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Guest Editorial
by Carleen Madigan Perkins : Editor, Storey Publishing

Giving Up the Garden

Trillium erectum.
  Trillium erectum thrives in undisturbed woodlands, as it reportedly takes seven years to bloom from seed.
Photo by Jim Stasz, courtesy USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

One of my first gardens was in the urban front yard of a three-family house in a scruffy neighborhood outside of Boston. Any experienced gardener wandering by would have thought I had lost it completely. (Fortunately, the garden-society ladies didn’t stroll the avenues of our humble town with any frequency. “Oh, dear,” they might whisper to each other from behind gloved hands. “Can you imagine putting a garden in such a sorry spot?”) The house was in rough shape, and the yard was even rougher. But to me that was exactly the point. The yard had been sorely neglected and if I were going to walk by it everyday, it needed to be improved.

It was a challenge. Every round with a spade into the compacted, dusty soil brought up shards of glass, Mexican candy wrappers, cigarette butts, and bits of plastic drinking straws. The roots of a nearby Norway maple (Acer platanoides, a notoriously shallow-rooted weed tree) permeated the surface of the soil, and monopolized any available water. A fierce stand of Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) had staked a claim at the edge of the yard, and needed to be whacked back at least twice a year. But I saw myself as the savior of this particular plot of ground. I would valiantly garden on! I ordered a load of compost and dug it in. I watered (and watered) and mulched and weeded. There would be a garden in that front yard.

Cranberry viburnum.
The fruits of cranberrybush viburnum offer a feast for birds in late winter.
Photo by Carleen Madigan Perkins.

The unbelievable thing was that the plants I forced into that poor, pathetic soil actually grew… kind of. They were much-diminished versions of their ideal selves, but in the spring, there were green leaves and blooming flowers where before there had been only tufts of grass and a thick crop of bindweed seedlings. My time in the front yard also gave me an opportunity to meet the gardener next door (a friendly old Italian man who grew vegetables in his back yard and peonies out front), and sometimes to bump into our downstairs neighbor’s girlfriend, who could be seen sneaking out the bedroom window early in the morning.

A few gardens later, I moved to the Hilltowns of western Massachusetts, a largely forgotten rural area in the Berkshire Mountains. “Flatlanders,” as we call them, have told me that this part of the state looks like most folks’ notion of Vermont—old farms, maple sugaring operations: a Rockwellesque New England feel (Norman Rockwell lived not far from here, so the designation is not entirely inaccurate). Certainly there are gardeners here, but one has the sense that much of the land is either too rocky to be gardened easily, and perhaps better used for grazing sheep or dairy cows.

Solidago canadensis.
  Goldenrod provides reliable color in gardens and natural areas in late summer and early autumn.
Photo by Al Schneider, courtesy USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

I lived in a broken-down farmhouse on a dirt road lined with majestic but decrepit 200-year-old sugar maples. There were still working farms on our hill, mixed with vacation homes and more sugar shacks than seemed economically viable for such a sparsely populated area. Throughout that first winter, I walked along the back roads of the Hilltowns, admiring the persistent, papery leaves of the beech trees as they rustled in the cold wind, and wondered what kind of gardens I would see when the ground thawed in April.

When spring finally came, I began to realize that I had been walking among resting jewels all winter. The edge of the woodlands was lit up by the creamy white blossoms of hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides). Growing along the roadsides, in gravel and not much else, were bluets (Houstonia caerulea) and yellow trout lilies (Erythronium americanum). In gullies and other spots of wet ground were Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum). Later in the spring, the local pond would be encircled by the rose-pink blossoms of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). What struck me most, though, were the dark blossoms of purple trillium (T. erectum)—three-petaled ephemeral plants that bloom in April and May, then go dormant for the summer. I had only read about them, and thought they were very rare. Trilliums need seven years to bloom from seed—something the severely manicured landscapes of the Boston suburbs were unlikely to offer. In the Hilltowns, though, trilliums were everywhere—along the road, at the woodland edge of a sugarbush, in the meadows and old farmyards of abandoned houses. When I searched the streambanks for fiddleheads and hunted for mushrooms in the spring-leaved forest, I began to watch carefully where I stepped, for fear of leaving a trail of smashed trillium stalks behind me.

White birches at Bear Swamp Reservation, Ashfield, Mass.
Photo by Carleen Madigan Perkins.

