Music In The Meadow Part II

The ongoing heat wave and drought like conditions that we are experiencing in my corner of the country, is a wake up call to how we use our land. Other parts of the country and indeed, the world, are also being confronted with devastatingly atypical weather. Unprecedented, destructive flooding/drought/heat – take your pick, it is happening. Gardeners must adapt to changing climates and lead the way in sound environmental practices.

That being so, creating native plant meadows is a timely subject to explore and implement.

While my own meadow project has been underway, the trend to create meadows has gained attention and dare I say it, popularity. When I first started my meadow over two decades ago, it was viewed as odd, messy and ‘hippy-like’. My compost bin and rain barrel were also tossed into that category. I even recall my attempts being described as quaint and old-fashioned. So, please pardon me if I feel vindicated now that meadows, composting and, catching rain water have not only become accepted but are official stamps of the environmental conscious. I think I’ve earned my smug face don’t you?!

In creating meadows, we are in essence, restoring a resilient landscape to support bio-diversity and creating a balance in nature. This equilibrium resists invasives, creates a healthy matrix and withstands fluctuations in the climate admirably. Native plants co-evolve with native insects and animals. Like a world class orchestra, such a meadow performs in complete harmony giving us the most uplifting, life affirming concert.

Here are the proven benefits of a native meadow –

There are fewer ticks. Out here, Lyme disease is a real and serious concern. As a result, homeowners feel justified in contractual agreements with landscaping firms to have their property routinely sprayed with chemicals to control the ticks. What they are not taking into account is that even the “organic” applications are not tick specific. All of the insect population is affected. One loses the good guys with every application. Thinking beyond the insects, the chemicals, organic and otherwise, ultimately get washed into the water table. Pets and children who play in the garden, roll on the lawn, nibble on plants are all coming in contact with any and all insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers. Shouldn’t that alone be a serious concern?
When the environment is in balance, the ticks are eaten by other insects, birds and animals. And that is how their population is well controlled.

Once established, that is as soon as the young plants are settled in, a meadow needs no further watering. Think about that.

At no point is there need of fertilizers. Not even compost. And the soil is never turned over nor is new soil introduced. The land is kept as it is. Imagine all the time, energy and dollars saved.

The meadow is cut down just once a year. Mowing becomes a non-issue. Now, traditionally, a meadow is burned annually in early spring. One needs a permit from the town and fire department because burning must be done correctly. However, if you live like I do, cheek to jowl with the neighbors, that is not an option. I do an annual mow down in the fall.
But, if you happen to live on a large enough property with neighbors at a proper distance, burning is much preferred and more effective. Weeds will be significantly reduced and even those that regrow, will be shaded out by the native grasses.
Here is an interesting fact – native plants burn well and burn gently. Those big conflagrations one envisions when we think of burning a meadow or field are created when non-native plants burn.
The dangerous forest fires that rage every year in some parts of the country are primarily in areas abundant with non-native trees and shrubs.

A thriving meadow is utterly beautiful. At every season it offers a different view. And oh the insect and bird life! Watching the wildlife is fascinating and often mesmerizing. It’s better than watching the Discovery channel!

Meadows are naturally productive and nutritious. All creatures benefit from them.

So, are you motivated to give up a part of your garden/property to a meadow? If so, start with small acreage. Learn the process.
Know your plants. Identify the natives, weedy non-natives.
Become familiar with water (rain, ground water flow) and reproductive patters, seed dispersal methods, animal habits.
Whenever one plant, native or non, appears to take over, that is a sign of imbalance.

We introduced the wrong plants, that means we can also remove them. If each of us commits to doing our part, we can restore the environmental balance. The parks, reserves and public gardens alone cannot carry the weight of safe-guarding this glorious land of ours. The responsibility rests on each of us.
We can and must do better than we have thus far.

Enjoy the photos I took recently of the meadow at Linda Horn’s in Spencertown, NY:

The native monarda is a huge draw for all sorts of pollinators

The native monarda is a huge draw for all sorts of pollinators

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Music In The Meadow. Part I

The meadow has been on my radar this year. And judging from the requests I’ve received, it seems so have many of you. Primarily, you have asked to know the full story of my meadow and what ever else I can share on that topic. Here goes!

