This piece originally ran in The Southern California Gardener in 1994; an updated and abbreviated version ran in the Silver Lake Press in October, 2002.


NURTURING NATURE


No doubt about it, natural-style gardening is on a roll. It's cropping up in every neighborhood, picking up converts and gaining ground. Its appeal is no surprise. As our countrysides become more suburban and our parks and forests more civilized, it offers balm to our sense of loss and speaks to a corresponding need.
We're realizing we don't have to drive a hundred miles and hike three hours to find a taste of nature. We can step right into our own backyards.
At least that's the theory. And a lot of people are buying it. Propelled by a desire to redress the earth's imbalance or by a quest for spirituality -- or at least by a good pair of running shoes -- increasing numbers of Americans are trotting to the nursery and selecting a (bio)diversity of plants adapted to their gardens' site, soil, climate and so on. They're also buying green lacewings, ladybugs and angleworms and releasing them ceremoniously to the land and to the skies.
Although steps like these are laudable and those new plants lovely as the day is long, some of you, while sipping pale ale on the back porch, sense that something still is wrong.
"Where is the poetry, the complexity of nature? Did I forget to buy the zing?"
The answer, of course, is that a natural garden cannot be bought. It can only happen over time, when you allow your plants to mature, live to a ripe old age, decay and rot.
Rot? Death and decay? Many of you will gasp, being, after all, the products of American culture. Granted, this last step to a natural garden is more like a flying leap and will quickly cull the dilettantes among you from the more serious adherents of natural gardening -- or as others may call us, the nuts.
But before you decide you're perfectly happy not to embrace nature (it's okay to just give it an air-kiss), consider the deeper satisfaction and practical benefits of a garden that reflects every facet of life. Like the chance to cultivate a whole new set of aesthetics, starting with an appreciation for the color brown. The buff brown of an upland meadow against the saturated blue of a fall sky. The nutty brown of dead oak leaves. The deeper chocolate tones of a log in the woods as it rots on the forest floor. You see? Brown is beautiful. Brown is good.
After that, there's the hurdle of gnarly to surmount, not to mention bent and crevassed. But these inevitable signs of decline should be easy to swallow. We already know and love these very qualities in the old trees in our backyards -- the handsome striations in the bark, the old war wounds.
So why not bring more character into your garden by allowing fast-growing subshrubs, for example, to showcase their age instead of tossing them out after three years or so -- as most experts advise -- when they begin to lose their flash?
Take that lavender bush of mine on the back terrace. This Lavandula dentata is fourteen and counting. Over the years, it's settled into the most harmonious shape, conforming to its situation with sublety and grace. From its seed I've grown another bush closer to home. I've cut back this lavender every year for ten years, and by now it's a sturdy survivor. If I had eliminated these two old plants, I'd be missing great "bones" in my landscape, not to mention the scented rack where I dry my lingerie.
I have a dusty miller, too, that I've allowed to age and sag, Senecio cineraria. It doesn't give as many flowers as it used to and hasn't set seed in some years. But it has assumed the rank of a great foliage plant (which many gardeners view as the summit of fine gardening), its felty white leaves still stunning at dusk, its landscape impact doubled by its shredded bark and looping, sinewy branches. It holds more gardening interest than a dozen dusty miller young squirts.
Not that I have anything against youthful plants, with their lissome limbs, their upright posture and go-go vitality. Every garden needs its cheerleaders. It's just that our cultural preoccupation with youth and the new seems to have unbalanced our gardens as well as our mentalities, to the point where old flowers are summarily...dead-headed, and plants past their prime given the boot.
While I won't go out on a limb and say every plant should be allowed to rot, or every flower left to mellow and ripen its seed, there is a definite beauty to this country look. And you won't be alone if you appreciate it. Upscale florists regularly revive the dead-plant look, like the mode for masses of dead grasses.
In your own backyard, of course, old plant material is free -- and its value is not simply aesthetic. Because when you allow your plants to complete their life cycle, you're crossing the line between consuming nature and nurturing it.
By doing so, in just a matter of time wildlife will seek out your garden. If you're a confirmed bird-watcher, let your flax go to seed, plus your poppies, coreopsis, sage and fennel. You can't go wrong with heirloom and native plants, and don't forget those grasses.
But don't think that seed is just for the birds. With luck, it may fall to the ground and germinate. Seedlings that descend from plants in your garden will be stronger than their store- bought conterparts and much more likely to resist adversity. Genetically suited to your specific backyard conditions, they'll need less irrigation, less fertilizer -- less reliance, in sum, on artificial imputs that weaken your garden's natural integrity.
You may even want to take a gamble with hybrid plants. If they set seed (some of them will not), their offspring will revert to their open-pollinated ancestry, with flowers usually more graceful and modest than before and with the added bonus that -- unlike some of their parents -- their blooms will always contain nectar accessible to the bees, butterflies and other insects you want to attract to your garden.
By now, your garden will be coming alive. But the real progress is still ahead, when you let dying plants keel over on the spot. Sure, you can speed the natural process along by cutting them down slightly before their time. Just don't pull them out. Leave the base of their stems and their roots intact to stabilize and aerate the soil. Clip their other remains into smaller sections and simply let them drop. In no time at all and with very little effort, voila: a Grade AA mulch to conserve moisture, protect your soil from temperature extremes and serve as a natural habitat for lizards, insects, angleworms and assorted microorganisms which will arrive spontaneously and enrich your soil for free, by breaking down dead litter into rich, healthy humus.
No more hauling in sacks of top soil and amendments. No more pitch fork sessions at your compost heap. Isn't brown sounding better by the minute?
Got an old tree stump? Let it decay. Old logs enourage a variety of beneficial life and provide ideal hibernating spots for butterflies and ladybugs, which will now stay, instead of flying away, given their more natural vegetation.
Better yet, spare the whole dead tree itself. Read Byron at its base. Dress in crushed velvet. Yet you don't have to get totally carried away to see the merits of decay on a grand scale. Hollow trees are a scarcity in the country these days and make great nesting spots for owls, bluebirds, even bats, which will repay your largesse with interest by keeping close tabs on your pest population.
And instead of hauling off that pile of dead brush that all gardeners inevitably accumulate, like dirt under the fingernails, you might consider just letting it be, as a refuge for furry species. If it weren't for that brush pile I've so benevolently abandoned on my back terrace, there probably wouldn't be that family of possums that parades past our window every night as we sit down to dinner. Who needs a nature documentary? We've got the real thing, live. Plus these possums control slugs and snails for encores, and don't stop for station breaks.
I can't deny that the above-mentioned debris lying about your place can lead to charges that you're untidy, or worse. But you'll learn to turn the other cheek. Let others spend hours maintaining their Ozzie and Harriet gardens -- you've got the key to the Secret Garden.
At the cusp of the twenty-first century, there's good reason not to clean up. A garden that tolerates a little disorder and includes the positive presence of old age and death is tremendously engaging and therapeutic. And creating a refuge for yourself and other species is its own reward.

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(c) copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.

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