Garden Chaos – The Rest of the Story

A Garden Tour True Confession

Menagerie of plants awaiting to be be transplanted.
One might wonder what this is. I wonder, too. Actually, these are plants in a blue kiddie pool that have been waiting all summer to be transplanted. Fall is a better time to transplant anyway, right? Adding to the garden chaos…

In general, my photos in this blog paint an incredible garden full of wonders – and don’t get me wrong – it most definitely is – but I have to say that those snapshots are of moments in time in very specific places. I try to capture the magic. My 50mm lens blocks out a lot of the noisy background. The truth is, garden chaos rules in our backyard, and although it might be nice to have one of those showpiece gardens on the garden club tours, mine is not one of those. This post is about the other side of the story – or rather, the garden.

Granted, I started with a neglected old cow field, trampled by hooves, full of nettles, thistles, and grasses, the only things that could grow in this cracked clay, sometimes rocky, “soil.” I had llamas back then. It worked for them. I had a small organic vegetable garden and a small plot of garlic, which evolved into multiple plots of garlic, which later transformed into a menagerie of plants for bees, wildlife, and humans, now dominated by willows, herbs, and assorted fruits. It is forever evolving.

I had a vision of a Utopian jungle in which we all lived in abundance and harmony. I still believe in that vision.

But the Reality is…

Thistles hide gojis, currants, autumn olives, elders, and...
Quite the thistle patch, yessirree. Somewhere in there are gojis, autumn olives, currants, and even an elderberry shrub.
Hazelnut tree protected by nettles
Garden Chaos! What is this? There is a hazelnut tree back there. Also some currants, scorzonera, and spiraea. Even an elderberry if you go back a little farther. In front, nettles, and a thick stand of lemon balm prevent me from accessing the area. No wonder the jay birds get all the nuts!
Himalayan Blackberries take over greenhouse
Brambles are taking over the little greenhouse. Inside, the wasps have taken over. I give up.
Horseradish and comfrey in late summer
This is actually horseradish and comfrey. They seem to keep each other in check on the edge of the orchard. At this time of year, they both look a little worse for wear. I can relate. So it goes at Barbolian Fields.
Grass grows through sedums on the family cemetery.
If you look closely, you will see some sedums here and wormwood. This area was covered with wild chervil, which I yanked out on several occasions. It was the least I could do. My mother is buried somewhere back in there, along with several dogs and cats. I am serious.

Now it is mid-September, and as in every year, I am scratching my head and wondering where the summer went. There were the usual and a few extraordinary events: lots of birthdays & family get-togethers, a wedding, a new grandchild, out-of-town guests, side trips, a few hikes and outdoor adventures, but not as many because of all the smoke from wildfires. There were baseball games, barbecues, watermelon, corn, cold beverages…. We finished off the season with a fantastic family vacation that involved sandy beaches, warm seawater, and palm trees.  Throughout, there were lots of flowers and berries… and now there are the fruits of fall – the squashes, plums, and apples (thank you, bees).

I walk through the garden and am overcome by the sheer biomass. Everywhere I look is chaos. I started with such hope in the spring, neatly planting so many things that got swallowed up by everything around them, or by the deer, or both. The morning glory/bindweed is once again completely smothering areas where I had worked very hard to eradicate it. As I push the tall grasses aside (which I have scythed twice already), all I can see is what needs to be done but which I cannot possibly do. We pick our battles. Apples and plums are falling on the ground. Seaberries, blackberries, and Cornelian cherries all need to be picked, along with seeds and herbs. There is not much time left. We are already at the Equinox tipping point of light.

Morning glory on hollyhock
Bindweed climbs up and over a hollyhock. Just because it can. Grrrr.
More garden chaos: bindweed overtakes currants and gooseberries
There are currants & gooseberries under here … somewhere … also possibly some codonopsis … I hope …
Garden chaos: bindweed takes over artichokes
You gotta admire the way the bindweed can just swoop in and take over a whole cluster of artichokes like that. Garden chaos? Or garden thugs!

