OVER THE YEARS I have abandoned and inverted my horticultural training, and today, I struggle to describe what I do. When time is short, I simply say that I make meadows with native plants; sometimes I use the term “ecological maximalism.” But definitions don’t really matter when it’s late September, and I’m stopping off at a patch of dirt in Gloucester, Massachusetts, sandwiched between a new housing development and a Market Basket on the edge of a woodland remnant. Just now I don’t particularly need any new plants, as I have a dozen or so ongoing meadow projects that double as plant nurseries, but I can’t resist a salvage mission before going grocery shopping. I walk past orange-painted surveyors’ stakes through one of the spots where I scattered seeds the previous winter. Most of the seedlings have succumbed to the drought, but a few anemic partridge-pea plants (Chamaecrista fasciculata) are visible amidst the tire tracks. This space is used as a parking lot for little league games in the summer and the city deposits untold tons of salty snow here every winter. Remarkably, whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) and sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) insist on colonizing into the very spot that gets savaged by the plows year after year. I pull up four rhizomes of the sweet fern and grab two tiny volunteers of winged sumac (Rhus copallinum) before heading over to the other side of the lot, where frost aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum) and oldfield goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) are in bloom amidst mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and tendrils of asian bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). Out of the midst of these introduced species, I yank up twenty-odd plants with tender violence and put them in a wet, plastic bag.
Of course, I would never think about removing plants from a wild area. Years ago, even taking them out of a parking lot felt sketchy and transgressive, and would trigger the park ranger in my head. But the ranger is long dead, buried by the bulldozers that produce an annihilating revelation of what such land really is in essence: real estate. Now I’m happy to talk to anyone about my practice and to show them how and where to do it responsibly.
I’ve always looked at the ground. I spent huge swaths of my childhood in the woods of Rockport, Massachusetts, talking to myself while looking for snakes and salamanders. I never found arrowheads or other evidence of indigenous inhabitants, but I found endless numbers of antique bottles and other effluvia from prior centuries emerging from vegetated midden pits. As an adult, I lived for decades in cities, and always had the bohemian-magpie impulse to look at the ground for odd treasures amidst the flotsam and jetsam in the streets: a flattened metal jar lid with the delicate image of a rabbit along with some Cyrillic writing; the hard, plastic head of a toy gorilla with a haunted look. Collecting such sacred objects can release some of the pressure that builds up in the engine of consumerism. They’re worthless, and thereby priceless.
I began studying horticulture properly during a three-year stint working for the NYC Parks department and related conservancies. I had been digging in the dirt and playing with plants for a few years prior, but most of my learning had been autodidactic, gathering little snippets of information from family and neighbors together with lazy googling. In spring 2016, it became academic, rigorous, and completely consuming. I was an insufferably eager student.
A global city, New York has been a hub of plant discourse for centuries, going back well before John Torrey and Fredrick Law Olmsted. There are four major botanic gardens in addition to numerous botanical collections throughout the five boroughs, and there’s a lecture, symposium, or other such meetup on some aspect of the plant world around every eight seconds. And I took advantage of it all. The book Planting in a Post Wild World had just come out, everyone was abuzz about the work of Doug Tallamy, and native-plant community horticulture was ascendant. I saw the light. I saw the logic. I felt the appeal. The professional incentives were palpable. “We can reclaim beauty and biodiversity for our towns, cities and suburbs for all creatures great and small!”
But at the same time, I happened to buy Peter Del Tredici’s Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, an essential guide to the flora of the lived environment in our region, which turns the green smear of semi-perception that one has on a walk to the subway into an enchanted treasure hunt that adheres stories, origins, and details to every plant one encounters growing out of the sidewalk. It is also a smuggled polemic that admonishes us not to succumb to the siren song of simplistic binaries like “native vs. exotic,” etc., and to interrogate history and its associated land practices as well as the ways that spontaneous urban/suburban vegetation might be providing unseen services that municipalities are unable to address.
At this time, I was working in the dirt by day and returning home to garden in my small yard in Queens—often by flashlight, which inspired my neighbor to call me “the night gardener.” I felt like I was carrying Del Tredici and Tallamy in my head above the caption, “Thesis and Antithesis.” The former described the world that I lived in with all its uninvited and irrepressible vegetation. The latter described the crystalizing prelapserian ideal as I experienced it professionally, at botanical talks and in conversation with botanists, ecologists, and coworkers enchanted with ideas about “saving nature” by planting native plants.
If asked at the time what should be done to improve landscapes, I might have figuratively gestured towards four centuries of American history and said, “just do the opposite of all of that.” But no amount of magical thinking can change the fact that people’s minds are now filled with a dissonant jumble of horticultural aesthetics and agendas, and our urban soils are filled with a corresponding profusion of seeds from many parts of the globe, along with construction debris and plastic particulates.
Today, I’m working toward demystifying planting by showing what can be accomplished by simply shoving a bunch of roots and rhizomes of common, native plants into a patch of bare soil, practically right on top of one another. After an hour or so, the dirt looks unchanged, apart from a few new bits of green. It looks even worse in the days that follow, as many of the visible leaves wilt in the sun. With a little watering over the next few weeks, however, the roots take hold, and shoots and leaves start reaching for light. Anyone with a botanical background can explain this process down to the smallest detail with reference to transpiration, photosynthesis, and meristematic tissue—and this knowledge can be entrancing. But I also think there’s an opportunity for a childlike re-mystification as the ground in essence starts coming to life.
Having started my horticultural training when I did, I took it as a first principle that gardens should consist of an abundance of native plants as opposed to turf, wood chips, or other inorganic material. And working in landscapes, I was constantly editing and dividing and bringing home little bits and pieces of new species to experiment with. It took very little time before my tiny yard was completely vegetated with an overabundance of plants. But while a square foot of soil in a formal garden might only be occupied by a few plants at the most, in my yard there would be dozens, and they could continuously be added or subtracted without noticeable impact.
