This is the way the slope at the front of our property looked at the beginning of summer: tired, ratty, neglected.

Front slope, before

It was always difficult to keep trimmed, especially with a reel mower, but after the city finished repairing sidewalks in autumn 2007, we were left with major trenches along the bottom edge of the slope, like this:


They made it almost impossible to get a reel mower upslope. So, quite frankly, we mostly didn’t bother.

As a result of my sweeping whatever cut grass there was into the trenches, hoping to pile up organic matter, weeds quickly took hold, and it looked its worst this year, when this photo was taken.

gnomeThen, in late August, Gnome Landscaping arrived to perform a facelift of epic proportion. Or at least, so I hoped.

We’d set up the project with them in June, and thanks to the wettest summer on record, it was late August before they could do the job.

I had toyed with the idea of doing the work myself, but I knew that tearing up sod, especially at a 45-degree angle, wouldn’t be much fun.

With two guys working at it, though, the grass came off fast, and I was surprised to see they didn’t use a sod cutter at all. They used very large (and I assume sharp) hoes, and a digging fork.

The work begun

The stone (I believe it’s blue stone, matching the stone set at the edge of the driveway) came from a local source (Cape Elizabeth) and was cut by hand with chisel and hammer, set into the trench, and backfilled with aggregate for stability. Most of the stonework was finished the first day; they also set plants in the smaller area next to the property edge.

Even half-done, the job looked kickass.

Halfway there

When we set up the project in June, I made general suggestions for the plants I wanted—giant blue hostas, some type of clumping fern, and golden monkey grass—but left the specific choices to the designers.

What they came up with was giant blue hostas, maidenhair fern (native to Maine) and Panicum virgatum, switch grass.

I have my reservations about ornamental grasses; they are a tad trendy for me, and it seems a little ridiculous to tear up turf grass and replace it with more of the same, albeit taller. I had suggested Hakonechloa aurea because I thought it would cover a lot of ground without looking too conspicuously faddish.

So when the Gnome proposal listed Panicum virgatum instead, I had to do a little research. I was relieved to find that it wasn’t the same type of grass that is popping up everywhere in commercial landscapes, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster,’ and then pleased to discover that Panicum is one of the

… Big Four native grass species that characterize the tallgrass prairies of central North America (Big Bluestem [Andropogon gerardii], Indiangrass [Sorghastrum nutans], Switchgrass [Panicum virgatum], and Little Bluestem [Schizachyrium scoparium]).

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, “Big Bluestem” (edited slightly for clarity)

This cultivar, ‘Shenandoah,’ turns red in autumn, which will coordinate nicely with the shrubs Aronia melanocarpa and Hydrangea quercifolia planted along the top edge of the slope.

It should also help stabilize the slope when it settles in and grows into a mat of roots. I’m still getting used to the idea of tall clumps of grass encouraged to go to seed, but I think it provides an unusual visual element in an otherwise boring subtle scheme of foliage.

It is also native to Maine. Its seeds feed birds and the species plays host to banded skipper butterfly larvae.

Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah'

Not bad choices for an area of the yard I had expected to be primarily bland and cosmetic.

For most of the time the two men were working, I felt like a puppy on crack. I kept going to the front windows, upstairs and down, to see what they were doing. I worked so hard to get the flat beds de-turfed and set up with plants, and was so exhausted afterward for seemingly so little reward (seasons of tiny patches of green that flowered only when they were damned good and ready), that I cannot imagine even trying to take off the grass and set plants on that slope, much less do my own stonework, even with pre-shaped concrete pavers.

To have someone come in, tear up still more lawn, hand-cut and set a stone edging, and place dozens of pots of fresh-looking foliage in a calculated design, not something that came willy-nilly from whim, makes this a fantastically pleasant surprise.

When it was finished, I was stunned at the change. The front of the property went from looking like this:

long view, before

To this:

after slope, long view

Which is quite a change.

But the best view is full-on:

Gentle waves of stone

The top surfaces of the stones in the edging undulate like waves on the ocean, which is a lovely effect.

The one minor complaint I have about the job is that the plants don’t fill up the entire slope.

not quite filled in

There is a rather wide stripe at the bottom that is currently bare, which concerns me. The grass and the ferns may spread, but in my experience plants tend to migrate toward sunlight—the top of the slope—rather than obligingly fill in any old space left for them. This looks like a prime zone for weeds.

As the Gnome crew used up the plants that were allocated for the project, I decided to purchase my own groundcover, Tiarella cordifolia, another Maine native, and distribute it along the bottom edge. Tiarella spreads by runners and should help to anchor the slope.

The plants are coming from Bluestone the week of September 7, and when I get them installed, I’ll post a photo update.

In Stealth Plants, Part 1, I talked about unexpected additions to the garden that had arrived via winter-sown seeds.

