My Forlorn Front Yard 5 (Early Planting)

Native groundcovers are beginning to knit together in my front yard, which was planted two years ago. The photo shows one or more cinquefoils (Potentilla spp.) and a few wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana). All of these plants are attractive to pollinators; they will be covered in small white or yellow flowers later in the spring; the strawberries are edible, though tiny. The plants cost me nothing, as they grow wild in fields, on roadsides, and as "weeds" in lawns. Native Potentilla spp. and Fragaria spp. can be found in many parts of North America.

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.


Dawn said...

Thanks for reminding me of wild strawberries. We had some in Florida. Now I wonder if I can grow them here. Hmmm...


Wild Flora said...

Hi Dawn,
Fragaria virginiana is native all over the United States, so I'm sure you can grow it where you are. Happy gardening!
Wild Flora

April said...

Plant some other native species of trees by your ash. The Ash will probably be killed by Emerald Ash Borer.

Wild Flora said...

Hi April,
Thanks for the warning. I don't think the Emerald Ash Borer has gotten this far east yet, but sadly it very well may. And if it doesn't, perhaps something else will--there are so many introduced pests and diseases to contend with now. In the meantime, the only defense I know of is to do what you recommend: plant a variety of native species. In fact, I tend to over-plant, precisely so that I have backup if a particular plant doesn't make it. I figure the effort to plant a tree is never wasted, because even a standing dead tree has tremendous value for wildlife.
Thanks again for your concern,
Wild Flora

Wild Flora said...

PS to April: When I woke up this morning, the first thought that popped into my head as I opened my eyes was (and I kid you not), "Mountain ash is not an ash." Sounds like a Zen koan, but it's true: Mountain ash is just called 'ash.' It's actually in the rose family. So with any luck it won't be bothered by the emerald ash borer.
But that doesn't mean I'm out of the woods (insert big groan here) yet, I'm afraid. As it happens, I do have an ash--a white ash, Fraxinus americana--on the side of the house. Even more important in the long run is that white ash, black ash (F. nigra), and red ash (F. pennsylvanica) are all important tree species for our region's forests.

April said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog, too!

Yeah, that's the problem with common names, there can be 5 or 6 for a single species of plant. I use the latin not because I'm a gardening snob, but because it tells me exactly what plant is being talked about.

I've really got to study up on my NA trees and shrubs.

Wild Flora said...

I agree completely about the value of using the Latin names. Sometimes if I don't remember the Latin I get lazy and don't give it, but I try to include the scientific names of plants as much as possible, for precisely the reason you give: the common names are too easily confused. It's especially important to try to be specific about plant ID when you're making an effort to work with natives, I think. A friend of mine bought a "bittersweet" vine at a nursery that assured him it was the native; well, of course it was Oriental bittersweet, a non-native invasive. So now he has a new weed in his garden. To avoid that sort of problem, we have to try to buy from plantspeople who go to the trouble of making sure they ID their plants correctly and precisely.