Gardening on the wild side

I love our pond bed. Filled with robust perennials and grasses, many of prairie origin, it is more reminiscent of a meadow than a garden bed. And, situated at the far end of our back garden, it creates the perfect transition to the true meadow, full of the wild, dusky-pink Joe Pye Weed, on the other side of the pond.
While the pond bed looks like it has been there for ever, in reality it only came into being about 12 years ago, when its creation involved rerouting a moose, overcoming pernicious weeds, building the soil and choosing appropriate plants that would thrive even with neglect.
Early on in my Vermont gardening life, I gave no thought to doing anything that would obscure the view of our little spring-fed pond at the far end of the back lawn.
We had gotten used to the fact that, towards the end of summer, its water level might drop by a foot or so (because of a corresponding drop in the water-table that feeds the numerous ground springs). Each October the trees would absorb less water as their leaves dropped, and in the space of a single week, the pond would miraculously return to its full height.
But one summer the pond went completely dry in early August, and for two months we stared at a big hole in the ground! So I began to contemplate the idea of adding “something” to hide this situation in case it should recur.
Then, the following spring, a mother moose with two calves began visiting our now-overflowing pond on a regular basis. She would spend half an hour cooling off in the water and then lead her offspring right up the middle of the lawn, past the house and down the driveway, along the road, and over the field to a beaver swamp at the bottom of the hill.
At that time we also ran a busy B&B, and while some of our guests were enthralled to watch the huge animal, others were horrified when she nonchalantly strolled past their cars.
That did it! I decided to install a 40-foot span of split-rail fencing across the southern edge of the pond. This had the desired effect: for several years mama moose returned with new offspring, but now she avoided our garden and house, preferring to take the direct route out the western side of the pond and across the road to her beaver swamp.
So, with the fence in place, the next logical step was to develop an eight-foot deep bed in front of it to hide the problem of the “hole in the ground” during future dry summers.
I knew from the outset that I would be fighting the pernicious Horsetail weed as well as the sturdy running grasses that live around the edge of the pond. Horsetail is an ancient weed that thrives in poorly drained soil with low oxygen levels. It can be deterred (but not eliminated) by improving the drainage and fertility of the soil, and aerating it to increase the oxygen content.
So to create a moist — but not waterlogged — growing space, I began by building up the level of the soil to well above the high-water level of the pond. And, to hold everything in place I had a rough two-foot high retaining wall built behind the fence along the edge of the pond, as well as an attractive lower wall around the front side of the bed.
After this I went to work with my garden fork, chasing down as many weed roots as I could find. Finally, to lighten the soil, I dug in copious amounts of compost.
I selected tried-and-true perennials and grasses with robust personalities that would be able to look after themselves. Most have flourished under my regimen of benign neglect, although a few have succumbed to the competition from their stronger companions. As in any wild community, only the fittest survive and thrive.
Here, in order of flowering, is a partial list of these tough survivors: Siberian Iris (Iris sibirica); Japanese Iris (Iris ensata); Rodger’s Flower (Rodgersia aesculifolia); Daylilies (Hemerocallis) in various shades of yellow and red; Shasta Daisies, (Leucanthemum “Becky”); Kansas Gayfeather (Liatris spicata); Meadowsweet, both the towering “Queen of the Prairie” (Filipendula rubra) as well the lovely Dwarf Meadowsweet (Filipendula “Kahome”) for the front of the bed; black eyed Susans (Rudbeckia “Goldstrum”); the very tall Autumn Sun (Rudbeckia “Herbstonne”) for the back of the bed; plus several Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos).
Then, to integrate and soften the whole picture, I incorporated some clumping grasses with airy flower heads, including Tussock Grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) and Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum “Shenandoah” and P. “Dallas Blues”).
And finally, for some back of the border heft, I used two kinds of Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis) — the tall M. “Malepartus” with plumy colored flowers in September and October, and the slightly shorter M. “Purpurascens” with leaves that turn a lovely yellow-bronze in the fall.
My planting strategy was to populate the entire bed right away, using a closer then normal spacing. And, to my delight, within a couple of years, as the plants began to shade the soil, they were more than holding their own against the ubiquitous Horsetail and the running pond grasses. Horsetail in particular thrives in heavy acidic soil and decent light conditions. Deprive it of these things and, given time, it will essentially disappear!
The only real maintenance required is to cut everything back each November, so that we can enjoy the sight of the pond throughout the winter. And I have discovered that my latest tool, a battery powered hedge trimmer that Dick gave me, is perfect for these fall clean-up chores.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions. 

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