What has made me into the gardener that I am

By Bonnie Orr
WSU Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener

Front yard garden
Not all gardens are neat and tidy. Some are an explosion of color and texture. And that’s okay. – Unsplash/Benjamin Cheng
Bonnie Orr
Bonnie Orr – WSU Extension Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener – photo by Don Seabrook, Wenatchee World

I grew up without a formal yard. Consisting of native grasses and wildflowers, the “lawn” near the creek was mown once a year in June when we played croquet during a birthday party. The mock orange perfumed the air; the elderberry provided purple gems with which to make syrup.

Secret hideaways were found in the profusion of shrubs on the bank of the creek. The ponderosa pine provided needles to heap up and lay in to watch the cloud creatures evolve and diminish.

Best of all was the bark on the mature pines. This bark could be scaled off into imaginative jigsaw pieces and fanciful animals and objects that entertained me for hours. Nestled in the grasses were harmless snakes, bird nests and an array of unidentified insects; floating over the trout in the creek were skimmers making endless patterns on the surface of the still water. This landscape shaped my idea of a garden.

My current garden is a profusion of shapes and textures, fruit-producing shrubs, four-season color, and sanctuaries for birds and insects. Creating nature’s refuge has guided my landscape efforts.

In the same manner that there is no bare soil in nature, every inch of my garden is shoulder-to-shoulder plants providing color most of the year. Leaf mulch serves several purposes. It preserves the soil moisture. It also provides places for insects and food for worms. Best of all, it prevents annual weeds from germinating, so I only have to weed twice a year … there are so many more stimulating garden tasks than weeding.

Over the years, my “thicket” has entwined; it is 14 types of vigorous shrubs. This is a refuge for the birds. It includes flowering shrubs for the pollinators, and then the fruit; hawthorns, mountain ash, chokecherry, elderberry, Oregon grape and serviceberry are produced for birds’ winter feeding.

I struggle with the notion of “native plants.” Our area landscapes are filled with hundreds of plants, many introduced, many sneaking into the environment from other continents. Is native plant a shorthand for not hybridized? What is native to North Central Washington is lean and sparse and provides only short, enthusiastic spurts of color. Does native mean carefree and not requiring the application of herbicides to keep it in check and insecticides to protect it from “native” insect pests? Is “naturalized” the step-mother to plants yearning to be natives?

My plant selections require no pesticides. I let the birds take care of the aphids and other chewers. Prima donna plants are not my choice. I don’t like to deadhead and stake and worry about mildew. The mildew is managed effectively by selecting cultivars that are mildew resistant. I particularly eschew deadheading because I am eager to allow plants to produce seed heads for birds’ winter feasts. There is a vast amount of misinformation about deadheading — that is, the plant will not continue to bloom if the spent blossoms are not removed. Mostly, I think these garden myths have been developed by people with a heightened sense of tidy.

Nature is not tidy; neither is my garden.

A WSU Chelan and Douglas County Master Gardener column appears weekly in The Wenatchee World. To learn more, visit bit.ly/MGchelandouglas or call (509) 667-6540.