Wild Ones   Green Gables: An American Landscape Designed With Nature in Mind: What I Have Learned. Part 7  
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

Summer in bloom: Prairie Garden. Phlox, branched coneflowers, cup-plant. Photo by Richard J. Ehrenberg.

I 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?

I learned 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.

As 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.

Begin 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 meeting 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 J. Ehrenberg.

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 one’s own yard.

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 burn regimen.

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.

I 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.

I 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.

Lake Room window.

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 change.

Richard J. Ehernberg, of the Madison (WI) Chapter, is a landscape architect.

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Updated: Jul 28, 2009.