IMG00042-20100406-1156Unkempt old orchard at my country place a week ago

One of the trickiest things in gardening is something city gardeners never get to experience: planting things outside the garden, in a relatively wild area that the gardener will not be mulching, weeding, and fussing over with any regularity.

For example, I am adding pear trees to an old orchard of cow apples. Pear trees get really tall–40 feet–and there is no room for their shade in the civilized portions of the property. I have also planted weeping willows–the most romantic of trees–in a boggy meadow beside the road for privacy.

The success rate of such plantings is pitifully low. Out of the five pear trees I've planted in recent years, one survives. The rest were browsed by deer or absorbed by the great chain of being. Unfortunately, pears tend not to be self-pollinating, so I probably will order more before St. Lawrence Nurseries closes its window in a few days.

Even a tough, fast-growing tree like the willow struggles to out-compete weed and brush. Out of three planted last year, only one is going strong.

A few years ago, my husband decided that lowbush blueberries would look great as the border between a wild area and a mown path. I warned him that it's very difficult to garden outside the garden, but he assured me he would keep the weeds down around them. Ha! I was able to rescue eight out of 21 bushes and put them in my garden the following year.

As for sticking herbaceous plants in a wild spot…that is nothing short of futility in my part of the world. I have a book on my shelf called The New Perennial Garden by a young Brit named Noel Kingsbury that recommends planting perennials right into weedy meadows.

Well, Britain is another country. That would never work in my goldenrod- and beebalm-dominated meadow. My place is just too fertile. Turn your back on a patch of bare soil and you soon have a jungle of weeds taller than the gardener.

I can see why overkill is Mother Nature's preferred strategy. She'll scatter a thousand seeds, in hopes of creating a single apple tree.


  1. You’re so right, that’s a scenario that urban gardeners just don’t face. I have to admit, it sounds a bit intimidating. All that uncontrolled growth would probably make me a bit twitchy and give me nightmares! 🙂

    Potatoes & Beyond

  2. It may be a pain, but at least you have the “problem” of wild land. I’d love to have so much space to deal with, even with the jungle !

  3. We don’t have problems with deer here in the UK but but when they plants a tree on the estate they put a fence around each tree to protect it from the cattle I don’t know if that would be helpful in your situation or not.

  4. My dear Michele when you plant something outside of the garden it becomes the garden, the wild cultivated garden, a blend of sorts. Now I do not have deer to worry about. My country hunted deer only recognize wild plants as food. But if I want anything I plant to live here I must not allow it to be swallowed up. All I have is the wild cultivated garden. There is no outside of it.

  5. Michele, I don’t know where you live and garden, but I hope it is not near any commercial orchards. In my area, which is mostly orchards, we have problems with untended, non-commercial backyard fruit trees becoming vectors for pests and diseases; so our grower’s association came up with a “Backyard Tree” program, to give a gift certificate for a local nursery with a list of suggestions for non-threatening trees and shrubs to those who agree to rip out their untended fruit trees.

  6. This is what burns me up about broad brush gardening advice – unless you are standing beside me working in my yard you have no idea the problems I deal with.

    Every garden is different.

  7. John, could not agree with you more.

    Anne, my cow apples could not be healthier. Survival of the fittest. Nobody sprays them, they are not grafted, and they produce lovely tart little apples.

    I read somebody like WIlliam Alexander arguing that you cannot grow an apple without some elaborate chemical program and just shake my head.

  8. Oh yeah, and Christopher C., of course, you’re right.

    But in the vegetable garden, I am in complete control. Everywhere else on my country place…it’s sink or swim.

    And I adore the country aesthetic of Washington County, NY–which is just that. Vegetable garden and then naturalized plants in big stands that add a bit of humanity to the landscape: orange daylilies, willow trees, flag irises, lilacs, peegee hydrangeas.

  9. When you are planting on non-maintained land, you need to give new plants the benefit of extra protection, depending on your conditions. In your situation, I would have recommended that you enclose new plantings with a 4 to 5 foot tall chicken wire fence to keep the deer out, and also clear a 5 foot diameter zone around the new tree/shrub and put down weed fabric/cardboard mulch with 4 to 6 inches of bark mulch over it to keep weed growth at bay until it can get established. Depending on underground varmints in your area, it may also be necessary to provide a protective wire basket at the roots and a collar at the base of the trunk.

    At least in your part of the country, you mostly have year round rains to keep things alive. Here in California, the window for “wild” plantings is October thru perhaps January, and it makes sense to start with smallest sized plants that can get established on winter rainfall and survive the first summer’s dry season, or be prepared to hand water the first year or two.

    If you know that the resident flora and browsing animals will outgrow/out-compete the new plantings, you need to give the new plant sufficient help to give it a decent chance. I’d guess that monthly checking in on them and clearing growth away could also work, if one had the time.

    On the other hand, at least here in California it is also relatively easy to get succulents and desert plants established here without much more effort than sticking a cutting into the ground at the right time of the year(late fall/early winter).

  10. Michele, I wasn’t arguing that your trees are unhealthy, or that apples can only be healthy when grown using an “elaborate chemical program” (not all apple orchards are toxic). But as you know, without some kind of monitoring and maintenance (and you state that in your garden, you are “in complete control”), bad buggies can establish themselves. Doesn’t matter how long the tree’s been thriving. The backyard tree program is a friendly way of asking someone who clearly doesn’t give a hoot about the fruit tree in their yard a chance to plant something that’s low-maintenance and not potentially harmful to neighbors who make a living growing fruit.

  11. I don’t think Noel Kingsbury can still qualify as a young brit anymore, Michele, considering that he’s in his early 50s. And, in his (brilliant) book, he quite clearly recommends eliminating weed competition in the areas immediately around whatever it is you might be trying to naturalize. And, besides, my friend James Golden has been conducting a very successful experiment in planting certain forbs and grasses into the existing matrix:


    I do believe that success depends almost entirely on the type of plant you’re trying to naturalize…Immature trees – no way; aggressive perennials – sometimes yes…

  12. Peter, thank you for the link. Beautiful garden, interesting writer.

    But you still haven’t convinced me that semi-wild gardens don’t require serious pains. A quick perusal of James Golden’s blog suggests that there is both 8-foot deer fencing and a burning program.

    In order to insert perennials into my meadows, I’d have to stand guard all summer long with a pick, ready to battle an overwhelming force–the fertility of my soil.

    I’m way too busy in the vegetable garden for that.

    Sorry to mischaracterize Kingsbury, a gardening personage in THAT OTHER COUNTRY. His youth is trumpeted all over the book, but I failed to notice that the book itself is 15 years old.

  13. A nice circle of woodchip mulch will do wonders in slowing the onslaught of the meadow’s inhabitants Michele. You could even consider the evil glyphosate to start off as a spot opener.

    I know you have goldenrod and that is a tough one. Hand yanking after a good rain will get a chunk of the rhizome and slow it down. If your meadow has lots of grass, well give it up. You may not want to invest the needed time.

    Our meadow is in a utility line created hole in the forest so there is no grass to deal with and the worst thugs just get sprayed and pulled. The thing is the meadow is the garden. It is not outside of it. The vegetable garden is next door to the meadow and is a garden unto itself.

  14. Christopher C, you are as usual right on more than one count. The only way I could create a meadow garden is by using RoundUp all over the place…Noel Kingsbury actually mentions such a practice on his blog. Excuse me, this is NATURAL gardening?

    And second, goldenrod is an unbelievably strong plant and the dominant force in my meadow.

Comments are closed.