In my first five or six years of gardening I was intimidated by my own plants. I would plant an area and then couldn’t get into it to weed or pick flowers or grab Japanese beetles because either I had not made a path or I had not put down stepping stones, or they had been swallowed up by the plants.
The idea of just STEPPING on a plant was shocking, and digging a bunch up to widen the path or to put a path in unthinkable. In one of my favorite gardening books called The Flower Gardener’s Bible by Lewis and Nancy Hill, they say that when you are able to dig up and remove (as in, to the compost or to a friend!) a plant that is healthy but that does not fit your garden or that you simply do not like, you are a “real” gardener.
A few years ago I started to feel more comfortable pushing the plants aside to create pathways. I began to dig up and divide and/or relocate plants with more confidence. The first plant I actually removed was inula (elecampane) a dozen of which I had proudly grown from seed and planted in my backyard garden, where they promptly grew to gargantuan proportions, eight feet tall with lower leaves three feet long that shaded out half of the garden.
Here you can see one that is just getting started — that rosette of tobacco-like leaves will soon get much bigger and it will send up a stately spire with lots of pretty yellow-daisy flowers.
Moreover, I soon realized these are the same plants that thrive in my area in scrubby fields and old pastures, including many right down the road from me. They had to go. They have roots like dandelions crossed with burdock on steroids, so I had to be really determined. When I was done I found out why these are powerful medicinal herbs–I rubbed my eye with my bare hands and they burned for hours. The roots can be made into tinctures and teas for lung problems, I read. Not only were they growing wild all over my neighborhood, they had already sent seeds all over the yard, so I have plenty of volunteer inula that grow in the lawn or along the side of the barn. They are welcome to stay there. But they are no longer allowed in the garden.
Many other plants that began as treasured and carefully nurtured rarities have expanded at a roaring pace. Most of the time that’s just fine with me. We got a few orange poppies, some forget-me-nots, and ajuga from my parents-in-law, and they are now everywhere. Cars going by slow down to stare in late May when the orange poppies are blooming.
I like these generous, unstoppable species for the most part. I can give them away, and dig up plugs to let them create new colonies in other parts of the gardens. I got a slip of goose-neck loosestrife with a wispy root and a sorry little stem, a few wilted leaves. My dear friend Nancy who gave it to me warned me it was aggressive. Wow. No kidding. Now I have three large patches of this tough, gorgeous plant. It is drought tolerant, grows in full shade, blooms a very long time in late summer, with beautiful, pure white racemes of starry white flowers.
Likewise sweet woodruff–I got a handful of this charming herb from a friend and now about a tenth of my garden has this growing as ground cover. It doesn’t have any vices as far as I can tell–grows in anything: full sun, full shade, wet or dry, poor or rich, sandy or clay soil. It has nicely-shaped, light green leaves and pretty little white flowers in mid-Spring.
Whenever you get a plant from my friend Eleanor you get free castaways–I got johnny-jump-ups from her in this way, which are now settled in every corner of the garden.
We’ve tried a lot of materials for our paths. We’ve taken used wood shavings from a nearby large stables, bought truck-loads of bark from the local Agway, even filched wood chips from the town road crew’s roadside leavings, but whatever we use it disappears in a year into the soil. This year I’m trying just plain packed dirt. We’ll see how it goes.
I’m also planning to widen the main paths and put in more benches and short railings here and there to make the garden more visitor-friendly.
We made an Aldo Leopold bench a few years ago. Very simple (you can get the instructions online easily) to make, sturdy and looks nice, but not something you can settle into to sip coffee or read a novel, and certainly you can’t sit with a friend unless you are very good friends. Of course, if you are a cat, you can be comfortable just about anywhere!