When Is a Garden a Garden?

by Lorna Salzman

Prickly Pear Cactus
What distinguishes a garden from its surroundings? A garden is set off from the landscape around it by more than a fence or neat rows. Gardens are really the opposite of "natural areas" or nature preserves. Preserves are islands of natural, mostly unmodified landscape surrounded by developed or modified.

In a garden, species of plants are selected and raised to conform to human requirements for either edibility or ornamental function. By definition, therefore, the species in them did not evolve along with their neighbors or with their physical environment, so they often need to be artificially maintained and renewed.

Because no one wants plant or animal intruders in their garden, gardens usually have borders or boundaries to prevent intrusion and colonization by opportunistic wild plant species. The components of a garden are not normally neighbors in nature, that is, part of a biotic community which co-evolves. They have been placed near each other within a finite plot for other human reasons, and would not normally grow in such associations.

Because of this coming together of non-neighborly species, each with various requirements and a different evolutionary history, gardens present more problems than those faced by natural plant communities in the wild, which have over the eons adapted to the pressures of aparticular environment.So, in gardens, insect and fungal pests become problems, as do soil composition, fertility, minerals, moisture, bacteria, etc.

The obvious solution, as many have discovered, is gardens of native species in natural communities, which are adapted to local conditions, and which, once established, contribute to the stability and continuity of the whole community. This in turn can help reduce, if not eliminate, the need for continual dousing with artificial fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Many native plants are in fact species that may be considered "weeds" but which are aesthetically pleasing and useful to wildlife.

The challenge is to develop new criteria for what constitutes a successful garden. These criteria should include more than just abstract beauty, color and pattern. But rather, adaptation to and integration with the local soil and climate, mutual compatibility and association, usefulness in providing food, shelter or breeding areas for birds and animals should be important considerations. This type of garden will contribute toward restoring the natural integrity of an area that may have been disrupted during the construction of a house, road, pool or tennis court.

There are, for example, numerous native species, often wholly or partly edible, that can please the human eye and palate, while providing nourishment and protection for wildlife. These include Rosa rugosa, blueberry and huckleberry, wild cherry and elderberry. Then there are attractive flowering plants that need and support insects and butterflies, such as the yucca (with its yucca moth), especially well adapted to dry, well-drained sandy soils, and the protected butterfly weed, a member of the milkweed family which supports the elegant monarch butterfly. Then there are the numerous "weedy" or herbaceous plants that grow readily in wayside and disturbed areas; not all of these are strictly "native," though they are now adapted and many are deliciously edible. They include purslane, chicory, dandelion (which is after all an aster), lupine (protected and poisonous), various varieties of cress (in the mustard family and edible), and woody shrubs, some with edible or useful parts, such as multiflora rose, holly, scarlet and staghorn sumac, bayberry, beach plum, and sassafras.

For ground cover there are bearberry, wintergreen and spotted wintergreen (which persists all year), trailing arbutus (protected), which has delicate pinkish blossoms early in the season, cranberry for low wet swales, and miscellaneous vines like wild grape, trumpet vine and groundnut; finally there are the unusual rarities such as pinxter flower (an Azalea), rose mallow (Hibiscus), swamp azaleas, as well as sheep and mountain laurel which all grow profusely in shade, especially on the moraine.

Adopting new criteria for your garden, you can then include wildlife in your plan. Instead of cutting down dead trees (except those that could fall on your house in a storm), leave them up where they can provide food and nesting holes for woodpeckers or possibly owls and even wood ducks or brown creepers (or bluebirds, if you're at the edge of a field or woods). Once the trees fall, they're shelter, soil conditioner and source of insects for birds.

A final suggestion pertains to garden size. Gardens tend to be small scattered plots and as such, even if comprised of native vegetation, are too small to become self-maintaining biotic communities. This could, however, be possible if families with large adjoining acreage decided to plant contiguous unfenced community gardens of native vegetation so that the garden area becomes large enough to blend into the surrounding area. In this situation, a real self-sustaining habitat containing adapted communities of living things in harmony with each other and their environment may be the welcome result. Thus, a renaissance of ecological thinking may bring about a restoration of our natural environment.

(Warning: There are many protected and endangered plant species on eastern Long Island. Do not pick, dig up or disturb plants before consulting the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, which can provide a list of such protected species.)

Recommended reading

Using Wild and Wayside Plants, Nelson Cook, Dover Publications.
A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Lee Peterson, Houghton Mifflin.
Plants, Man and Life, Edgar Anderson, Univ. of California Press.
Plants, Man and the Ecosystem, W.D. Billings, Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Bulletin # 30, William Nierin, Sally Taylor, Glenn Dreyer, on using native shrubs, $3.50 plus 70 cents for mailing, from Connecticut Arboretum, Connecticut College, New London, Conn. 06320

Source: The Newsletter of the Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons. Vol.3, No.4, Autumn 1988.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.