Upper Midwest BY RUSSELL STAFFORD / Berrien Springs, Michigan, Zone 5
Knowing Your Place
LOVE OF COUNTRY. Our bumper stickers and billboards profess it, but what do our yards say? Our yards, where water-and chemical-guzzling Eurasian turf grasses remain dominant. Our yards, where many of the best native (and other) plants for Upper Midwest gardens remain scarce. Our yards, where too often tired, sterile formula substitutes for what gardening can be at its best—a passionate collaboration between gardener and garden site; an act of love.
One gardener in my town has committed such an act. Unlike others in her subdivision, she has invited the neighboring woods into her yard, and it has obliged. False rue anemones (Isopyrum biternatum) and spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) spangle her modest strip of lawn, and trilliums have insinuated themselves into her generous shrub and groundcover plantings. Here, amid the bland suburban uniformity, is a landscape with gusto. Yet, whether from obliviousness or timidity, her neighbors continue to truckle to their turf. Never underestimate the power of a cliche.
Not that the diametrically opposed orthodoxy—the natives-only movement—is the answer. How could it be, when it ignores the simple fact that our yards are highly disturbed habitats, as environmentally and aesthetically alien to pristine nature as they are (at least in our region) to turf-grass monocultures? Nor does the often-voiced generalization that native plants are adaptively superior to exotics withstand scrutiny (as any gardener who has battled an aggressive exotic can attest). Of course we need to use more natives in our gardens, and of course we need to employ exotics (and natives) with sensitivity. But we express this sensitivity by matching plant to site, by knowing our place—not by imposing a universal dogma on a varied landscape (the same mindset that spawned turf-grass hegemony).
This means averting our gaze from the lawn and taking a look at where we are. One May morning as I wallowed in the opulence of the wildflowers in the local woods, I met a woman brandishing a wake-robin (more prosaically known as a great white trillium; more scientifically as Trillium grandiflorum, pictured), one of the thousands that illuminated the forest floor. She was intoxicated with its beauty, and desperate to know its identity. “I’ve lived by these woods for 30 years and have never seen these before. What is this enchanting flower? What is it?”
So begins enlightenment. Ah, yes—what is it? It—and the landscape and climate that fathered it—is Michigan, is the Upper Midwest, is here, more so than any number of chemically supported lawns or Norwaymapled median strips. And I would submit that it and the particulars of its (and our) place are essential knowledge for anyone—gardener or otherwise—who wants to fully understand, honor, and, yes, love this land we and Trillium grandiflorum call home. Only when our domestic landscape embodies this knowledge and this love will it fulfill the rhetoric on our bumpers. H
To do in the garden
To maximize next year’s floral display, prune mock oranges and deutzias back to strong new growth. Use these and other prunings to support flop-prone perennials such as New England asters and heleniums.
Dig, divide, and order new varieties of colchicums, fall-blooming crocuses, and other autumn-blooming bulbs.
Sow peas, collards, kale, turnips, and other cool-season vegetables for a fall harvest.
Keep newly planted trees and shrubs adequately watered.
Prune catmints, delphiniums, and globeflowers to within a few inches of the soil after flowering to promote vigorous new growth and repeat bloom.
Wild senna Cassia hebecarpa
By whatever name (some botanists now call it Senna hebecarpa), this lusty native—with bold, ferny foliage and midsummer sprays of brassy pea-flowers on sturdy four- to six-foot stems—is unsurpassed as an architectural perennial. Hardy throughout the Upper Midwest (to USDA Zone 3), it reaches its zenith (and often self-sows) in full sun and moist, well-drained soil, although it will accept much less. Sources, page 74.