Category: DIY renovating an old garden

Be afraid, be very afraid……

At first glance, a charming scene. Some sort of groundcover weaving its way between the Lily of the Valley. But step back a bit, look at the whole scene, and you quickly realize that is not the case.

This is our third spring since we relocated to Wisconsin, the second in this house. The first spring was spent in “corporate housing” while we searched for a house. That apartment backed up to the fox river plain. During that spring I marveled at the wild turkey that wandered onto our patio, the occasional sighting of a fox, and wondered about the plant with white flowers that seemed to be taking over the landscape. 

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), at first glance such an innocent looking plant. Presumably introduced from Europe for culinary or medicinal properties, but one of those plants that outside of its native habitat has proven invasive, crowding out other plants. Endangering the natural habitat.

And it’s no wonder. These lines from the King County, WA noxious weeds website pretty much sum it up:

“The fact that it is self fertile means that one plant can occupy a site and produce a seed bank. Plant stands can produce more than 62,000 seeds per square meter to quickly out compete local flora, changing the structure of plant communities on the forest floor. Garlic mustard is also allelopathic, producing chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants and mychorrizal fungi needed for healthy tree growth and tree seedling survival.”

Last year, I did my best to pull up or cut off flowers of the plants I saw around the yard, but hadn’t noticed the small seedlings. In fact, I hadn’t really studied up on the plant and assumed this was an annual. I wasn’t looking for the first year seedlings. Yesterday, as I attacked the current season crop, the long tap roots of the plant made me realize, this was no annual. This is a biennial. Meaning it grows two season – seeds sprout in the first spring, flowers in the second spring, sets seeds and dies. And this plant does all that with remarkable vigor. This robust root structure is not the result of a single spring’s growth, and explains why the WI DNR site says not to just cut off the tops in the spring. This is a plant built to survive, it can re-sprout, is built to do so.

And that’s when I noticed the seedlings. Thousands and thousands of them. Between rocks, under plants, in the walkways. EVERYWHERE.

This spring’s seedlings in the the cracks of the retaining wall will become next spring’s plants.


The local recycling center will not accept garlic mustard, which tells me not to compost it. This means my weeding has now become a two trug job, one for the “normal” weeds, and one for the garlic mustard. In my old Kentucky and southern Illinois gardens, I fought henbit and chickweed each spring. Thought those were the worst things to battle. Know I have a much more formidable opponent in this plant. Will have to be much more vigilant, but is it me or the garlic mustard who needs to be afraid…at least in this little patch of ground.

Baby Steps…….

Early this evening I stepped outside to watch my son riding his scooter in the driveway. Before I knew it a weed in the side bed had caught my eye. Pulled one, then another. Soon I found myself dragging out one of my garden trugs and attacking this bed. Wait a minute, the side bed is not on my list of where to start this year. But yet, once again, I find myself impetuously tackling this area.

I started with the perennial crabgrass weaving through the clumps of daylilies and hostas. I’m not sure if I was more surprised by how easily the roots pulled up in this soil, or how long those roots were!

The soil….. After gardening for 15 years in hard clay, here handed to me in the garden I’ve been avoiding is the soil of my dreams. I’ve never had such friable loamy soil as this. OMG, I just described soil in *my* garden as friable loam. Hot damn! It has that wonderful soily smell too – not sour, not stinky but fresh, composty, ALIVE. Non-gardeners may never understand how this can make a gardener’s heart sing!

The back side of the bed, behind the tree, had little rosettes of green leaves peeping up at the surface. At first glance, they seem like innocent little seedlings.

Dying to know what they are, because innocent they are not, nor seedlings. Pulling one up, I found a big juicy root. Then masses of big juicy roots. Talk about shutting down the song and putting fear in my heart. This is not good. But I’ve beaten worse, I’ve had to take back a bed after a poor, poor decision to plant Houttuynia cordata ‘Chameleon’, kept Artemisia ‘Oriental Limelight’ in check. I will beat this mystery plant!

The good news is the soil made it easier to dig through with my hands and pull up the roots. Masses and masses of roots.

Yes, much better. Think maybe something is telling me that this is where I should begin. That maybe I am creating a small little blank slate to call me own, to re-connect with this long passion of mine.

Now this is a old, familar sight. Thankfully I had changed out of “good” clothes before those weeds caught my eye. Too many times in the past, the garden has side-tracked me, pulled me in while wearing work clothes, dress shoes. I get lost in the garden…so imagine this scene but in clothes that don’t bounce back quite so well.

Another familiar sight. Why I don’t even try to grow my nails as a gardener. Why I keep them cut as short as possible, and am a manicurists nightmare. I know, I know, wear gloves. But how can I when the feel of dirt on my hands is one of the best feelings there is!

Where to begin……

There’s plenty of evidence around my yard that someone at sometime had some professional landscaping done. In fact it appears that maybe multiple someones at multiple times – some professionally done, some not so. I found this plat drawing in the folder of appliance manuals and other household info the previous owners left behind.

Problem is it is also apparent that no effort was made to making these “improvements” over time cohesive. Nor was any effort made to maintain the plantings. Which leaves me struggling in the unknown territory of a shady yard, and unlike the other gardens I’ve created – the lack of a blank slate to create as my own. Instead, I must build upon what I have – make decisions about what to keep, what to lose, and most importantly, where to start. It will be 2 years in July since we moved in, and I’ve let the garden and yard plans fall into a bit of inertia.

My sister in-law and brother tried to jump start me last Memorial Day with an impromptu decision to cut down what I referred to as the “damn yews” along the front of the house. While that did lead to a little plant buying spree (yes, I am a bit of a hortaholic by nature), other than several container plantings, nothing new happened in the yard.

This year I am ready. For a variety of reasons. And frankly it’s time.

I know I will keep this original edging along most of the borders of the yard.

Problem is, most of this area has also been allowed to go wild. Lots of junk trees, rampant suckers. Not a lot to keep. But probably also not a first priority.

Instead I’ve got my eye on (read want to remove) two areas which seem to be later additions. The edging doesn’t match, the island one is out of scale, and the plants inside, just bad. Lots of common (and invasive) honeysuckle.

On the side of the house, yet another type of hardscape, probably the most recent addition based on the retaining wall material. Actually not a bad area, even if I’m not overly fond of this manufactured stacked concrete material. Most of the bed is hostas, want to do some sort of low shrub at the top, and that front lower bed is empty except for a couple of wild ginger (Asarum canadense). Figure this is where I’ll start playing with shade perennials.

But the area where I really need to focus. Where I can make the most impact. Where I have the closest to a blank slate is the front of the house. The place we cut down the damn yews. This is where I need to get out my design pencil and put on my thinking cap. Yes, astute reader, that’s yet another form of edging. Want to expand the beds, change the lines. Have ideas. Time to put those to practice.

Meanwhile, we did make a smidgen of progress on the side. Bed full of overgrown, gangly sumac (Rhus aromatica). Cut them back hard. Just going to mulch this bed this year. Hoping to get them shaped up, at least presentable for this year. Know they will be replaced. But not this year. Because I think I’m beginning to see the starting point. Should be an interesting journey. Come with me, ok?

%d bloggers like this: