Diary of a Mad Gardener

Anyone who’s seen me toil in the garden might get the idea that establishing a native plant garden is hard. It’s not. More on that subject later, but suffice it to say that with prudent preparation, judicious selection, and patience, an urban native plant community can be established with minimal work. And, after the first three years, such a habitat requires very little maintenance.

That was not my approach. The reason: is moss.

When I bought my home, I had no plans to become a gardener. Why would I? My back yard was a privacy-fenced rectangle barely big enough for the dog duties, and the landscaping in the front yard was bathed in the shade of a 200 year old bur oak tree. With all that shade, I thought I had had no prospect of growing anything there but hostas (which previous owners had amply provided ), and moss.

I hope there are names for every beautiful variety of moss that once lived on my yard. There was shaggy moss, and moss as rich and velvety as the sleeve of a queen. There was moss so intricate it resembled a rainforest of ferns. I could never go out there without discovering some new and surprising shape which moss could take.

It never needed mowing. It only required admiring, which I was willing to give. Actually, I’m sure the moss would would have been fine if no one had ever noticed it, but I’m glad I did, because I will never forget the magical kingdom in the shade of that tree.

When the derecho came in 2020 and took down two thirds of the trees in town–including that marvelous ancient oak–I mourned the moss. I watched it turn rough and brown, while the hostas cringed and withered in the summer sun.

I was withering a bit myself. Some people need Sunday sermon to feel connected and whole, but I need trees and birds. I need tall waving grasses, bumblebees on flowers, dew glistening on moss. I need the sound of water splashing, cricket chatter, and frog song.

It’s a hard thing to live in Iowa when nature is the thing which nourishes you. Iowa has the least amount of natural habitat of any state in the country. Over 99% of the native prairie is gone, replaced by agriculture and urban development.

Still, I had places I could go. For a long time it was the local nature center, but when they decided that it needed to ‘run like a business’ and put a parking lot on half of their prairie land, I couldn’t bear to go there. Then there was a nearby park, and a public estate, but after the derecho, everything resembled a war zone.

I was starving. I needed green and living things, I craved that connection to the earth. I longed to give something back to the land where so much had been lost. And did I mention I’m impatient? I wanted it immediately.

There are proper ways to convert a lawn to native plantings. The best approach starts with killing all the the grass and weeds. You lay down cardboard, cover it with landscape fabric, and leave it, until everything underneath is dead.

I couldn’t bear to cover what moss was left, nor bury the violets that sprung every spring. I couldn’t even bear to tarp over the holes dug by ground wasps. I’m kind of a weirdo.

Instead, I made a patchwork of landscape fabric, cutting out holes where I couldn’t stand to cover some creature’s nest. I scooped out clumps of violets, and removed the grass blades one by one, before planting them elsewhere in the yard. And whenever I came upon some fragment of my former moss kingdom, I unraveled all the weeds from it, and carried it to a shady spot, where I pressed it gently into the soil. Then I begged it to stick around long enough for the shade that would one day come. I promised it the shade of wildflowers still to be planted, and told it about the new oak growing across the yard. Moss will live a long time–indefinitely even. I begged it to stick around for all the good things to come.

What not to do: a very non-professional-looking yard, with a patchwork of landscape fabric, new garden, and grass.

As I did this, I got to know the critters and creatures that lived in my yard. I went from arachnophobe to being comfortable enough lift a spider and carry it to a safer part of the yard. I learned the robin word for “cat”, the name the chickadees call me, and the water-song all birds share. I had long conversations with catbirds.

It’s too soon to tell if my madness will pay off, but maybe that’s not the point. Though I would never recommend my crazy approach to anyone who’s just getting started, all that time in the garden gave me the connection I craved. Which was one of the reasons I needed my garden in the first place.

More not what to do: a rather weedy newly planted garden.

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