The other side of volunteer plants, of course, are the self-seeded additions to the garden, like this one:

Aquilegia 'Grandmother's Garden' strikes again

Aquilegia 'Grandmother's Garden' strikes again

This first-time bloomer is located in the farthest, shadiest corner of the garden, under a pine tree, where ferns, hosta, a Dutchman’s breeches, and bush honeysuckle are located.

Garden design by volunteers

Garden design by volunteers

The blue flowers are Myosotis sylvatica, woodland forget-me-not, another stealth plant that self-seeded its way here from a neighbor’s yard. It’s so pretty, and obligingly died back just as the summer plants were getting ready to bloom, that it will be allowed to stay as long as it likes.

I’m not so sure about the columbine, though. Since I planted four of the ‘Grandmother’s Garden,’ which I complained about a couple of years ago because it blooms in incompatible shades of pink and purple on the same plant, columbines have been popping up everywhere around the house, including here:

Third year of growth. Note the purple flower.

Third year of growth. Note the purple flower.

The plant is growing in the quarter-inch margin between driveway and foundation, just outside a basement window casing. It has survived being weed-whacked back to its roots at least twice.

Although at least three different varieties of aquilegia have lived or been planted in the garden since I moved in, this can only be ‘Grandmother’s Garden,’ as evidenced by the purple bloom at the lower left corner.

So far this plant has bloomed only in purple, and I suppose I should be grateful that Grandmother’s offspring seem to have the good graces to bloom in one or the other of their parent’s colors.

Grandmother's Garden, started from seed (via Select Seeds)

Grandmother's Garden, started from seed (via Select Seeds)

Unfortunately, Grandmother is a ferocious seeder, and I’ve moved two or three of her flowering offspring to the front garden (which has eaten the past five aquilegia planted there for breakfast).

It will be interesting to see who wins this one.

Some  volunteers are mysterious, like the ajuga I found lurking in the back raised bed this spring, or these:

Where there was one last year, there are several Johnny-jump-ups now

Where there was one last year, there are several Johnny-jump-ups now

I have no doubt both plants were escapees from someone’s garden, or container plantings. There is ajuga mixed in with the grass on the hell strip in front of a house way down at the end of the street, and while it’s kind of pretty, I don’t want it in my garden.

The Johnny-jump-ups are a nuisance in the same way Oxalis stricta is; they’re pretty when they are small and blooming, but if left to grow, they get straggly and flop over other plants while broadcasting seed.

Then there are plants like this one:

Queen Anne's lace

Queen Anne's lace

Queen Anne’s lace poses a dilemma. Although it is a biennial, and I’ve suddenly realized that those innocuous-looking little carrot-like fronds growing here and there are not actually left over from the fennel I planted 2 years ago but are the first year form of Daucus carota (and thus should be easy to remove), this one survived to blooming stage. And once you get a taprooted, self-seeding plant established, it can be a horror show to eradicate.

The Campanula rapunculoides I hate so much is also essentially a biennial weed with taproots (although the fact that it spreads by rhizome as well as seed is what makes it a constant headache).

Sadly, I love the way Queen Anne’s lace looks. Stands of this plant growing in waste edges and by roadsides almost look planned, with their white mopheads waving in the breeze.

Queen Anne's lace fits right in with the rest of the plants growing here

Queen Anne's lace fits right in with the rest of the plants growing here

It is on many invasive and noxious weed lists, including in the state of Maine, but it also does feed several species of insects. (Oddly enough, the only thing I’ve seen pollinating it so far are green flies.) Moreover, this is the ancestor of the garden carrot, and its root is edible.

I’ve decided to treat it the way I handle the giant dandelion that established itself in the midst of some black bearded iris: let it grow and bloom, but deadhead it, and keep an eye out for the first-year carrot fronds to keep it in check.

I hope I don’t wind up regretting my decision.

By far the most gratifying surprise of this year was this:

Definitely liatris, but whether spicata or scariosa, I'm not sure

Definitely liatris, but whether spicata or scariosa, I'm not sure

When I found this plant growing in the front garden, I nearly pulled it as a weed. It resembles something else that looks intriguing all the way to the flowering stage, when it turns out to have tiny little white flowers that are nearly invisible.

Then I noticed that the foliage and the stem of the plant were much different than the familiar weed. This resembled lily foliage.



Then, when the flower buds formed and the first petals emerged, I again had second thoughts. The overlapping scales and top petals on these buds resemble thistle, and I do not want Canada thistle, which is also a weed in these parts, in the garden.

Scaly flower buds resemble thistle

Scaly flower buds resemble thistle

After a little online research, I am pretty sure this is not thistle, but some form of liatris, either L spicata or L scariosa, both of which are growing in gardens in the back yard.

