My Forlorn Front Yard: 2007 Wrap Up

EARLIER THIS YEAR, I began a chronicle of my efforts to turn my forlorn front yard into a native plant garden. In the first installment, I listed the problems with the space, ranging from a very awkward size and shape through overhead powerlines to a cheap, lazy owner. In the second installment I vowed to try to create a space that would "reflect the natural ecology of the region." In the third, I described a basic approach for designing any space according to natural principles. In the fourth, I described how to prepare soil for planting.

In the fifth installment, I described an inexpensive way to cover bare soil using native plants available for free from roadsides and nearby fields. This approach imitates nature by using what ecologists call "early successional" plants to vegetate an area quickly. These hardy plants are adapted to spread rapidly in areas that have recently been cut over, burned, or otherwise (to use another ecologists' word) disturbed--that's why they do so well on roadsides. But though many people regard them as weeds, they serve a very important purpose from an ecological point of view: They hold soil and water in place, preventing erosion, and many of them also help to prepare the way for longer lived, slower growing plants that are the next phase in the natural development of a disturbed site.

MFFY Photo Gallery

And finally,
I put up a link to an album of photos showing the progression of this space from summer of 2005, when work began with delivery of a load of compost, to spring of 2007. But that was last May. What has happened since then?

The photo left was taken in May 2007. This area was covered in cardboard and compost, then planted, in 2005. Then I made a serious mistake by neglecting to weed in 2006.

As a result, by spring of 2007 I had a healthy population of weeds and, worse still, weed seeds in what had formerly been fairly clean soil. The photo left shows the area after weeding: I was left with a lot of healthy little native plants (mostly Potentilla, wild strawberry, and Sysirinchium) and some big patches of bare earth where various weeds had been removed.

The photo at the top of this post shows the same space just a few months later, in July. As you can see, once freed from competition those tiny plants had grown luxuriantly!

The photo below gives a closer view of the native groundcovers that had taken over the front yard by mid-July. The logs in the photo (which were supposed to outline paths but were quickly overgrown) give a sense of how deep the coverage was. It would have been deeper except that I used an electric weed-whacker to shear the groundcover in areas I wanted to use as paths.

Unfortunately, I did not weed whack the entire front yard. The result of not weed whacking became a lot more obvious just a month later, in August. Here you can see that the unwhacked areas of the front yard are now dominated by tall natives, especially goldenrod and, to a lesser extent, wild bergamot. I like goldenrod, but it is very common in this area, and most people regard it as a weed. Also it is very aggressive. I came to regret having let it spread, although I do think the photo below is quite pretty.

As I look back on this year's effort, I still think the concept is sound. The July photos show that a lush, thick cover of green can be achieved using common native plants. My experience also shows that at least in the sunnier areas, these plants can choke out almost all invasive non-native plants. Only in the shadier spots, where the native groundcovers did not do so well, did I have crops of thistles, dandelions, and other nonnatives.

On the other hand, the execution of my plan was weak. This lazy owner, true to form, did not put enough time into weeding. Had I done a thorough weeding in 2006, I probably would not be struggling with patches of nonnative invasives now. Because they've had a chance to get established, I may have no choice but to go after them with--gasp--Roundup. But first I'll try a lot of digging in early spring.

Another issue is aesthetic. The front yard is supposed to be a compromise zone--wild enough to make me happy but not so wild that visitors will think I've let it go. I failed to meet that goal: The front yard, though mostly native (which is enough to satisfy me), looked far too wild for most tastes. The reason is that I don't like to use the weedwhacker: It wastes electricity, and there is always the risk of harming an animal that's hiding among the plants. Unfortunately, by not weedwacking enough I let the native plants get too tall, and I also let the naturally tall natives (e.g., goldenrod) take over. As a result the front yard never looked tidy; by fall, even though I was fairly pleased with it, I knew that most people would think that it was completely out of control.

Next year, if the weeds cooperate, I'm going to make more of an effort to keep the natives at a "lawnlike" height. Can I have a native front yard that someone other than me will like?


Gloria said...

Hi Wild Flora, your garden has 'mass' appeal...LOL.

I like what you are doing and will be watching to see the garden progress. Your pictures and experience will be a great help.

Since our garden is located in a very urban area we are working on including a rain garden in a sunny area and a non-turf shady spot on the opposite side right out front where everyone can see.It will include as many native plants as we can work into the conditions.I don't need neat and tidy but do not want to turn anyone off to wildlife or native gardening. So it is a work in progress and I appreciate your dilemma.

Wild Flora said...

Thanks Gloria,
I live out in the country so I'm lucky to have more freedom to experiment than most people who live in built-up areas. Having neighbors close by makes things much more difficult.