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Senior Correspondent

The June 5 roundup of gardening book reviews in The New York Times managed to make me crabby. All the books advocated releasing nature upon our gardens and incorporating nature into our garden planning. Now, many gardeners love the feeling that they are working with nature while gardening, but our gardens are actually the direct antithesis of what Mother Nature desires.

Stop weeding if you want a natural gardening—and soon you’ll no longer have what we call a garden. The simple fact is this: to garden is to weed. While some resort to chemical warfare in the war against weeds, most of us resort to the less toxic hand-weeding method. With the idea that eventually the weeds will succumb to exhaustion, one of the aforementioned writers advocates consistently cutting the weeds back instead of hand pulling. For most weeds it really is easier and less time-consuming to yank the weed out by its roots.

By regularly weeding you’ll become aware of the plans Mother Nature has for your garden. Two native weeds afflict my garden: yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus), a particularly loathsome weed, and pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). A neighbor’s tulip poplar merrily sends its many seeds into my garden. If this isn’t bad enough, I’ve even managed to find the field thistle (Cirsium discolor) interspersed among my perennials. Ingesting the poison ivy berries, birds spread its seeds among my garden. All these are native plants that fight to reclaim their turf.

Typically we regard garden thugs, weeds such as kudzu, Japanese wisteria, and Microstegium, as foreign born, but we have enough native hooligans of our own. Try to get rid of nutsedge and you’ll find that its tubers remain in the soil. While admittedly easy to pull out, pokeweed will sprout anywhere and never totally leaves me. Likewise poison ivy casts its net far and wide, often scaling trees. This is fearsome news for the 80 percent of the population that reacts to the urushiol found in its leaves.

Another facet of nature that is a great deterrent to the garden is wildlife, particularly deer. Deer cover our continent. In fact, today there are more deer than there were when the pilgrims alit from the Mayflower. While we can make the argument that this is a manmade problem, the fact is that deer are a part of the natural world. Because of their varied diet, the only way I can maintain my garden is by placing it behind a six-foot fence. Otherwise, it would be impossible to grow lilies, hostas, roses, and daylilies.

Nature also inflicts rabbits on our gardens. Never have I had such an appreciation for Mr. McGregor’s grumpiness until I installed the garden fence. Before the garden fence, I blamed every garden chomp on the deer; after the fence, I realized rabbits did much of the damage. Now if the rabbits had feasted on the nutsedge—pokeweed is poisonous—I could have lived with the rabbits, but their chosen diet consisted of lilies, hostas and roses. Nothing can denude a lily stalk or a rose cane faster than a rabbit. Consequently, all newly planted roses needed wire cylinders for protection—not the greatest look for a garden. Eventually a wire mesh around the fence was necessary to create a rabbit-free environment.

After solving the deer and rabbit problem and ridding the area of noxious weeds, you can probably plant what you’d like to have in the garden, and chances are that you are combining plants that would never meet in their natural worlds. For example, my hostas of Asian origin reside interspersed among our native Spigelia marilandica, a combination of which I’m quite enamored for the moment. Likewise, my china and tea roses look lovely next to the native Amsonia hubrichtii, a lovely, lacy, see-through foliage perennial. We group plants that look well together, not necessarily because they arose in the same area. 

Mother Nature works hard to provide shade for the garden. Shrubs and trees grow, casting shadows throughout the garden. We gardeners constantly fight this trend. We prune shrubs and take down trees or tree limbs in an effort to let the sun shine through. The simple truth is that sun perennials are typically showier and more colorful than shade perennials so sunny areas in an aging garden comprise valuable real estate. Maintaining these areas takes work, as we’re going against the natural trend toward shade establishment.

We’re far more judgmental about plants than Mother Nature, who likes pokeweed and yellow nutsedge just fine. We’re the ones who deem them unsuitable for our gardens. The truth is that Mother Nature wants to fill areas with plants but is undemanding as to which ones dominate. She’s perfectly content to have poison ivy around. We’re the ones that view plants with favorable and unfavorable designations. She doesn’t mind if the tulip poplar is excessively seedy because eventually the area will get shady and soon there won’t be enough sun for future seedlings to compete and grow.

As gardeners, we tend to complain about the soil nature gave us. Consequently we spend a lot of time and money amending our soils, adding mulch to cut down on the number of nutsedges and pokeweeds poking their heads up from the soil. We grow grassy areas, spending lots of money and using chemicals to prevent these areas from turning into meadows; all these are necessary endeavors to resist Mother Nature.

There are many wonderful reasons to garden but working with nature isn’t one of them. In the end, gardening is a battle against Mother Nature. I, for one, am not about to let her take over my garden.

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