Most gardeners are familiar, and agree, with the notion that a green lawn is, in essence, a desert. So, when I heard this expression many years ago my response was to begin the long, arduous process of removing sod that covered our average-size property. I’m still removing it. It’s been a long process. In its place I have installed meandering paths, raised vegetable beds, a small dwarf-conifer forest, a mini prairie-style garden with a wide assortment of grasses, countless perennials for pollinators, a few tall trees, a few broadleaf evergreens, and a fish pond. Seed-bearing plants, plants for nesting materials, nectar producing plants, places to burrow and hide – there’s something for everyone here. (And if I define ‘everyone’ as squirrels, birds, raccoons, and a possum, at times it seems like everyone parties in my garden.) I love the results of all this work, although on those early mornings when my garden is a blur of motion and chaos – squirrels running up and down trees and falling from trees, raccoons fishing in the pond, birds of all sizes and colors swooping throughout the yard and fighting each other, a possum wandering around as if lost – I question the wisdom of my actions. But after just one summer morning filled with butterflies, dragonflies, bees too numerous to count, and the lively sounds of bird song, I know the idea was good.
One large area of our property has caused countless problems until just recently, and unfortunately this area faces the street so all my mistakes are on public display. As the neighborhood is built on a hill, our front yard has a considerable slope down to the street. But rather than this slope terminating in a gentle decline and an attractive rockery, it comes to an abrupt edge, about 6 feet in height, above street level. To contain this large expanse of difficult space that runs the entire width of the property, interrupted only by stairs leading to the house, the builders installed a retaining wall of large triangular concrete “planters”. Big, ugly planters. Lots of them – 74, as a matter of fact. That’s a lot of planters to fill. When we bought our house in early spring neither my spouse nor I noticed that most of the planters had been filled with annuals only. That first year, as spring sailed into summer and summer glided into fall, the planters soon became empty and the large expanse of concrete became a very visible eye-sore.
Over the years, I have filled this area with a wide variety of plant material but because the space is so difficult to water and has full-sun (western) exposure, many plants struggled noticeably before they died. Dust and pollution from the street contributed to the problem, also. But about 15 years ago, I discovered a plant that not only thrived in this unfriendly location, but spread as fast as Hedera helix, English Ivy, and covered ground more efficiently than Buttercup (Ranunculus pallasii). Vinca major, with its dainty little violet flowers, is a bully. And I didn’t know its true nature until one summer afternoon, just a few years after planting it, when I decided to remove it and plant lavender, Sedum, and other ground covers in its place. For each clump of Vinca I dug out, I found three more spilling down from above or beside me. As the pile of removed clumps grew higher and spilled out over the lawn, I was reminded of an incident many years ago when I had put the wrong kind of soap in the dishwasher. In my defense, this was the very first dishwasher I had owned, my younger sister and brother were living with me and my spouse (we were all very young), three of us were working and one was still in high school, and we were always on the go so the household was busy. We had run out of the correct soap and I didn’t have time to shop so I decided to use the liquid soap I normally used for hand-washing dishes. I knew enough to use a much smaller amount of liquid soap than powder in the machine and I was very careful with the amount I put in. A short time after I started the machine, I heard an odd chugging sound coming from the kitchen but I was busy with another chore, so I ignored it. Second bad idea. A short time later, I came into the kitchen to get a glass of water and saw suds coming up into the kitchen sink, flowing over the sink edge, and spilling out the sides of the dishwasher. I shut off the machine, opened the door, and was greeted with a wall of bubbly, frothy, white suds chugging towards me, slowly and purposely, as if it were alive. I screamed and said a bad word. My brother and sister heard the commotion and ran downstairs to the kitchen. After a look from me that said “Don’t ask!” they helped me scoop out the frothy mess. As all the sinks and drains were filled with bubbling suds, our only option was to dump the soapy mess outside on the patio where it could melt in the hot Yakima sun. So this is what ran through my mind that day as I saw the many clumps of Vinca spill down in front of me, and all that remained to dig out.
The retaining wall is now filled with xeric plants that thrive in hot, dry conditions. Among my favorite is Zauschneria californica, California Fuchsia. This tough little plant drapes down from the top of the wall where hummingbirds can visit it without harassment from neighborhood cats. Also planted in this area are Delosperma, Heliathemum, Thymus, and many different species of Sedum. At long last, this retaining wall is an asset to the property but the learning curve was long, slow, and very public. I hope that those passersby who have seen my many failures and new successes over the years have learned a bit from my experiences, and therefore, have found their gardens a little easier to understand and maintain.
And, just maybe, some of my ideas were not so bad after all.