Ever since I decided to do away with the lawn in the back garden about twenty years ago, I’ve pretty much let whatever grows remain as is. Except of course for scourges like garlic mustard. At the time, this was almost unheard of. I myself had never seen such a thing in a small, suburban garden. There was no handy literature on the subject available and it was way before Google. But I was very eager to try making a meadow ( of sorts). So I applied a dash of common sense and dab of creativity.

“ Like The Bumble-bee, What I Do Not Know Will Let Me Fly” Shobha Vanchiswar
Yes, I have often charged ahead based on that thought. Feel free to adopt it. It works.

The very idea of a meadow is romantic right? One pictures a spread of assorted wildflowers dancing in the breeze, butterflies flitting around, birds singing in chorus, the sun shining, a blue sky dotted with fluffy, blue clouds. All inviting one to run through it carefree and laughing. This is actually not far from the truth. A healthy, robust meadow is a habitat in balance. The diverse plants and animal/insect life make for a self-sustaining environment. So much more attractive than a lawn! How could I resist trying to create such a place in my corner?

Like I mentioned, I stopped mowing the lawn and simply let it go ‘natural’.It took a few years for the lawn to give itself over to new settlers. Much slower than I’d expected but I had to see what really would grow. Turns out lots of green things. Not familiar at that time with the many native, wild plants, I had no idea what was what. But I did know that for the most part, wild plants are generally not given to big, showy blooms. If one compares a wild monarda to a cultivated variety, you will see what I mean. So apart from the happy splash of dandelion yellow and ajuga blue in spring, my meadow appeared mostly green. I wanted a little more oomph.

For spring color, not wanting to inadvertantly introduce herbacious plants that could upset the natural balance, I hit upon the idea of putting in bulbs. Not given to being invasive or harming the environment but instead bringing in beauty and cheer, they are a perfect choice. I started by planting hundreds of daffodils and over the years, I have added a whole host of minor bulbs such a crocus, wood hyacinths, leucojum, scilla, iris reticulata, anemones, ornithogalum (not so minor), small frittilaria along with a slew of alliums and camassia. The ajuga, mysotis and dandelions joined in quite naturally. All of spring, this part of the garden reigns supreme.

But for the rest of the growing season until the whole area gets mowed down, it looks kinda ‘meh’. And until recent years, I was gone for a good chunk of the summer so I didn’t particularly care. Out of sight, out of mind and all that. About four years ago, I started feeling a mix of guilt and responsibility to do right by the environment as well as my garden’s appearance. While the ‘meadow’ such as it is, is not harming anything and actually supports a variety of creatures, my state of inertia was losing ground.

In my mind (okay, also my heart), a meadow is like a symphony. The myriad flora and fauna make up a full orchestra. Every meadow-member has a part to play. Nature is the artistic director and conductor. She is also the composer. The gardener is the manager. The four seasons are like the movements in a piece of music. The tempo, rhythm, mood, melody, instrument voices, expressions can all be compared to how life in the meadow plays out. The slower, quieter winter movement, the fresh, eager, excited spring movement, the loud, exuberant movement of summer, and finally, the poignant, somewhat melancholic autumnal one. Yes, kind of like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

So you can understand my restless mind – I needed to improve my own meadow so it could play a strong, empowering symphony. It had not been allowed to perform at its fullest potential thus far. Many important sections of this orchestra were missing and so, the current concert was lackluster.
With this in mind, I began researching (three cheers for the Internet), talking to those more experienced with native plants, visiting native plant gardens like those at the NY Botanical Garden, Teatown Lake and Reservation, private properties, attending talks by the likes of William Bryant Logan and Edwina von Gaal. On road trips, I braked for meadows and investigated them. Behind the ‘researching’ hides my propensity to procrastinate. It buys time before screwing up courage and launching into big projects. I took my time.