Unfortunately, I can’t figure out which one it is. I think it is L scariosa, but the plant I have bloomed last year with cristate flowerheads at the top of the plant and rosette-style flower buds along the stem, like this:

L scariosa with cristate flower bud

L scariosa with cristate flower bud

(A ‘cristate‘ form can be caused by genetic mutation, insect attack, disease, or chemical or mechanical damage. I’m still waiting to see if this plant blooms the same way this year.)

I sent this photo back to Prairie Moon, where the cristate form caused a sensation

I sent this photo back to Prairie Moon, where the cristate form caused a sensation

The plant in front doesn’t resemble this very much at all, but if it is a normal form of L scariosa, it surely is an offspring.

Part of the fun of gardening is the surprises, seeing what is so well-matched or is able to adapt to the micro-environment that it can reproduce and multiply—especially if, like L scariosa, it is a native on the state’s endangered list, and not a nuisance plant.

The setting: white balloon flower

The setting: white balloon flower

Player #1: garden spider

Player #1: garden spider

Player 2: hapless earwig

Player 2: hapless earwig

Game wrap-up: I win! garden wins!

Spider weaves left

Spider weaves right

Spider weaves right


Postgame wrap: a hearty meal

Lobelia siphilitica, ready to bloom its first year

Lobelia siphilitica, ready to bloom its first year

Two winters ago I planted perennial seeds for several native species. About half of the plants survived and grew large enough to be placed in the garden.

But this isn’t one of them—or at least, it isn’t an intentional addition.

This is supposed to be Campanula rotundifolia, a native harebell, which did sprout and was transplanted. Unfortunately, it didn’t survive winter.

It had a surprise flatmate, however. Lobelia siphilitica, which I recognized as a seedling, made its appearance in each of three Campanula rotundifolia starts, plus a mountain mint and something I planted in the front garden (probably Physostegia).

I just let them grow alongside the intended plants. I rarely if ever thin seedlings; they usually figure it out themselves.

Unhappily, none of the desired plants in these pairs survived winter. All the stealth lobelia did fine.

Fortunately, I like Lobelia siphilitica. The first year I started the garden I grew some from seed, and these plants are still going strong. They are tough, well-behaved plants, a good late-summer blue and attractive to bees and butterflies.

I’m glad that something I like took the place of plants that didn’t make it. All the stealth lobelia are in places I wouldn’t have thought appropriate for lobelia, and all of them are doing well. On the one hand, it’s a happy surprise.

On the other hand, I’m a little unhappy that the seeds I bought were contaminated with seeds from other plants. I already have seven or eight of these; if I’d wanted more lobelia, I’d have bought it intentionally.

I am certain that the contamination could not have come from seeds I had on hand. I used up the lobelia seed that I had 2 years before the winter-sown perennials, and since these plants were transplanted into the garden just around the time the lobelia was blooming, there is no way seed from the existing plants could have self-sown in the perennial starts.

I’m not sure whether to tell Prairie Moon, the nursery where I bought the seed, about this or not.

Last night as I was rinsing lettuce for a salad for dinner I heard a commotion in the back yard. An animal was screeching in a way I wasn’t familiar with—not cats, definitely.

I thought perhaps something had caught a sleeping squirrel. I grabbed a flashlight and hurried out, pointing the light toward the far corner of the yard, near the bird feeder pole.

I saw plumy tails, white fur, first one, then two. Then the black stripe down the spine on both animals made sense.

Skunks. Two of them. Having a rumble in the yard.

I backed up, fast, shut off the light, and went back to the salad.

Fortunately, the skunks left no trace of their disagreement.

On July 16, over at Garden Rant, Michele Owens posted What’s Invasive? Telling People What They Can Plant in Their Yards. Reactions seemed lukewarm until a Montana gardener took her to task, and then the dismay flooded in. Many commenters scolded her for advocating a hands-off policy toward invasives if a gardener chooses to plant them, pointing out that the plants (or their offspring) will likely survive the gardener, and the person who comes afterward may not know how or even want to keep the population in check.

At last look, people were still responding passionately. One commenter, Carole Brown, who blogs at Conservation Gardening, even wrote a response in which she says,

… After reading Michelle’s article today, though, it makes me think that the native plant/invasive plant argument is kind of like the gun control argument, sparking intense passions on both sides. Neither side is willing to come together at all, and it feels like some are saying, “you can pry my yellow flag iris from my cold, dead fingers.”

I was really surprised by the number of gardeners in the audience who felt strongly about preserving native wildlife (or at least discouraging invasive plants). I wish gardeners and landscapers in past times had had the same awareness; anyone who lives in an older house (ours is 80+ years) is likely dealing with some kind of planting that has gotten out of control, whether it’s officially listed as an invasive or just thrives a little too well for its neighbors.