The Dark Side of Garden Chaos

I post these photos to document a small part of what I am up against. Surely, I think, the answer is to just plant more plants! Simply fill in the understories with groundcovers and mid-level plants and not give the weeds a chance to see the light. The strategy is to optimize what I have and to be careful not to spread out more in the process, right? Do I need an excuse to plant more plants? The grasses and thistles mock my soul-searching. They laugh uproariously at my efforts. I am not amused.

Rose bed obscurred by grasses
I know this is the rose bed because of the tall golden yarrow in the background. I dug up these roses from my mother’s garden; she loved her roses, and I wanted them to live on. They are in there, somewhere. Epic fail. Fancy hybrid roses are no match for wild grasses.
Cleaned out "strawberry bed."
Technically, this is the strawberry bed – or what used to be one. This is after I cleaned out the 4-ft high grass that had taken over. I managed to save 9 blueberry shrubs, several lingonberries, hollyhocks, mullein, and even a few strawberries. I mulched it with woodchips and vowed to do better.
Weeded strawberry & blueberry bed overcome by grasses again
And here we are again in the strawberry bed, like I never did anything at all… and this is after applying several inches of woodchips.
Cleared area near Contorted Hazel
We couldn’t even see this Contorted Hazelnut in early spring, it was so overgrown with thistles and weeds. Perhaps not the best picture, but you get the idea. I see a clear space to walk forward, and some Lavender and Golden Margeurite. This became a quite beautiful guild. We added Horehound, Oregano, and many other plants.
Restored garden around Contorted Hazel - lost to weeds again.
Give it a couple of months and what do you get: thistles and grass thicker and greener than ever. Groan…. (At least the Contorted Hazel is still able to breathe and I have been able to harvest a few of the Golden Marguerite for dye projects.)

The Problem, of Course, is the Solution

I apply the chop & drop mulch mantra; but so far, the grass has grown through that tactic. Weeds are becoming easier to pull out, true, but in the space of a month, they have exploded in that final surge to produce seed before winter. Smothering with paper or cardboard and adding more mulch on top might set them back, but similar attempts to kill morning glory and quackgrass have failed. They survived an entire year of being covered by black plastic! Unfortunately, I am now resigned to recognizing that bindweed will always be here; due diligence and persistence are my only hopes of slowing it down.

I am 66 years old. I am one person, armed with a shovel and a pair of pruners. Do I really need this?

Spiral garden flattened and full of weeds
If you are into Permaculture, you gotta make a spiral garden, right? Can sedums out-compete grasses? Apparently not. And the spiral hill has flattened considerably, just sayin’. Makes me want to open another bottle.
Overgrown spiral garden, now dominated by ants and grass.
This adorable spiral garden was invaded by grasses and ants. Underneath it all, I swear, are some really cool groundcover thymes that are supposed to spread out like a soft carpet. Perfect for a frog & fairy domain. (Or not. Garden Chaos reigns.)
Grassy spiral garden
Not a total fail, but close. Flowering oregano and thyme cascade down the mound of this spiral garden, heavily infiltrated by grasses, but still able to survive.

To make things more discouraging, toward the end of the season, I discovered that parts of my precision dripline water system that I had installed this spring, had failed. Clogged with silt from our new piped irrigation ditch, it had ceased delivering the steady drip of water I had counted on. (Need a better filter!) I didn’t realize how bad it was until the plants showed definite signs of dying. Or were they stressed because of the voles digging tunnels beneath the heavy mulch cover, thereby exposing their roots to air? The rock-hard ground around them collapsed beneath my feet. Stomp on no-till “soft” clay soil? Is that not blasphemy? (Sigh.) I hauled a sprinkler over to the plants, the old-fashioned way, and turned it on, spraying precious water into the air and scattering it all about. Watering weeds. Not precision. Not drip. But wet.

I came back to check on things awhile later, and to my surprise, a dozen or so fat brown birds (bigger than a sparrow; smaller than a quail) suddenly flew up in front of me to the willows. One, however, did not see me coming. She was taking a bath almost right on top of the sprinkler, lifting her wings up to catch the spray, turning this way and that, totally absorbed in the fun.

It was an Ah Ha! moment.

THIS, I realized, is why I garden the way I do.

