Sunday, November 17, 2013

Bushwhacked

Last year, when Brian and I splurged on a consultation with a professional landscaper, one of the questions I asked her was what would be a good choice to replace the vastly oversized foundation shrubs along the front of our house. She suggested that this would be a good place for a "pollinator garden," made up of flowering native plants that would attract beneficial insects. This sounded good to me, but I wasn't crazy about the specific plants that she suggested, which included Joe-Pye Weed, New York ironweed, goldenrod, New England Aster, boneset, mountain mint, bee balm and catmint. I looked them up and found that not only do some of them grow up to five feet tall, which would be even taller than the existing shrubs, but all of them go dormant in the winter. That is, instead of simply dying back, they dry out and sit there all winter long looking brown and shriveled. Some people apparently like this, as many sites recommend these plants for "winter interest," but to me, based on the pictures I've found online, they just look depressing.

However, while doing a little poking around online in search of possible lawn alternatives for the rest of the front yard, I happened upon the American Meadows site, which offers a variety of wildflower seed mixes specially selected to perform well in different regions of the country. Their Northeast mix  will supposedly grow in agricultural zones 2 through 7, in full or partial sun, and in any type of soil, including clay. They've been carefully chosen to provide blossoms throughout the growing season, from spring until frost, so we'd never be short of fresh flowers for the table. (The FAQ specifically notes that wildflowers are great for cutting, as they're "so prolific, the ones cut will never be missed." In fact, cutting actually extends the bloom time for annuals.) The blend includes a combination of annuals and perennials, so the annuals will bloom the first year and the perennials will take over in succeeding years. Plants range in size from 9 inches to 4 feet tall, which would put the tallest flowers right about at the bottom edge of the window, filling in the entire area below with be a mass of flowers of different heights. And they shouldn't require any special care beyond watering during dry spells.

So all in all, planting the entire area with this wildflower seed mix seemed like a much better bet than trying to handpick my own plants for the area. Before we could do that, however, we had to get rid of the two huge evergreen shrubs that were there already. (The big forsythia at the far left in the picture above had already come out earlier in the year.) Knowing that pulling these out was likely to be a fairly big undertaking, I thought it would be best to tackle it this fall, so that next year, we could get the seeds straight into the ground as soon as it was warm enough. So this weekend, with the clock ticking rapidly down to winter, we finally got on it. Where those two big shrubs once stood, there's now nothing but a clear, open space...

...and a huge mass of English ivy, which I foolishly allowed to grow unchecked because I liked the way it looked climbing over the railing. Once the shrubs were gone, it became apparent that the ivy had actually taken over pretty much the whole area that used to be underneath them.

This, presumably, will have to come out also before the wildflowers can go in, since ivy is a fairly aggressive plant that doesn't play well with others. (In Oregon, homeowners are warned about "ivy islands," areas in which ivy has smothered all the other vegetation.) Fortunately, the sources I've consulted indicate that ivy has fairly shallow roots, so it shouldn't be too difficult to pull it out and clear the bed for planting. We can probably safely leave it there to add a little touch of green through the winter and pull it out right before we plant in the spring. (However, I'll have to be vigilant about keeping an eye on it and pulling out any stray shoots that pop up next year, or it could quickly take over the bed again.)

One of the most fascinating things about pulling out these two monster shrubs was that they actually seemed to increase in volume when we cut them down. Just those two shrubs produced everything you see here in this pile by the curb, plus a big trash bucket full of boughs that we set aside, on the principle of "waste not, want not," for our holiday decorations. I had already decided I'd like to do a bit more this year than just our usual single strand of white lights and evergreen trimmings around the front door, and I think this greenery with the white berries still attached will make a fetching base for some indoor arrangements.

So now we just have to order the wildflower seed and then wait until spring to plant it. A quarter pound of seed, which is the smallest amount available, will cost about ten dollars and should enough to cover this little patch ten times over. (I'm actually toying with the idea of doing a little guerrilla gardening with the leftovers in a vacant lot up the street from us, which has been sitting empty for years and would look a lot nicer as a wildflower meadow than just a mass of poorly trimmed grass.) And in the meantime, we'll actually get to enjoy the full use of our living room window throughout the winter—something we haven't had since we first moved into this house. Even now, on a November afternoon, it's amazing how much more light there is in the room than there was before.
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