The meadow garden

I am a laissez-faire gardener. Decades of experience have taught me that the surest path to successful horticulture is to watch and wait. As they thrive or migrate or languish or die, plants tell me what works and where. And the deeper my understanding of what nature has “in mind” for a given plot, the more effortless the project will be.

This approach creates a garden that resembles a meadow rather than a mechanically planted corn field. And though I take much the same approach to both a vegetable garden and a kitchen garden, it is in the latter that the meadow concept achieves its fullest potential.

Flowers are imperative, and perennial flowers are ideal. By planting whatever perennials appeal to me — or are given to me as cuttings or root divisions or bulbs — my garden gradually fills with easy cultivars (jonquils, daffodils, irises, flags, peonies, gallardia, echinacea, lilies, purple salvia, gladioli and chrysanthemums) and their shrubby cousins (azaleas, forsythia, spirea, everlasting rose, hibiscus, butterfly bush, Rose of Sharon, hydrangea).

Herbs are essential as well, so, in between the bloomers, I put in many varieties of mint (spear-, pepper-, bergamot-, orange-, pineapple-, chocolate-, lemon-), plus sage, oregano, lemon balm, thyme, lemon thyme, woolly thyme, catnip, chives and garlic chives, not to mention wormwood and rue (although I never know just what to do with these bitter buddies, their foliage is too beautiful to pass up).

Perennial blooms peter out by midsummer (or bide their time until fall, as with mums), so biennials or self-seeding annuals are accorded space as well. This group includes some that qualify as “weeds”: dandelion, chickweed, coreopsis, lamb’s ear, four o’clock, rose campion, foxglove, pinks, calendula, black-eyed Susan, Queen Anne’s lace, chicory, marigold, sweet rocket, snapdragon and zinnia. Buying or starting seedlings each year is expensive and labor-intensive — far better to go with flowers that recur. Coreopsis, foxgloves and marigolds are particularly reliable self-seeders, as is chicory if your soil is poor enough to suit these blue-flowered beauties.

Next come the greens. Dandelion, already mentioned as a flower, is equally good as a potherb. Winter cress, plantain, chickweed and lambsquarter are other welcome wildlings. Polkweed is too rangy to accord garden space, but it’s so tasty in the spring (though it’s poisonous by midsummer — BEWARE!) and so gorgeously decked in purple berries and red stalks come fall that every gardener should give it space on the margin.

Tomatillos are a fruit rather than a green, but they belong in a kitchen garden since they reseed themselves so easily and sprawl decoratively between other plants with their Japanese-lantern paper wrappers. And although basil isn’t hardy and doesn’t reseed, summer without basil is too grim to contemplate.

This mock-meadow gardening is easy to achieve, but there is a trick involved. Most organic gardeners control weeds by tilling or mulching early in the season. But to make the meadow method work, you must pay close attention to the plants in your garden from the time they first emerge.

The seedlings and sprouts of every species are unique, albeit with family similarities. In just a few seasons, you can learn to identify pretty much any seedling or weedling that pops up in your patch. Only then do you act — nurturing the seedlings and plucking or mulching over weedlings. You’ll quickly learn that plants tend to do better when they choose their own niche, and your garden will begin to design itself. (Though you should never be afraid to move any plant you are capable of lifting — most will survive.)

You’ll notice that the patch of arugula sprouts just downslope from last year’s clump and that the spent coreopsis blooms you deadheaded last season have erupted half-way across the garden. You’ll catch the mint trying to invade the glads and pull up yards of fragrant roots well before serious growth sets in. You’ll note how thick the lilies have become as they poke above the soil, and divide them before the dense foliage gets in the way. You’ll spare tiny foxgloves, knowing that in another year they’ll send up a glorious spire of spotted bellflowers. Sure, you’ll still be working — but less, because you’re moving with nature instead of bucking it.

Call it “growing with the flow.”

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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