Monday, March 21, 2011

Beyond Grass

There have been some new readers joining us recently and with the upcoming gardening season soon approaching I thought this would be a good time to elaborate on what sort of garden plans lay ahead for us here on the Corner this season.

When we purchased this home one of its positive and negative attributes was it's blank condition.  The house sits on close to 3 acres and the bulk of the property was made up of lawn.  Plain old grass that required excessive amounts of mowing.  The benefit to this was the property was a blank canvas.  We could plant anything we wanted, do anything we wanted, virtually unencumbered by someone else's previous designs.  That blank canvass is both a hindrance and a blessing.  There's a lot of work required to landscape such a large property but I'm excited by the possibilities before me.  We moved into the house in late fall 2009 and last spring was our first gardening season.  The first thing we did, or didn't do rather, was mow the lawn.  We were horrified by the amount of gas and time that it took to mow the entire property and there was no reason to do it.  I don't need a lawn to do cartwheels on.  What I want are flowers.  So we left the 'back' section grow wild and were delighted with the results.  What I hadn't realized was that our 'lawn' was really just an old farm field and when let go it became a beautiful wild meadow.

By allowing the field to regenerate we have become a haven of wildflowers and grasses.  I'm thrilled and hope to expand on this.  Currently I'm reading The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn and it's giving me all sorts of ideas on how to encourage native plants and flowers and create a meadow that both encourages wildlife and is a beautiful garden.

As much as I love the meadow I do find the property is very open to the elements.  In all seasons the wind sweeps across our yard, shaking the house and sending snow and dirt flying.  To combat these issues and provide some privacy I decided we needed trees.  Trees will provide wind resistance, screen out the road and neighbours, provide food and shelter to wildlife and beauty.  Last spring I visited our local native nursery, MacPhail Woods, and purchased and planted 25 native trees and shrubs.  Unfortunately, as seen in my last post, not all of these have survived.  A frustrating setback but I am determined to visit MacPhail nursery again this spring and continue with my plan to add some woody plants to this property.

Yellow birch is native to PEI and suited to the local conditions
The bulk of the trees and shrubs I have planted thus far have been native ones because I think it's important to maintain some natural spaces.  These plants will support local wildlife and have a higher probability of survival as they are already adapted to the climate conditions and the soil. 

As much as I love native plants I also love exotic flowers as well.  In addition to the meadow I'm also planning a garden area that is it's exact opposite.  I'm hoping to create a small oasis behind the garage where hollyhocks can intermingle with plume poppy, hostas and catalpa.  In my mind's eye I see big leaves and bright colours.  It will be a spot for the plant collector in me.

As these plantings are done and begin to grow I'm hoping that wildlife will move in and enjoy the hidden spaces that will be created.  Already I can see some positive transitions taking place.  Yesterday while I was walking around and enjoying the spring sunshine I came across this guy.

I knew the feral cats were occupying the upstairs portion of the garage but I have long suspected we had residents downstairs as well.  Turns out I was right.  I wasn't the only one who decided to get a dose of sunshine.  Two skunks were wandering about the yard, digging in the grass looking for a tasty meal.  
Digging next to an old tree trunk for grubs
The skunks have been in hibernation and are likely quite hungry after a long winter.  They certainly looked quite skinny and were very busy digging.  Too busy to notice me snapping their photo.

Skunks are often regarded as pests and certainly their smell can be offensive but they are also great garden assistants.  They have a big appetite for insects, including june bugs, slugs, ants and grasshoppers.  With these guys on patrol the insect population in my garden should be kept in check and maintain a healthy balance.


  1. Those skunks must surely be hungry..don't think they usually forage in the middle of the day.How exciting to see them!

    Your wild meadow is wonderful...can't wait to see how it develops over time. You mention the plume be careful as it can be aggressive but oh so stunning.

    So disappointing about the trees((..was just out and see more damage on mine that looks more like chewed off or clawed off bark. sigh...

  2. Love your meadow! It's amazing what grew up where before was only boring old grass! We have an acre or two of forest and I'm planning on adding to it - we transplanted about 35 spruce seedlings from the forest last year and like you I'll be purchasing native trees and shrubs from MacPhails. Looks like a great place and I love their website. There was a part of our lawn where the "grass" was very different - very tough grass and hard on the feet so that is the area that is going to have more trees. I agree that we only need so much lawn. As long as Michael has enough room to fly his kite we'll both be happy:)

  3. What a great post. I didn't realize skunks could be beneficial in the garden. I've been working on a flower meadow of my own for the last couple of years. I sort of cheat a bit in that I schlep a 250 foot hose up the hill and water the wildflowers I like so they have an advantage over some of them I don't like.

  4. I know exactly what you mean by having both the advantage and the disadvantage of a blank canvas.. what a challenge. I love the fact that you are planting so many trees, especially those yellow birches (I am going to try again, I lost all three of the yellow birches I planted). Your 3 acres will be a botanical garden when you are done and I will pay to enter and visit it!

