After spending seven years living with a tiny town garden, moving to a property measured in acres rather than square feet was an unmissable opportunity, and I certainly have no regrets. I do have to chuckle, though, when I get the comment “Oh, you’re so lucky to have all that space for gardening. You can plant whatever you want!” Both statements are true, but it’s not all fluffy clouds and rainbows, you know. Having ample space for gardening creates ample opportunities for making really big mistakes.
It seemed like a great idea at first. I was sitting in a lecture at a native plant conference two summers ago, and the speaker mentioned planting a hedgerow as a great way of attracting wildlife. Hey, I thought, I should do that! My property is bounded by roads on two sides, and there used to be established hedgerows on all four sides. In the process of getting the building permits, I had to agree to removing the road-side hedgerows because there were plans to widen the road in front. Really, I didn’t have much of a choice, but I’ve always regretted the loss of those hedgerows. Yes, they had rocks and barberry and a few Norway maples, but they also had flowering dogwoods, sassafras, sugar maples, native viburnums, red cedars, and a variety of wildflowers as well. Below shows what one of the remaining hedgerows looked like last September.
I realized I wouldn’t be able to recreate the same effect in my lifetime, but I figured I had to start somewhere. The speaker had suggested starting a hedgerow by putting up two posts and stringing a wire between the two posts, the idea being that birds would perch on the wire and um, “sow” the seeds for you. It’s an interesting idea, but I wasn’t prepared to wait quite that long for results. I had about 300 feet of frontage to fill and not much money, so I scavenged seedling trees from a number of sources: plant sales, my meadow, my nursery beds, and – yes, I admit it – some of those cheesy nursery catalogs that sell baby trees really cheap (you know, buy one tree for $1.98 and get two for $1.99). Remember, I needed a lot of stuff!
I ended up with about 80 trees and shrubs. Along the front road, I decided to plant a continuous strip, with the trees spaced about 3 feet apart in three rows. I didn’t have enough to do a solid strip along the other road, so I created three sections there. Starting early one morning, I dug all the holes and got everything planted by dark that night. It was a little depressing to wake up the next morning, look out, and see only a lot of small holes in the turf: The trees and shrubs were so tiny that they were hardly visible. Needless to say, I endured a lot of teasing from amused neighbors. Never mind: I was still convinced it was a good idea – until a few days later, when I realized that I needed to trim around all 80 of those tiny little trees. Many, many times through the summer. By fall, shown above, I was beginning to re-think the whole hedgerow thing.
So then, I came up with a great solution: replace the grass between the trees with perennials. I always have plenty of self-sown seedlings and divisions, and I had more than enough black-eyed Susans alone to fill the space. Or so I thought. I started removing the sod in the main-road strip (shown below), cutting carefully around each tree. Very quickly, I realized two things: 1: It was a really big space, and 2: It was going to take all summer for me to get rid of all the sod that way. So, time for yet another re-think.
Finally, I accepted the fact that I’d be tottering off to a retirement community by the time these trees looked like the dense, diverse hedgerow I’d envisioned, and I decided the most efficient solution was to transplant all of the remaining tiny trees to the side-road hedgerow-in-training. Once they were gone, stripping the sod in this area was a whole lot easier; so easy, in fact, that I ended up clearing a space about 10 feet wide and 90 feet long.
I’m pretty pleased that I was able to fill the entire border without buying any new plants. (Well, not pleased about the “not buying” part, but pretty happy with the “not spending money on” part.) I started by placing large transplants and divisions of ornamental grasses – mostly various cultivars of switch grass (Panicum virgatum), and ‘Cassian’ fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides), shown above. Then I filled around them with divisions and transplants of flowering perennials.
Knowing that deer tend to wander in this area, I tried to stick with plants they’ve left alone in a nearby border: besides the grasses, there are black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida), purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum), aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius), Bowman’s root (Porteranthus stipulatus), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), and ‘Lemon Queen’ helianthus. I finished a few days ago, and now that we’ve finally gotten a soaking rain, everything looks primed to jump into new growth.
As a finishing touch, I added a few old fence posts, two of them topped with bird boxes purchased from a neighbor’s roadside stand. (So ok, the new garden cost $20.) Within a day, I noticed a pair of tree swallows had claimed one box and a bluebird was checking out the other one. I suspect it would have taken another five years or more for those tiny trees to be big enough for birds to perch on, so I’d say my goal of providing a new home for wildlife has already been met. And now, I have the fun of waiting to see how the border itself looks as it matures. At this point, at least, I think this planting’s going to be around for a while.