this work need not be done on a weekly
basis. Some things are more important to be
done than others and nothing is seriously damaged.
I found that these maintenance demands can
fit into one’s
busy lifestyle. I recognize that
while this was an ethic that grew
on me, this might not be true for everyone.
is the case in most architectural
efforts I recognized that the more complex
the design, the more knowledge and effort will
be required. Because Green Gables includes
two separate forest environments, a prairie
garden, a planting of sumac for
shade, a traditional flower/vegetable
garden, and a pre-existing property line planting
of non-native spruces, a lot of
insight was needed into how to
blend the various habitat characteristics.
Maintenance of the ecotones was learned as
the plant communities matured.
If homeowners do not have knowledge
of native plants it is best to
start small or hire a professional
to create a long-term plan.
by learning about the native plants
in your area, attending workshops,
reading books and catalogs from
nurseries specializing in natives,
and searching the Internet. Expand
your knowledge each year, and adjust
your plans as more insight is acquired.
I don’t know
if this next realization belongs
in the “difficulty” section
or in the “surprise” section. During
the first seven years at Green
Gables I was single and was able
to put off till tomorrow what I
did not want to bother with today – a “real
man’s code of behavior.” After
a wonderful lady, and getting married
in 2001, things changed. Kim and
her friends set a higher standard
for appearance, and a lot of dead
tree branches were removed from
the front yard forest. I had accepted
them as part of a natural look.
The change was for the better,
and our neighbors probably breathed
a sigh of relief.
Summer: View of the house from the back yard.
American ox-eye daisy (Heliopsis
helianthoides). Photo by Richard
I learned maintenance
shortcuts, which not only saved
time and energy, but recycled plant
materials as nature intended. Pruned
twigs and branches do not have to be collected
and hauled away to a city composting
site. When cutting down two- to
four-foot-tall Russian mulberry
trees, which perennially appear,
a hand pruner is used to cut the
plants into six- to 12-inch pieces,
which are then scattered onto the
ground for natural processes to recycle them.
By cutting branches, twigs, and herbaceous
stems into smaller sections they visually disappear
in the existing leaf litter. The plant materials
actually add to the valuable ground
layer of mulch.
Larger dead tree limbs can be
cut into four- to six-foot lengths,
or even longer and artistically
placed in the woodland, helping
to enhance the forest ambience.
Fallen trees can be trimmed and
left in place to add interest.
Snags (standing dead trees) can
be trimmed for appearance, but
left to stand for woodpeckers to
create nesting sites, or used for
attaching bird houses. And of course
firewood can be harvested from
In a small residential
yard, prairie plants require burning
or cutting once a year, for the
sake of appearance. Large prairie
plantings require a different and more involved
If cutting is the only option,
one can avoid hauling the cuttings
to a city compost site by building
a compost pile, or reducing the
high grasses and forbs into three-
to six-inch cuts,
as I suggested with tree and shrub
cuttings. A “weedwhacker” or a
hedge trimmer can be used to do
this, and the pieces can be allowed
to lie on the ground and decompose.
My attempt to use a brush hog and a lawnmower
did not work. The forbs bent over,
and the mower deck held them down
below the rotating blade, leaving
a path of folded-down, uncut stems.
learned that nature continually
provides surprises, which are awesome.
Some are sudden, others evolve
over time. The twenty-five or so
woodland violets existing on the
property at the outset, have spread. Now, from
March into June, thousands of plants produce
masses of blue and white blooms. A large cluster
of elderberry shrubs has evolved
over a period of five years. They
provide a visual screen along with
white flowers and dark blue berries
for the birds. Volunteer native
wildflowers continue to appear
in scattered pattern. A white walnut
tree (Juglans cinerea) volunteered
from who-knows- where, and shares
its space with a volunteer black walnut (Juglans
nigra). Hackberry trees (Celtis
occidentalis) have volunteered from bird droppings.
Wildlife abounds, with new creatures
appearing over the years. A female
groundhog established residence
for many years, and raised her
young in our back yard. The large
hole and soil mound were totally
hidden by prairie plants. Mostly
they ate violets. Rabbits and chipmunks
appear each day. Shrews race across
paths occasionally. We see squirrels
jumping from tree to tree as they
move around the yard. Up to fourteen
were feeding at cobs of corn put
out for them this past winter.
Varieties of birds crisscross the
air corridors between trees. Fireflies were
an exciting surprise a few years after the
prairie garden was established. Turkeys occasionally
inspect the leaf litter in the forest areas.
learned that lots of plants can
grow in small areas. Prairie enthusiasts
know that many species can grow together in
small prairie gardens. This is also true in
forest settings. No shaping of plants is required.
Their natural search for sunlight
forces plants to intermingle and
fill space available. Some species
do well in shady space, others
prefer bright sun – while still others
accept partial shade to full sun.
Plants adjust to their environment.
A black walnut tree which can have a spread
of more than forty-five feet in an open space,
can grow two to three feet from another tree,
and will adjust accordingly.
Summer: View from the Lake Room window. Photo
by Richard J. Ehrenberg.
I learned to be
more confident that natural landscaping
is justified. There are so many positive aspects,
which were largely theoretical
before I actually did it and participated
and lived in it. It is environmentally
sound. It’s sustainable without lots
of fuel, fertilizer and pesticides.
It affords use of plants in a practical manner
for both shade and sunny areas. And not the
least important is the aesthetic value of natural
beauty that is revealed as seasons
Richard J. Ehernberg, of the Madison
(WI) Chapter, is a landscape
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