Snow and Garlic Mustard

We had seven inches of snow over the weekend. It fills out the hollows of my hill. From the windows above, the slope of it disappears and I see only gentle brown and white.

I had hoped it would make the ground one smooth blanket, but poking up throughout the snow are the brown, leafless stems of garlic mustard. When I cut down the honeysuckle, the garlic mustard moved in. I did not know what it was, so I did not instantly pull it up. It will be a problem for years now.

Knowledge is a challenge. Before I started my restoration project, I liked having woods behind my house, but I knew little about them. They were a green privacy curtain, beloved by birds and deer, but not much else. Now I know them well enough to have goals, which means I know them well enough to register failures. Fortunately, I enjoy the work so much that I am not daunted by the prospect of more weeding.

Monty Don says that gardeners rarely sit in their own gardens; there is always too much to do. I can live with an endless to-do list in my head, hating myself for not finishing it. But with the hill, I do not feel this so much. I think because it is alive and always changing, I do not feel as responsible for it. I am giving an aid here and there, because if I do, the hill will heal itself. There is freedom in knowing it’s not all up to me. It turns that endless to-do list into celebratory options.

And it lets me love the snow, even with the garlic mustard poking through it.

Fallen logs

This past week I finished cutting down all the honeysuckle and chopping up the bits. Months ago I stopped bagging them for removal. The little pieces stay on the ground to rot and feed the soil. The trunks get stacked in the pockets of space left between fallen logs and the soil.

I do not know how old our woods are. When the land was cleared to build the house in the 1890s, sewer pipelines were laid and the hillside was terraced with stone walls. The terraces deeper downhill beyond my property line, as does the junction for the sewer line. A neighbor told me the terraces were farmed as a vineyard at first until the imported European vines got a fungus and died. I do not know if this is true.

Roughly a century is long enough for many trees to grow to maturity, die and fall. Our slopes are littered with fallen logs. The largest is easily two feet in diameter and lies parallel with our driveway. It holds up almost a foot of earth, making its own natural terrace. The smaller ones lie every which way, wherever they fell.

My cutting and weeding is dormant till spring, when the honeysuckle and other invasives will sprout again. The only task for me in winter — at least when the ground is clear of snow — is to move these fallen logs into strategic positions to hold up my hill. Someday I will have to repair the decaying stone terraces; currently I have neither the skill nor the money. In the meantime, I can use the resources available to me. Those fallen logs are too precious to squander.

A fallen log is hope. The dead wood is home and dinner to dozens of species. Mosses, fungi, insects, birds — even our friend the rat snake lays its eggs in dead trees. As the wood rots, it nourishes the ground that gives life to new trees. It both holds up and becomes our topsoil. A fallen log is a message that the life process that has been here for millennia will continue a little longer. As long as I see the log rotting, life goes on. We still have a chance to fix things. My hill still stands up.

But today is too cold for moving logs. I will stay cozy inside with books and daydreams., waiting to appreciate the spring.

Hardy hibiscus is not hardy hibiscus

The other day I told a family member that the adventure of my hillside restoration project lay in how complete my ignorance was: everything I learn is new, and there is so much to learn.

And then I learned that my hibiscus is not native.

When we moved in fifteen years ago, the yard had two hibiscus bushes near the sidewalk. We decided to let them spread into a hedge. It has taken fifteen years, but now they look lovely. They grow perfectly in our soil and require very little care.

I believed they were native. They are sometimes called “hardy hibiscus,” and I had seen that on lists of native plants in Ohio. Rookie mistake. The “hardy hibiscus” that make our hedge are hibiscus syriacus, which is native to Asia. The “hardy hibiscus” which is native to our area is hibiscus moscheutos, a non-woody wildflower also called swamp mallow. They are distantly related, but they are not the same.

So my first big success in native gardening is not native, and therefore not a success. I am chagrined.

I have been deciding what to do. The hedge is along the sidewalk, not in the woods, so it is not in the area of my restoration project. It is beautiful, and it took fifteen years to fill in. It would hurt to remove it. But I will definitely remove any hibiscus syriacus I find spreading into the woods. I cut out three this week. If I keep finding more, I may re-evaluate cutting out the hedge. I don’t need a new invasive.

In the meantime, there stands my hibiscus hedge, a monument to the steepness of my learning curve. It will at least keep my humble.

Sunday hawk

Today as we pulled into our street, I stoped the car. Perched on the power line in front of us was a hawk. We see them occasionally at our house, but not often.