Meadows are generally seen as large open spaces blessed with sunshine. My meadow is assigned a small space in semi-shade. The word meadow is a slight stretch. But it is too open to call it woodland. So meadow it is.

Native plants that could accept being in a suburban, somewhat obscure orchestra were sought out. They might seem unambitious but their skills and ‘sounds’ are no less commendable. I had to give them a fair audition.

Given that there were already many bulbs in place, there was no question of risking losing them by digging up the ground to plant mature native plants. Bulbs are expensive and so are mature plants. I had to source native plant plugs. Being small, plugs are easier to plant and in using them, the bulbs stood to go unscathed. Perfect solution right? Well, native plugs are not so easy to find. Then, last fall, a friend with a penchant for gardens and an interest in native wildflowers shared a source he had recently obtained. That single piece of information was received with the same enthusiasm as some of my friends demonstrate for sample sales at haute couture fashion houses

Finally, this year, I introduced a number of different plants to the meadow. Given the time pressure of my annual Garden Open Day in early May, getting these new additions in was something of a scramble. But it got done. And then I turned my attention to all the other demands of the season.

Native plants are hardier and tougher than non-natives – that gave me permission to not worry about the meadow. In the frenzy of getting the garden ready for Open Day, I failed to consider that it had not rained sufficiently and young plants need some extra TLC. By the time it occurred to me, we had already had a few super-hot days in addition to the lack of rain. And given that the meadow was now thick with growth, telling the young, new plants apart from the old, was near impossible. It was a sea of green. So I’m not really sure whether some if not all of the plugs have made it or if some decided to go dormant or if all bit the dust. I have since done some intermittent watering but it feels like closing the barn door after the animals have escaped.

Still, I’m optimistic. I suspect at least some of the plants would have pulled through. Patience is called for – I must give the meadow another full year before determining anything.

Meanwhile, I’ve been investigating meadow establishment further. Stay tuned for part II next week!

Early days. May 2005

Early days. May 2005

May 20006

May 20006

June 2006

June 2006

May 2007

May 2007

June 2007

June 2007

May 2009

May 2009

May 2010

May 2010

May 2012

May 2012

Up close May 2012

Up close
May 2012

June 2012

June 2012

May 2016

May 2016

Late May 2016

Late May 2016

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Life Goes On

The early hours of summer mornings often find me puttering in the garden. I wish I could say that I’m out there staying on top of the weeding and what-nots. While I take note of the weeds and to-dos, I don’t necessarily feel moved to get busy. These moments in the garden have become my ‘centering time’. I observe what’s doing and what’s not doing. I watch the birds going about their business – the early birds really do get the worms. Listening to their different songs compels me to seek out where the singers are. Parents warning their babies to stay still in the nest because the squirrels are near by. The crows chasing a hawk away from their neighborhood. The cardinal calling its mate to a veritable feast of berries. Baby nuthatches squawking nervously as they test their wings. Much is happening in the many storeys of the garden.

I see that the columbines have finished scattering their seeds. The pods no longer rattle in the wind. The foxgloves are almost ready to do the same. Maybe in another week or two. The perennial geraniums are blooming and setting seed simultaneously. The amsonia and baptisia seed pods are still green. They will take it slow all the way to early fall. At that time, the purple-black baptisia pea-like pods are ready to be collected for posterity. The color contrasts very nicely with the ochre hued slender amsonia beans.

As seeds are being set and dried, they symbolize the springs to come. So full of promise and continuity. But as reminders to the season at hand, the mallows, echinacea and cleomes are madly livening up their corner in shades of pretty pinks. The elegant, white candelabras of cimicifuga are rising gently to cast a soft glow at dusk. The acanthus however commands everyones attention. The large, glossy, deeply cut spiny leaves and the spikes of white flowers tinted with reddish purple are so impressive. The phlox near by are yet to bloom. When they do, their fragrance will perfume the air from sunset to sunrise.