  5. Sounds like you're coming up with great plans for your meadow place. I didn't realize skunks ate june bugs! Still, I don't think I want any around.

  6. I have a not so nice story about a muskrat (guessing that's what is was... groundhog, maybe) that wedged itself between our old decrepit shed and the compost box. I thought I could flush it out with the hose but it just hunkered down and swore at me. Then, my two dogs picked up it's scent and there we had one dog at each point of entry (or exit as the case would want to be) barking madly. Blind Guy especially excited and my fear was he could get hurt as he goes to a target with great zeal and doesn't respond to 'watch out!' like he normally would.

    I had to drag them in the house and ask hubs to stop with the construction of our new shed to deal with that poor critter. He managed to get him out and hoped it would high tail it to the back field. By this time, the dogs are back out (not MY idea) and the silly critter goes on the attack. It latched onto hub's boot (steel toed, thanks to me) and my gentle dog goes after it to protect his master. Blind Guy is protective by nature so he tries to get in on the action and I hear a yelp. (I was hanging clothes and trying not to know what was going to happen). Yeah... it was not good as the critter wasn't going to back off so the critter had to... ummm... go.... ummm.... to forever land. :-(

    A skunk took residence last fall under our shed but with dogs, we can't allow them to stay. Hubs was able to get him to leave (not to forever land) and peace was once again restored to our little chunk of land in the country.

  7. Your little garden helper will be a bit more of a pest when he gets fully awake I am betting. You don't want to run across him too often. Nice photo of him BTW.

  8. The bark on that yellow birch is gorgeous! As for meadows, I have always wanted a wildflower meadow. Then again, I do not know if I could maintain that much property by myself. Ah well, that's not something I need to worry about right now. :-)

  9. Aren't the wildflowers here wonderful? I hated to see our 'wild' fields planted in hay but the wildflowers are managing to grow along the edges now.
    MacPhail is very close to us - about 20 minutes, and do you know, I've not been there yet - shameful!
    Have you discovered Vesey's nursery yet? It's loaded with good stuff.

  10. I love the meadow and I wonder how hard it will be for you to maintain. In central north carolina we have a natural pine forest habitat. Unfortunately, hardwood seedlings plant themselves and the forestry service has to have a control burn to maintain status quo for the local flora and fauna.

    The skunks are cute and if you don't have any dogs bothering them they should be decent neighbors.

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  12. Bren - You're right. I usually see signs of skunks in my yard but not the skunk itself as they are out at night. I'm not sure why they are choosing to go out in the day but it sure was great to see them. I did
    find out about plume poppy's tendencies last year but had already purchased the plant so I'm going to try and work with it. Sorry to hear you're having troubles with trees as well. I guess with the high snow it was a pretty bad winter for animals foraging for food. Perhaps other years won't be as bad?

    Jane - a kite! oh I like kites. and PEI is a perfect place with the wide open spaces and wind. I suspect a lot of the old farmsteads don't have actual lawn grass planted around the houses, they just cut what was
    there. That may be why your 'grass' is very hard. It could be anything from clover to asters, wild raspberries, who knows!

    Kate - What diligence!! I can barely bring myself to water the vegetables. I'd love to see some of your wildflowers, with the high altitude I'll bet you get some fascinating plants.

    Laurrie - you lost all 3 yellow birches! that's terrible. I was amazed that the 2 I purchased weren't touched at all. Wasn't sure if the voles just didn't like them or if they were too large to be tasty (I got 5 - 6 foot trees). I would love if my visions of this place actually came true. Only time will tell!

  13. Holley - I discovered late last summer about June bugs. Our lawn was decimated. Then the crows and the skunks moved in and dug holes everywhere searching for the grubs. The holes were ugly but the damage was already done so I would rather the skunks ate the bugs. In the fall I ended up filling in the skunk holes with compost and bulbs so it all
    worked out!

    Beansgood - wow, the groundhog attacked your husband! thank goodness for big boots. We only have cats here and luckily they know enough to
    avoid the skunks so everyone is living in harmony thus far but I can understand dogs sure do get excited when there's something to chase. My
    only worry with wildlife is coyotes. I know they are in the neighbourhood and while I don't necessarily mind them I have had a cat eaten by a coyote once which was heartbreaking.

    Donna - I expect there will likely be damage from skunks in my yard, digging where they aren't wanted, making my garage smelly, etc. but I think the benefit of providing a haven for wildlife outweighs the costs. Until I get 'skunked' anyway!

    On My Soapbox - I'm not sure if I will be able to maintain it either!! LOL, but I can sure dream. In reality I'm hoping the meadow won't require a lot of maintenance. I may add some flowers and grasses but I have no plans for cutting, dividing, pruning, etc. It'll likely get quite messy but hey that's nature!

  14. Kim - You live so close and you haven't been to MacPhail! But you must, the trails alone are wonderful to walk. I noticed they have a "landscaping with native plants' workshop on June 18 and I'm thinking about going. Perhaps you could be convinced to come too? Vesey's is great. I used to buy from them when we lived on Bowen and I didn't even realize they were on PEI!

