Here it is mid-February, and the mild winter is making me think it’s time to start gardening again! It’s been a winter of trying to learn and think more deeply about how I’m re-wilding my property. For the last few years, I’ve been more focused on designing pretty spaces using ecological principles, especially the border gardens towards the front of the property. Now it is time to focus on creating native habitats that are primarily for the benefit of insects, pollinators, birds and wildlife, and only lightly designed for human use.
This shift has scrambled my brain a bit as it has been hard to think about ecology first, not design and plants. Multiple classes and books have left me a million thoughts, but to give them some organization, I had to sit down and use these ideas in a practical way. My winter project, then, was to plan out the next round of re-wilding for my upper field, and my big spring project is to get the plan installed. This is the first of a series of blog posts that will take you on that journey with me, from some more learning to planning to installation.
You will remember that several years ago I had backhoes come in and rip out about 8000 square feet of bittersweet, honeysuckle, and porcelain berry that was choking the upper field. We put down fescue and kept it mowed for two years to get the invasives under control, and then planted a dozen trees and shrubs. They are just about established. Last year I planned to put in a meadow, but for several reasons this didn’t happen, which in hindsight was a good thing.
So, this year I wanted to revisit the meadow and fill in enough additional trees and shrubs so that this section could grow into a nice, wooded area with an open meadow in the center, and the invasives would remain under control.
Bringing Ecology to the Forefront
The first thing was to renew and deepen my understanding of the ecological principles of this kind of coastal woodland and grassland planting. I revisited two great books – Garden Revolution by Larry Weamer and Planting in a Post-Wild World by Claudia West and Thomas Rainer to start.
I also began studying Ecology for Gardeners, by Steven Carroll and Steven Salt, which is a great book to learn about the science underlying how plants behave and interact with their environment and each other. (Look for a book review in an upcoming blog.)
Finally, I reviewed the detailed descriptions of these habitats published by the state (link here) and the site conditions and soil testing that I had done a couple of years ago.
I have a tendency to push the limits of my site conditions and see if something would do well. In the lower areas with richer soil, most plants have survived but haven’t taken off. Reviewing the site conditions in light of the ecological science made me appreciate that this upper field had very poor soil (pH 5.0, virtually no organic material), full sun, and fast drainage (due to the slope). I really had to stick to tried and true native plants that do well in these tough conditions – no pushing the limits here.
The last bit of advice I found just before the planning started came from Doug Tallamy, one of the great writers and speakers advocating for a more ecological approach to gardening. He advocates that every ecologically sound space should meet these four criteria:
- Support a diverse community of pollinators throughout the growing season.
- Provide energy for the local food web.
- Manage the watershed in the area.
- Remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Clearly, the master plan needed multiple strategies and components to incorporate all these ideas and principles. I took out a large piece of graph paper and a note pad and started sketching out a set of written goals and a picture of the area, trying to incorporate these ecological principles.
After multiple iterations and erasures, I think I’ve captured reasonable goals for what use I wanted to make of the site:
The accompanying picture shows the overall concept, organized into three areas.
The meadow would be a major source for pollinators, and the hedgerow and wooded area of shrubs would a provide a wildlife corridor, spring blooms, and berries throughout the summer and fall. In total there will be about 40 trees and shrubs in this space, which will help with both water management and carbon sequestration. For people, the mowed pathway around the meadow and bench will be a peaceful way to experience nature.
Getting Started – Site Preparation
While I love to do as much of the work in my landscape as possible, installing this project is beyond me. I decided to engage a landscape contractor and install it in one season, rather than spacing it out. It will require some fairly intense maintenance for the first two years, but after that the workload should ease up.
The first step is to get rid of the fescue layer that has been in place for the last several years. Herbicides are always an option, but I would much rather make this fully organic. The contractor is bringing in a sod cutter, and will cut 18” strips, pick them up and flip them over, then cover with a good layer of compost. This should avoid having to take any organic matter away and will give the soil biology and new plantings a head start to get established. Note, there will be no further soil amendments and the plants will have to adapt to the dry, sandy soil that is there.
I am now immersed in detailed planning and laying out exactly what plants to order for all three area. More to come in the next post!
I love this and am using your ideas to help plan an area of my own yard, although on a smaller scale. Converting lawn has stymied me….now I can hire someone to sod cut and turn over the sod and add compost….so it can “mulch” in place. I was considering using cardboard and adding compost but that takes 3+ months before it can be planted and I would like to do plugs sooner for faster growth. I think your method will work.
Thanks for sharing your ambitious plan! Happy to follow your progress as I am preparing to re-start my eco-habitat next year after a large renovation is completed. Best of luck! Hope we have a bit more rain this summer/fall.