Way back at the bottom of the garden just beyond the ‘meadow’, the lone oak-leaf hydrangea is holding fort. Its white flowers are the only color against the all green in this area. The other mop-head hydrangea suffered this past winter. The old growth bearing buds for this year were destroyed. As a result there are no blooms this year. Thankfully, the plants themselves did not succumb. New growth has emerged from the base so perhaps next year I will enjoy their blue flowers. But here is an example of how the native (oak-leaf) plant does better than the non-native.

The Concord grapes look smugly expectant. The pale- green clusters, shaded by leaves grow big every day. If the birds don’t get to them first, I’ll be making delicious jam in late September. The preserve will brighten winter breakfasts and remind us that the cold weather will indeed gave way to spring.

Right here, right now the garden demonstrates that birth, growth, reproduction, death are all happening at the same time. No matter what happens, life goes on.

I get back to the house centered and ready to make my own contribution to the world.

Echinacea

Echinacea

Clematis

Clematis

White Echinacea

White Echinacea

Amsonia with bean pods

Amsonia with bean pods

Baptisia peapods

Baptisia peapods

Cimicifuga with spent foxglove.

Cimicifuga with spent foxglove.

Mallow

Mallow

Cleome

Cleome

Concord grapes

Concord grapes

Columbine

Columbine

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Pause Between Acts

Nothing much appears to be happening in the garden right now. All the spring drama has subsided and the summer madness is yet to happen. It is quiet. Given the unusual weather patterns this year, there is a sense of being somewhat out of sync. Things are not normally this quiet in July but I’m not complaining. The lack of rain has been a bigger concern.

While we have not yet declared that we are experiencing a drought, it has been a challenge to keep the plants hydrated. Finding that sweet spot where I’m comfortable with how much watering I’m doing and the minimum it takes to keep the plants happy is critical to the general well being of both garden and gardener. It’s a very fine line.

This moment of horticultural hush is the perfect occasion to take in the soft elements in the garden. The details that get easily overlooked in the fanfare of other loud bloomers. Though these plants were selected deliberately, they perform mostly as supporting characters. While the overall play of colors and textures in a bed are appreciated, these ‘minor’ actors are seldom noted as relevant. Yet, they complement the main guys immeasurably.

Case in point – Sanguisorba tenuifolia Albiflora. I purchased this plant at a rare/unusual plant fair several years ago. Struck by their finely toothed pinnate foliage, I thought they would combine well with other tall, airy, spired and whorled plants. The white, catkin-like fingers of flowers at the tips of slender stems. wave gracefully in the wind. Softened by fluffy stamens, these diminutive bottle-brush blooms are highly tactile. At night, they take on a ghostly glow.

The plant blends well in the naturalistic plantings and watching the individual flowers open top down is fascinating. Yet, if juxtaposed with brightly colored and/or large flowers like Asiatic lilies or hollyhocks, one would hardly see these pale, ethereal blooms.

This variety of Sanguisorba is Asian in origin. It was purchased long before I became conscious of planting mostly natives. As per my rule, non-natives are permitted to remain only if they are not invasive. What a relief that this charmer has not gone amok. It has grown bigger but not spread anywhere else. The foliage alone is striking and I’d miss it very much if it had proven to be a thug.

Without the attention grabbers, I’m at liberty to observe the routine machinations in the garden. The bees on the hydrangea. The birds splashing in the bird bath. The papery, pink mallow swaying in the breeze as though listening to music only it can hear.

I note the still young grapes growing bigger and then I become aware that the birds are keeping tabs on them too. The columbine seed pods are rattling – I can only imagine their seeds finding homes that will become apparent next spring. All of the columbines in my garden are essentially squatters. Yet, I love them so – they seem to know much better than I as to where they should grow.

The fans of blue-green Alchemilla leaves hold beads of rain that sparkle bright in the sun. An otherwise ordinary area suddenly gets its moment to be extraordinary. I wonder if thirsty butterflies ever stop here to get a drink.

It is these days of silent wonder that nurture the soul and set fire to the imagination. Savor them slowly.

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Sanguisorbs tanuifolia AlbifloraNote the foliage!

Sanguisorba tanuifolia Albiflora. Note the foliage!

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar