An Immigrant’s Garden


My mother was born in Russia.  My father was born in Poland.  They were brought to Canada by their parents, met and married and had me there.  I moved to the U.S. over 40 years ago.   We are immigrants all.World Map

Does all this moving about have an influence on my views about native plants vs. immigrant plants (called ‘aliens’ in horticultural circles)?  Perhaps it does.

In any case I have been thinking a lot lately about the subject as I go on with the choice of plants for the gardens at Timshala.  I hear more and more about the importance of planting natives — usually defined as plants which were already here when Europeans arrived.

And yet.  Some of the most surprising plants, the ones we see everywhere, are actually not natives.  The Daylilies coloring the sides of the road in late summer, Apple trees (yes, despite Johnny Appleseed), weeping Willows, Peonies, Irises, Hostas, Peaches, Dandelions (!), Lilacs, Irises, Japanese maples (no surprise there),  Soybeans, Wheat.   Immigrants all.

What they all do have in common – besides having been born elsewhere – is that they have traveled to find their preferred habitat.

So habitat is what determines all my plant choices.   The right temperatures, both winter and summer, soil quality, wind – these are all part of the planning. Wherever they might have come from, all the plants I am using will (should) be happy where I place them.  Some wet areas will have plants that like wet soil – Bald Cypress, Camassia, for example.  Actually those are both natives, but more important to me, they will grow well where I put them.   

So a lot of the plants I use will be natives.  A lot of them won’t.  But they should all thrive because they’re in the right place.

And so my garden at Timshala will have a lot of immigrants.  Including me.


I am passionate about mulch

I am so passionate about mulch that one of my design goals is never to see it.  And I just found out that Monet agreed with me.

That is what brought the subject to mind.  Yesterday, at a meeting of the HORTNetwork, an association of landscape professionals in Kansas, there was a presentation about Monet’s garden – the one in France and the homage at the Overland Park Arboretum & Botanic Garden.  And it was mentioned that Monet did not like to see mulch.  Every inch of ground was to be covered with plants.  What a wise man.

As I travel around I see mulch piled in “volcanoes” over a foot high around tree trunks, causing them to rot, smothering the surface roots and making a nice home for destructive mice and voles.  Mulch is used to create planting beds sparsely planted with the occasional shrub or Miscanthus grass.  The mulch is red or pink or light brown and is regularly topped up and kept impossibly and unnaturally neat.  It seems to be used as an ornamental.

It is used to do everything except what it is supposed to do.

When trees in a forest lose their leaves and the leaves cover the forest floor – that is mulch.  It protects and improves the soil – keeping down weeds, holding in moisture, and — as it decomposes it improves the soil by adding organic material and nutrients.

When I create specifications – the detailed instructions – for a garden I have designed I always include a description of the kind of mulch I to be used.  Landscapers who have done work for me know me for this ‘peculiarity’.   Sometimes I name the brand (Sweet Peet if it is available and affordable), but always the composition – finely shredded, not chunks, and compost rich.

And in a garden, until it becomes part of the soil, or is covered with thriving plants, mulch should look like the soil it protects.  It should be rich, dark brown!  Mulch is not an ornamental.