The kids were fascinated. I am lousy at identifying birds of prey but I think it was a broad-winged hawk. We parked and got out of the car as quietly as possible. Before he flew away, the kids saw a lizard in his mouth.

I welcomed the avian approval of my work. She may have shown up anyway, but they prefer woodlands with a variety of tree species for the different prey animals they attract.

I’m taking it as a compliment.

Neighborhood Cats

Does it always rain this much? I have never paid much attention before. Now I notice every day, while I calculate if my hill is too wet to stand on.

The neighborhood feral cat, whom we call Patches, watches me when I work. He stalks our woods, which certainly limits the hillside as bird habitat. Since I cleaned out the honeysuckle, however, his black and white patches are a visual bullhorn. He is still silent and sneaky, but no prey that avoids predators by sight would miss him. He is cautiously curious when I work, and circles me from a distance. Other feral and neighborhood cats show up, but Patches seems to have established ownership of this hill among the cat tribe.

Our own cats stay inside, and only hunt the odd lizard or spider who manages to get indoors. We made this decision after paying the bill to treat them for ringworm. I do not want to re-expose them and pay that bill again.

I had debated arranging our hill as an ideal space for birds of prey, but birds of prey sometimes eat cats, and this would not endear me to my cat-owning neighbors. Purist ideology and getting along with neighbors are mutually exclusive. So I have settled for snake habitat instead, which seems to be working. I have seen more (and bigger) rat snakes since I started my work. I will know for sure when the weather warms again. The local snakes eat many of the same prey as falcons and owls, but they do not attack cats.

I let the feral cats stay because they keep the raccoons from getting too confident. On a nuisance level, I’ll take a cat over a raccoon any day. Cats do not spread my garbage all over the drive or gnaw through my roof.

There may be eastern coyotes in the woods too, but I have never seen one. We sometimes hear a chorus of yips, and the kids found one deer carcass. We assume coyotes are back there, but the assumption remains unconfirmed. None of the neighbor’s cats are missing, so far as I know.

Every project is a compromise. I have decided to leave the hostas and the hellebores that grow on the shady side of the house, even though they are not native. They are well-established, they have not spread in the twelve years since I planted them, and very little else will grow in that total shade. So my urban hillside garden will also be a compromise with the cats. I do not see how it could realistically be otherwise.

Naturalized, Agressive and Invasive

A lot of words get tossed around in native gardening projects. It’s worth a moment to clarify.

Naturalized means a plant that is not native, but has been in an area so long that it has found a niche in the environment. Native-gardeners have differing opinions on naturalized plants. Some see every non-indigenous plant as an invader that prevents a native plant from occupying its space. Others focus on the balance of the ecosystem as a whole, and allow for naturalized plants to be an element in it (or at least consider them no more than a minor disturbance that is not worth the bother of eradicating). Queen Anne’s Lace and day lilies are examples of naturalized plants. They were introduced to this continent by European colonists and are part of the average person’s mental landscape of Midwestern wildflowers, but they are not native.

Aggressives are plants that grow out of balance with their environment. There may be some element of the ecosystem that used to keep them in check that has since gone extinct. Trumpet vine and goldenrod are aggressive native plants. They are beautiful indigenous flowers, but they may need human intervention to prevent them from crowding out more diversity of plants. Aggressive plants can be native or non-native, but when the word is used without qualification, it usually means a native plant that spreads rapidly and needs to be controlled.

Invasives are non-native plants that grow out of balance with the environment and crowd out native plants. Invasives are the big bad guys. They reproduce unchecked and destroy diversity. There are introduced species that are not invasive: garden plants that sit neatly where you plant them and do not spread by root or by fruit without a gardener’s deliberate intervention. Hostas are a non-invasive garden plant. An invasive plant grows beyond boundaries and spreads to wild spaces. Most introduced grasses are invasive. Asian honeysuckles are invasives.

Revealing the ruin

We have had three clear days in a row, so our hill was dry enough for me stand on today.

I spent the morning cutting honeysuckle shrubs into pieces small enough to lay on the ground. All the honeysuckle I have cut out will rot eventually, but it rots much faster where it touches the soil. If I leave all the twigs and branches on the cut-out shrub, they hold it aloft, and it only dries and becomes a frame for another invasive vine to climb.