The first casualty of this process was a carefully designed area in my garden defined by delicate woodland plants, including Christmas fern, Appalachian sedge, and foamflower. The horticultural allure of such species is that they sit in place looking pretty without readily spreading or seeding around. In accordance with my design training, I had arranged the plants in odd-numbered clusters to create a casual, naturalistic effect, but they were quickly inundated by native mints and asters from elsewhere in the garden that spread by seed and rhizome. I could have weeded out the volunteers to maintain the intended aesthetic, but I chose reproduction, abundance, and benign neglect. Any interest I had in rare, specialized, or unusual plants dried up as I became singularly focused on aggressive natives that would produce a lot of seedlings, divisions, and ecological rewards while outcompeting undesirable “weeds.”
Using a relentless process of addition and only very selectively subtracting plants from landscapes is like carving with the grain of ecological succession. All conventional planning is delayed until the plants have automated things in a pleasing way through their own growth and reproduction. Instead of a godlike, architectural approach to creating a design to be retained through constant maintenance, suppression, and intervention, this approach acknowledges that land is a time-based medium requiring continual improvisation—ideally guided by the adage, Yes, and … It’s less like building sandcastles, and more like working with the flow of a river.
My largest ongoing project started in May 2020, in East Gloucester, Massachusetts, where my friend and collaborator Molly Hardy and I started clearing an eggshaped crescent of space some 100 feet wide and 600 feet in circumference, separating neglected garden beds from a lovely sliver of woodland dominated by red oak (Quercus rubra), black cherry (Prunus serotina), and serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.). This band had become an impenetrable thicket of Morrow’s honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii), greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia), and Asian bittersweet, along with some preexisting Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum), which we left in place. Everything else was manually torn out by the roots, save for some dying trees that I cut to the ground.
As soon as a small section was cleared, we densely and improvisatorially added salvaged roots and rhizomes of native plants with a wide variety of growth strategies, such that they quickly filled the voids that would otherwise be colonized by uninvited “weeds.” A few things were purchased, but 99% of the planting comprises exceedingly common species like yarrow (Achillea millefolium), wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), various asters, ferns, violets (Viola sororia and V. lanceolata), sedges (Carex spp.), and goldenrods (mainly Solidago juncea and Euthamia graminifolia). Most of these were dug out of the lawn and from other areas of the property, as well as the aforementioned parking lot near Market Basket. We also planted some familiar native ornamentals that I had in abundance, including bee balms (Monarda fistulosa, M. didyma), joe-pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida; R. triloba), as well as the rhizomes of shrubs that can practically be divided like perennials. These include meadowsweet (Spiraea alba), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), sweet fern, and bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica).
We didn’t add any amendments, as the soil turned out to be rich—not that we tested it, preferring to let free plants do the testing for us. Aside from watering and the removal of pokeweed, greater celandine, and raspberry seedlings from the planted areas, the first season was dedicated to an alternation between vigorous removal and artless planting at a spacing of three inches at the most. By the end of the first fall, we had cleared and planted an area that was roughly the size of one floor of a modest house. Everything was allowed to go to seed and was not mowed or cut back the following spring when the process was resumed in new areas. The size of the project more than doubled in the second year, and we should well exceed half an acre and over eighty species this coming year, with some assistance from particularly prolific species such as blue vervain (Verbena hastata), rabbit tobacco (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium), yarrow, and late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica). But abundance can cut both ways: garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a plant that native-plant gardeners discuss in tones that an oncologist might use to describe a troubling biopsy, made an appearance during the second season. We remove it on sight whenever possible, though I suspect that it will just be a part of the mix for the foreseeable future. Thus far, the other plants have not visibly withered or even ceased procreation in the face of the famed allelopathic powers of this noxious foe.
Barely two years on, this improvised landscape is a profusion of flowers, foliar textures, and the attendant buzz of insects that can be seen, heard, and felt. Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) immediately filled the void left by the invasive shrubs and lianas, and seedlings of black cherry and red oak are emergent everywhere amidst the herbaceous material. This is a native-dominated forest that is accumulating carbon and potential energy, to be channeled in innumerable directions aesthetically—or simply left to choose its own adventure.
Aldo Leopold famously notes that “(o)ne of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” Increasingly, I have a first-aid kit to heal many of the wounds I find in our region in a way that is both ecologically and aesthetically generative. It just takes time, patience, work, and trust. But looked at another way, these earth-wounds are self-inflicted, stemming from a kind of mental disorder: an epistemological tradition that has given us clinical and seemingly omniscient access to the secrets of the natural world down to the level of genomes and subatomic particles, but has also compelled us to direct our gaze towards extraction, exploitation, and maximized profits. The hyper-specialization associated with these superpowers has resulted in the widespread conviction that planting for habitat requires CAD rendering, spreadsheets, dozens of meetings, and thousands of billable hours with all manner of experts before a single plant can be placed in the ground.
If we’re going to change the course of American land practices for the better, things need to be simplified to meet people where they live. Campaigns like “No-Mow May” and “Leave the Leaves” are exemplarily distillations, and I’m hoping to swim in the same direction, encouraging people and cities to learn about and cultivate a few of the wonderful and ecologically productive plants that are heaving up through the pavement. Start with asters and goldenrods, which are easily identified and ubiquitous in fall. You’ll find them growing at the edges of lawns and through the cracks in the grocery store parking lot. They’re worthless, and thereby priceless.
Nicholas Anderson is an ecological land manager, consultant, and arborist on Cape Ann in Massachusetts.
From “free” to “friend”…
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