Garden Gone Wild

Last year, hordes of monarch butterflies came through, enjoying a flyway along the shore of Lake Ontario. They were such a delight that I decided to go all in on creating a butterfly garden. I had three stray milkweeds, which the visitors ignored. But I invested in seeds for five varieties of milkweed and dutifully planted them last October in my northeast keyhole bed (formerly the garlic patch).

Spring came with relentless rain. An endless mud season, still ongoing on this first day of summer. As the flooded lake consumes my shoreline plants, everything else has been growing madly. Except for the milkweed seeds.

So, dual concerns: attracting butterflies (as well as bees, birds, and lightning bugs) and preserving our property from malignant erosion. This has led me to expand the (shrinking) native grass-and-shrub area of our eastside bank upward to include more of the yard (aka “what needs mowing”).

Me being me, I’ve done a ton of research on both shoreline preservation and wild flower gardening. But like your average idiot, my studies go ignored when confronted with the task at hand.

The best book I found on the subject of aesthetically pleasing (i.e., your neighbors won’t freak out) wildflower gardens is Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West (2015). There is a lot of thoughful horticulture here, including how to pack plants together based on the depth of their roots. They go on to recommend you create a design layer: large plants that define a structure + seasonal theme plants. Then you design the functional layer for diversity: 50% ground cover + interesting/seasonal filler plants.

Awesome theory, but I have what I have–a couple of mugo pines (mama and baby), an anemic euonymous, and three wind-beaten rose-of-sharons. What wildflowers I can identify: dame rocket (planted last year), dianthus (planted last year), crown vetch (non-native but good for slopes), blackberry, wild grape, ox-eye daisies, red and white clover, fleabane, rumex, buttercup, plantain, Queen-Anne’s-lace, and the “understory” of violets, wood sorrel, and creeping charlie.

This week I added pussy willow canes (future design layer), milkweed (asclepias syriaca and asclepias tuberosa), and (just because I love its exuberance) three kinds of mint.

Rainer and West also assert that what makes a wild garden neighbor-acceptable is a clearly defined border. I had some long bamboo stakes that I lopped into more-or-less 12″ lengths. I’m not exactly lazy about borders–I never fail to cause work for myself–but I keep moving them, so why not use sticks.

Anyway, there you have it. Wine poured.

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