Northeast: A Landscape Reclaimed

Tiverton, Rhode Island, USDA Zone 7

As any seasoned gardener knows from repeated weeding, a garden—or any landscape for that matter—changes very rapidly without the constant vigilance of a caretaker. Naturalists refer to this process as succession. A cleared patch of soil will be covered with grasses and weeds within a matter of weeks. Within a year, the same area will have wild shrubs growing on it. Within three years, small trees will appear, and within 10 years, a woodlot will have formed.

In 1995, my wife and I moved my nursery to a beautiful piece of property that had once been the home of the prominent landscape designer and noted plantsman, Lloyd Lawton. His distinctive style of landscape, planted predominantly with mixed broadleaved evergreens and conifers combined with the abundant use of large local stone, ensured what many garden books refer to as “good bones.”

In this case, the “bones” were the equivalent to those of a Tyrannosaurus rex. There were stately Ilex opaca trees that stood 25 to 30 feet tall. A grove of Thuja plicata rose to 45 feet. A spectacular Magnolia kobus soared above the roofline of the house. Surrounding a small outbuilding that now houses my office, a magnificent Cryptomeria japonica topped out at close to 50 feet tall. There was a purple-flowering rhododendron (whose exact variety I may never know) that rose close to 15 feet tall and about half as wide; when in bloom, it dominated the surrounding evergreen landscape. In addition to the spectacular trees, there were myriad beautiful shrubs, perennials, and bulbs that I discovered only after several years of living there.

Why did it take several years? In a word, succession. When I arrived, the property had not had a caretaker for 10 or 15 years. After Mr. Lawton passed away, his landscape remained to duke it out with the process of succession. English ivy, which had once been used as groundcover, had long since left the ground and was well ensconced in the branches of several host trees. While this might not pose a problem for a concrete wall or brick chimney, it can be problematic for a tree. When ivy vines mature at the tops of trees, they turn into long-branched evergreen shrubs. Although arguably attractive, they can cause host trees to weaken by blocking light, harboring moisture, and preventing good air circulation. Years of deferred tree pruning had also blocked sunlight from reaching perennials below. The Ilex opaca trees were engulfed in bittersweet and multiflora rose. One holly was so covered with vines that when we pulled them all out, there was not one branch that had any leaves left on it. We were just about to cut down this 30-foot skeleton of a tree when a broken branch revealed green just below the surface of the bark. Today (eight years later) it could be the poster child for what a mature American holly should look like, complete with abundant red berries just in time for Christmas.

Today the property is well on its way to how it might have looked had there not been a 10-year cease-fire in the war on weeds and unchecked growth. I’ve discovered that for every two years of neglect, it takes one year of restoration. I started with clearing both the undesirable invaders as well as the plants that succumbed to them. Once that was done, it was time to reassess what was left, and to work at restoring the health of the existing trees and shrubs. Pruning out deadwood, thinning where necessary, yearly maintenance pruning, and amending the soil were necessary steps in revitalizing the garden. Finally, moving plants to new locations where they would thrive, and replanting newly created voids, started the transformation back to the well-tended property this once was.

With each season that passes, I’m transforming this garden, and adding plants that will put my stamp on it. With every weed I pull, or branch I prune, I fulfill my duties as a steward for the previous garden’s owner. I can only hope that when I am done caring for this garden, the next owners will not have to fill a 10-year gap in the process of succession.

WORTH GROWING: Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’
This carefree yet beautiful spring-blooming bulb will grow in either full sun or, surprisingly, in bright shade with no direct sun. Few bulbs really like to grow where abundant moisture abounds, but this one does. In ample moisture, and good, humus-rich soil, the flower scapes will top out at 36 inches. Similar in appearance to snowdrops—only in this case, snowdrops on a rich diet of steroids—the nodding. bell-shaped, white flowers are tipped in green, and smell faintly of chocolate. Hardy to USDA Zones 4–9.

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