    Cheri - Great point! I've been wondering the same thing myself. It seems likely trees will want to pop up and the area will gradually try to revert to woods. I'm not sure about the answer to this. Some people recommend cutting a meadow once a year, others burning. I'm hoping my new book will provide some ideas.

  15. You certainly have lots going on! And great plans - it will be very, very interesting to follow your progress.

  16. I love your place and I'm a bit jealous.
    At this point in time we have .08 of an acre. Not enough for much of anything really but we have strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, rhubarb and every year I try some lettuce, tomatoes, celery and once potatoes. In the front I have bulbs mostly tulips and daffodils. I also planted 3 lilacs, 2 in front and one on the driveway side of the house. Towards the back on the driveway side we have two pine trees and that's it. Some day I'm going to have enough property to grow a big garden and have tons of trees.

  17. I am not sure I would be thrilled to have skunks are residents at our place, even if they did keep the insects at bay. The dogs would give be foolish enough to give chase and then I'd be bathing them for days. I am sure your cats are smarter and they will give the skunks a wide birth.

  18. When my parents moved into their current home, like 30 years ago, while not starting from scratch, they did plant many trees, flowerbeds and various other long-time-to-fruition vegetation.

    We look at pictures now and it is amazing how the landscape has matured and how pretty it is now. One day you will be saying that too!

  19. I love your meadow - good luck encouraging even more beautiful wild flowers in it. I read a lot of mixed reports about creating and maintaining wildflower meadows, some claiming they are really hard work for poor results and others just the opposite. Look forward to seeing your new selection of trees - completer with tree guards... Good to know skunks are useful garden inhabitants - when kept at a safe distance! I was once kept awake all night while on a business trip in the Rockies - skunks mating on the flat roof just below my room...

  20. Aagaard Farms - there sure is lots to do but I figure I have lots of years to accomplish it all. no hurry!

    Johanna - Despite your size constraints it sure sounds like you've managed to create a nice garden. I'm jealous of all those different fruits! While having lots of space means I can spread out it's really how you use your property that matters. Right now I only really use a tiny portion of what we have. I'm hoping these landscaping plans will eventually change that.

    Jennifer - the feral cats seem to have pretty good sense when it comes to skunks and vice versa. My inside/outside cat is another story. We bring him in at night when the wildlife is most active because he can't be trusted to leave anyone or anything alone.

    Jess - how great that your parents have stayed in one place and get to enjoy the fruits of their labour so many years later. I really wish that in 30 years I'm still here to see the results of all this work.

    Janet - I've had the same impression about meadows. Depends on who you talk to but I figure gardening is much the same. Depending on who is doing it, it can be lots of work or little. Some people like things exceedingly tidy and others not so much. I'm not sure how a meadow will work out but I'm willing to give it a try. I haven't had the pleasure of mating skunks just yet but if it's anything like cats or raccoons I can imagine the noise that must have kept you awake!

  21. The 'red grass' looks like a smartweed of some sort. hard to tell by looking at the photo but my guess might give you a start at identifying it.

    We once had a skunk that would dine with our cats in the breezeway.

  22. wiseacre - thank you! I wondered about those grasses all last year and didn't have a clue where to start looking. Sometimes a plant family is enough to set you on the right track.

  23. Marguerite, How nice that your unwanted lawn is turning itself into a lovely meadow. Three acres is a lot of lawn! I only have 1 1/2 acres of land, and about an acre of that is woods. I love the fact that you'll have wooded areas, an orchard, meadows, and some garden space for much-loved flowers. Even with some setbacks (like your girdled tree), it will be a treat to watch your vision turn into beautiful gardens. -Jean

  24. Jean - how lucky to have a property with wooded areas already there. When we were looking to buy our wish list included lots of trees but that wasn't to be. I'm taking solace in the fact though that I can plant any kind of trees I want.

  25. hello Maruerite I wanted to comment when you posted but have only just got to it, I love your wild meadow and am so envious, I read the link posts you wrote last summer as I had not found your blog then, I think the red grass is sheeps sorel sorry I don't know the latin name and that is the common name here, it's not a grass but wild flower/weed, thanks for explaing about lawn grass from your description that is just what I have it looks dreadful left to grow,
    I too have found encouraging wildlife into the garden keeps a balance with the wildlife, I don't have the problem with slugs that lots of gardeners do here and I'm sure it's due to my bird population who love, love, love my trees, re growing trees, sorry you lost some, but the ones that have grown in my garden seen not to do much then suddenly spurt, I think the seeming not to do much is when they are growing good roots which we can't see happening, Frances

  26. Frances, thanks for your comments. I googled sheep sorrel and my grass sure looks a lot the same. I will need to wait a couple months and take a clear look to positively ID. I wish the birds would eat my slugs here but perhaps with more trees I'll get more birds. In the meantime the skunks are welcome to eat as many as they can stomach.