Portland is a very old city—more than 300 years—and in the neighborhood where I live there are dozens of invasive plants: Norway maples, Campanula rapunculoides, multiflora rose, Japanese barberry, purple loosestrife, field bindweed, and Oriental bittersweet, to name just a few. The maples seed ferociously, the campanula runs everywhere, Japanese barberry and field bindweed have made inroads from neighbors’ yards that were, fortunately, discovered.

I wish my neighbors were as aware of these invaders and at least partly committed to keeping them under control. There is no doubt in my mind that invasives can be a much more complex problem in areas with small, closely set yards.

One of these neighbors has planted the front slope of his yard and the hell strip with orange daylilies, and although I don’t think the ones in my yard are the result of that, they are in such odd places that it’s likely they ‘volunteered’ to join the garden from somewhere else.

For the record, it isn’t always possible to ‘mow’ lilies to keep them under control. I have a reel mower that would not do a very good job on lily foliage, even if I could get it into the corners and crevices where the lilies have worked themselves. I have dug several of these things out, and grubbing out all the tubers isn’t easy. A couple of the lilies regenerated themselves from small pieces I left behind.

That is one of the hallmarks of an invasive plant; it gets everywhere and requires constant vigilance to keep it under control. I am still pulling maple seedlings from areas I weeded thoroughly this past spring, and I have started tearing out all the rampion harebell before it blooms. Pulling the first-year leaves is nearly pointless, and finding the taproots is as difficult as removing them from the soil, so I’m sure I won’t ever be rid of them; but at least I can stop them producing seed.

At the same time, I have plants considered ‘invasive’ in other places (lily of the valley, for example, sweet autumn clematis, and butterfly bush) that I specifically chose to plant. I am no less guilty in that respect.

If they misbehave—if I see them growing in neighbors’ yards—I will surely dig the parent plants up. I am responsible for their presence; I disagree with Michele Owens’ assumption that just because it is in my yard, it’s nobody else’s business. If it jumps the fence into a neighbor’s yard, does that mean it’s none of my business because it’s not my yard?

I believe this debate stems from an over-reliance on Michael Pollan’s “brilliance” and his inexplicable position against native plants, which led to his calling the late Sara Stein a ‘plant fascist’ (corollary of Godwin’s Law, anyone?). Pollan, who labeled Stein even though, in her book Noah’s Garden, she argues for the inclusion of useful, well-behaved aliens, not the eradication of everything except natives, himself admitted to planting a Norway maple. That action is akin to soaking rags in gasoline, bundling them up, and leaving them somewhere to overheat, then hoping they won’t spontaneously combust.

Here is a man who advises not eating any food we see advertised, yet who himself is wildly popular thanks to marketing to upper-middle-class America rather than any solid scientific soundness of approach. Can you smell the irony there?

While I do agree with the notion that we will never return the landscape to what it was before we arrived, there is good evidence to suggest that throwing up your hands and planting kudzu (or Norway maples) is not the answer.

Having read George Cox’s exhaustive overview of research done on alien-native interactions, Alien Species and Evolution, which reveals the global reach of alien plants and organisms thanks to intentional and unintentional introductions via human travel, I think that insisting on a strict interpretation of a native landscape is almost anachronistic now.

Cox makes several interesting points in the book, among them that even when aliens are removed from an environment, the interactions among the remaining life forms are forever altered. Things don’t snap back to the way they were; they simply become the present minus the eradicated organism.

Researchers have also discovered that, while some alien introductions have proved disastrous, native organisms can and do adapt to the presence of introduced organisms and coexist (and presumably coevolve) with them.

I believe this is the key to a future strategy for all of us who wish to preserve some balance so the existing landscape can survive.

Everything changes over time, and we cannot stop the clock and keep things as they were.

We got into this mess by trying to control every aspect of the world around us. Is the answer really more of the same?

Although it may not be possible to eradicate alien (or native) invasives, we can garden so as to preserve the health of the soil (many weedy invasives get a foothold in poor and disturbed ground), encourage native plants and organisms, especially endangered natives, and discourage invasives.

Many invasives are able to overwhelm because they are out of context and organisms in the surrounding matrix are unable to respond quickly enough to the new arrival. If we slow the clock, in a sense, and become an environmental force to contend with, a kind of meta-predator checking the advance of organisms that might otherwise overtake natives, then we at least balance the odds so that wildlife and plants that previously evolved in this landscape have a fighting chance to adapt.

In an era of machines, smog, chemical releases, massive overpopulation, and climate change, perhaps it is best to find a solution by struggling through to the future, rather than trying to erase our mistakes and go back to the beginning.

You don’t have to hang on to your flag iris until they pry it out of your cold, dead hand—just make damn sure that there are plenty of competitors, preferably native, so that flag iris isn’t the only thing left in the landscape when you’re gone.


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