It’s not to have a showpiece garden, to give educational tours, or to sell produce at the market. In fact, I would rather buy veggies from the hard-working young people with a stand down the road.

No, I will never have the neat pathways and orderly rows of conventional gardens. Not that it isn’t possible; just that I have too many other things I want to do. And more importantly, by allowing a certain level of garden chaos, I invite communities that might not otherwise flourish.

Overgrown pathway provides lots of mulch!
This pathway goes through cycles of being clean, impassible, more-or-less identifiable, and then overgrown again. It provides several harvests of mulch material. That’s a good thing.
Garden path bordered by hyssop, sage, thyme, currants, and more.
Here is the same path earlier in the year, bordered by hyssop, thyme, sage, wild plums, currants, and so much more… I love this side of the everchanging garden. Garden chaos? Yes! Of course!
Pruned weeping mulberry
I pruned the heck out of this weeping mulberry tree this last winter. It looked quite naked and exposed after pulling out all the thistles that were so thick, they threatened its very existence. If I didn’t kill it, I was pretty sure the thistles would.
Weeping Mulberry
But look! It grew back more lush than ever!
Oregano amidst the grass
The bees can still find this flowering oregano, despite the thicket of grass.

Yes, I have aphids and the ants that love them. I also have a gargantuan hive of bad-assed, bald-faced hornets, who don’t seem to pay the slightest attention to me, but do a tremendous job of keeping insects in check.

Bald-faced hornet nest.
Oh yeah. These bad-assed Bald-faced Hornets are like my garden gangstas. And take a look at that nest! Zowie! In the Medlar tree. I figure by the time the medlars fall, the nest will be quiet.

Yes, the hollyhocks take up a ton of room, their tall spires punctuating the sky with exclamations. The bees are buzzing from one flower to the next, and it is almost October. Our Aussie dog walks his nth time around the house, making sure all is in order, and flushes up a family of quail, which we hadn’t seen around here for many years. As I pick the Autumn Olives, several Cedar Waxwings join in the harvest, somewhat leery of my presence, but brazen enough to join in. A deer and her yearling show up for their breakfast browse at the Barbolian smorgasbord, and I no longer bother shooing them off (nor does the dog). After all, we all need to eat.

Garden restoration area near willow dome
Before: This area by the willow dome was just a pile of compost over some prunings. The currant bush is in the cage because the deer found it rather tantalizing.
Chaos that works!
After: This chaotic-looking area is actually a restoration success. In the background is the willow dome. Kiwi berries are using it as a trellis. In the foreground are pineapple sage, scorzonera, some wild mallow, borage, and mugwort. Off to one side are currants, flowering nutmeg shrub, catnip, and purple goosefoot. Weaving at the front is a malabar squash (fig-leaf gourd) that has found its way all the way back into the orchard. Everything thrives. Chaos that works!

While I contemplate the sanity of planting more so everyone has enough, I am learning to let go. I don’t need to pick every last cherry, just because I grow it — just pick what we can use and a little extra for sharing; leave the rest for the wild foragers.

And near the end of the day, I just have to stop and listen. Frogs. I thought we had lost our frogs when they piped the irrigation ditch. Apparently not. THAT, too, is why I garden the way I do.

little green frog
Ah, but look! A frog just resting there on a giant grape vine leaf! Thank you for small miracles!

Clearly, neatness and control are overrated.

I say, Embrace Chaos.

Life is good.

Green frog on a grape leaf
I will garden until I croak.

3 thoughts on “Garden Chaos – The Rest of the Story”

  1. I love this post! I, too, struggle with overwhelm and chores and getting it all done without running myself ragged. But when I find a small grass snake under a bucket, or walk by my elderberry bush with munched-by-something leaves, or see fireflies dancing in the yard, I remember why we are trying to do what we do, without chemicals… as I scratch at all my chigger bites. 🙂

    I’ll do what I can and get to the rest later. Or not. It’s all good.

    • Snakes, Chiggers & Fireflies – oh, my! I am not sure where you are, but your beautiful description is exactly how I feel. The key, I think, is in doing what we can, and in the process, finding the magic in small things. “It’s all good” pretty much sums it up, does it not? Thanks for your heartfelt comments, Cheverly.


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