When my husband and I bought our own house in the Hilltowns the following spring, I was so busy painting, unpacking, and learning about the inner workings of a septic system, I had very little time to garden. The plants I had brought with me (some of them remnants from that ill-fated urban yard, repeatedly dug up and schlepped from one garden to the next) were hastily heeled into the ground around the house. “I’ll fix up a better spot for them later,” I thought. I unintentionally did what every garden planner says you should and most people never do: spend an entire season observing the land around you.

What I saw almost made me bury my trowel for good.

In the spring, there were trillium seedlings everywhere. We couldn’t decide where to put the compost heap, because it seemed like wherever we turned, there were those eager young plants, just waiting for a chance to bloom. Lining the shoulder of the road in front of our house, there were packs of trout lilies. By late summer, goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum) filled the edge of the wetlands, and asters (A. novae-angliae) took on the role of embellishing the roadsides.

Houstonia caerulea.
  Houstonia caerulea.
Photo by Thomas G. Barnes, courtesy USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

Autumn brought the famous New England fall foliage, a slow progression of turning leaves, an elegy of death among the trees. What the leaf-peepers miss, in their eagerness to get all their kicks in one snapshot, is that the progression continues beyond the length of an afternoon bus ride and deeper into the forest. Slick dying leaves of false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa) press themselves against granite after a fall rain. Cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) and black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) produce shiny drupes that hang from their branches long after the last leaf has fallen, a waiting feast for birds, and a bright spot of color in a deprived landscape.

How could a manmade garden even approach the kind of beauty I saw all around me? My garden could certainly never measure up, I thought. Never mind the fact that the so-called ornamental plants I had brought with me from Boston looked hideously out of place here. As a child, I was always taught that I should leave a place better than I found it. But what if planting a garden actually destroyed the landscape I was admiring? I suddenly felt jealous of gardeners who inherit a tabula rasa of manicured lawn and clipped yews. They could garden without fear.

Sugar maples.
200-year-old sugar maples near the William Cullen Bryant Homestead, Cummington, Mass.
Photo by Carleen Madigan Perkins.

And that made me snap out of it. Maybe the imaginary garden-society ladies were right—I was insane! Jealous of blank yards because I could dig them up without feeling guilty? Instead of bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t just dig in perennials wherever I wanted, and instead of giving up gardening entirely (which just wasn’t an option), I began the search for a peaceable way to garden in this land of gentle beauty.

For now, I’ve decided that the easiest way to get my spade in the ground without guilt is to start by only gardening in disturbed areas, and not to carve out new spots to cultivate. This will not only avoid disrupting the natural landscape, but also serve the purpose of clearing out some potentially invasive plants that have taken over in cleared but unkempt areas.

Erythronium americanum.
  Erythronium americanum.
Photo by Thomas G. Barnes, courtesy USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.
In addition to letting the wildflowers be, I’ve decided that the plants I choose to place in the ground should not stand out like carnival performers on the main street of a small town. A garden of overbred, ever-blooming, freakishly double-flowered, tissue-cultured clones would not do. This winter, I’m researching native plants for the different conditions around our yard, and in addition to starting seeds, I’ll be making a trip to our local native-plant nursery. I’d like to say that I’ll plant only natives this May, but I know the lure of the spring plant sale only too well. The least I can do is choose plants that look like they belong in the same garden as their native cousins.

At a recent gardening conference, I met William Cullina, the head propagator for the New England Wild Flower Society and the author of several books about gardening with native plants. When I told him about my situation, he said, “I know what you mean. I felt the same way when my wife and I moved into our house—it didn’t seem like there was much I could do to improve on what was already there. So, I don’t really garden much. I just prune and weed selectively, and try to help the plants that are already established grow better.”

And maybe, in my own yard, that’s really the best I can do.


Carleen Madigan Perkins is an editor for Storey Publishing in North Adams, Massachusetts. Although she lives in USDA Zone 4 and admires Northeast native plants, she also maintains a small collection of potted agaves, which overwinter in her south-facing window.
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  Native Plants of the Northeast: A Guide for Gardening and Conservation, by Donald
L. Leopold

ative Trees, Shrubs, and Vines: A guide to using, growing, and propagating North American woody plants, by William Cullina

The New England Wild Flower Society

The Trustees of Reservations


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