BARE SOIL IS AN INVITATION TO WEEDS. So as soon as I'd covered my front yard with mulch, as I described in "Improving Soil, Simply," my next step was to try to get native groundcovers established as quickly as possible.
Buying groundcovers in this quantity could be expensive, and we've already established that I'm cheap. Another problem is that my long-term goal for this area is to turn it into a woodland--that is, shady--garden. But at the moment the area is fairly sunny.
So what to do? Well, as always I try to work with nature, taking advantage of nature's bounty along the way.
First, I took a lesson from nature's book: What does nature do when confronted with bare soil?
Nature does not allow bare soil to stay bare. If allowed to do so, nature quickly introduces hardy plants that are able to tolerate the harsh conditions of a newly cleared site. These plants typically spread aggressively, and for that reason they are often regarded as weeds. Some of them deserve this designation, but some of them are actually quite valuable: They prevent erosion, and with time, they will create a litter of dead leaves and fallen bits of stem and wood; as these decompose, they will prepare the way for plants that require richer soil.
In areas such as the one I live in, which is naturally forested, these hardy plants will include not only groundcovers but also trees. As long as nobody cuts them down, eventually the trees will get big enough to create shade; as this happens, the sun-loving plants that initially colonized the site will slowly die out; as they disappear, nature will replace them with more shade-tolerant plants. This process, in which one group of plants (or plant community) is gradually replaced by another, is known to ecologists as natural succession. The hardy plants that are the first to colonize a bare site are known as early successional plants.
My goal for my front yard is eventually to turn it into a woodland, but for now I am taking my cue from nature and planting it with the hardy plants that nature would plant first: that is, with early successional plants. For candidates, I had to look no further than local roadsides, fields, and even my own lawn: These provided a nearly limitless supply of native plants that are adapted to rapid growth under harsh conditions, including not only cinquefoils (Potentilla spp.), wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium spp.), and violets (Viola spp.).
I have also planted the front yard with hardy trees that are adapted to full sun and poor soil, especially paper birch (Betula papyrifera), which I chose for its fast growth and beautiful white bark, and American mountain ash (Sorbus americana), which I chose for its small size and because the berries appeal to birds. Eventually these trees will create shade, and many of the groundcovers I've planted will begin to die from lack of sun. But by then they'll have done their job. I will bid them a fond (and I mean that) farewell, gradually replacing them with the shade-tolerant groundcovers that are characteristic of our native woodlands.