It is simple, mindless work with tangible results. Bit by bit, my hill is getting clearer and ready for new planting. Today’s work revealed more of the tumbled-down retaining walls. Without the honeysuckle obscuring everything, my hill looks like a ruin. The retaining walls are hodge-podged of stone and concrete and cinder block. The terraces are not even, nor do they run the length of the hill. There is a corner of terrace here, and another corner there.

Remember the scene in Prince Caspian where the river-god under the bridge awakes and says to Aslan, “Hail, Lord. Loose my chains”? Cleared of the honeysuckle, my hill looks like it stood up and shook off those terraces like broken chains. It is a wonder to me it did not don my house like a hat and walk off with it.

Someday I want to rebuild these terraces. I want to add more steps and peg a slide into the earth between them. I try not to think too much about that stage of the project right now, because I know it will involve more people (like a surveyor to make sure we have our property line right). It will involve either hiring skilled people or learning new skills myself. To avoid being overwhelmed, I put off thinking about it for now. I have enough work for now.

So today I will enjoy my ruin, grateful that even ruined terraced walls help hold up the house a little.

The Catalpa Sapling

We have an old catalpa tree that is gradually dying. It leans toward the house, and we will need to cut it down this year or next. Before we do, I want to see it leave saplings on our hill. It is my favorite tree; tall, with giant heart-shaped leaves and sweet-smelling white flowers in late spring.

Catalpa grow all over the area, but I’ve seen none with leaves as big as those on our street. I don’t know if we have a different subspecies, or it if it’s some idiosyncrasy of our particular tree. In any case, I want to see more of them established before we cut this one down. I have looked for them on our hill as I removed the honeysuckle, but was disappointed. There were no new ones growing.

Then I finished clearing the stretch of hill behind our garage. I found two catalpa saplings, each about three years old, just on the edge of the space I am dedicating to native prairie. I could let them grow without compromising the planned wildflowers. I was delighted.

Two days later I checked on them again. The deer had completely destroyed one of them. Deer like to eat the bark of young trees (but they will not touch the young honeysuckle!), and by clearing the invasive shrubs around these two catalpa, I might as well have laid out a buffet dinner for them.

At least now I know why I haven’t seen any young catalpas on the hill.

So to reproduce our big tree I will need to be more deliberate. I might even propagate some indoors first, though so far my planting has strictly been “let go and let God.” If I want to keep catalpa I plant or discover, I will need to protect them with either a sheath around the trunk or a deer fence. I am not the only one who loves these trees, and the deer are happy to love them to death.

The Ark Garden

There is something ridiculous about my efforts to restore my hillside to native forest. My patch of hill is so small — only about 1/6 of an acre. It is surrounded by young woods gone to ruin, full of honeysuckle and garlic mustard and wintercreeper, crowding out any replacement-rate reproduction of the trees. If I succeed at creating a tiny habitat for upland Ohio forest, it will need constant tending to remain that, and not revert to the same invasives that surround it. This is not a grand scale project. It will not change the world.

But native species need help to survive, and if there ever is a chance of restoring Ohio woodlands on a large scale, little patches like mine could help. Trees can pollinate over long distances, and keeping mine alive for future generations may help some other recovery effort years from now. We know that environmental disaster is coming, and we do not know what plants may be tools and resources in our fight against it.

That sounds too grandiose. I don’t have threatened species on my hillside. I’m not an eco-warrior. I can’t take myself seriously enough for it. I only mean that the life of this hillside is beautiful to me and worth preserving. It sustains me in ways I did not predict; I want to pass that sustenance on to others.

This garden is my ark, my absurdly-built boat bobbing on top of the floodwaters. It is my living, growing act of hope in the future and the mercy of God.

The Deep Dark Woods

A few months ago, a neighbor girl told my daughter she could not play with her anymore. Her mother forbade her to play with my kids because they went into the woods. We did not know she was not allowed. It did not occur to us to ask.

The woods behind our house are a hundred acres or so of hillside that is too steep to build on cheaply. This is an urban neighborhood, with veins of forest running through it. These are not country people. Many of my neighbors are afraid of the woods.

They don’t tell me what they fear. Wildlife? There are presumably a few small predators back there: foxes and an occasional eastern coyote, but they are shy, and I have never seen one. They avoid humans. There may venomous snakes (this is copperhead territory), but again, I’ve never seen one. My neighbors may fear criminal activity back there. But my limited observation is that the criminals of our neighborhood are also scared of the woods. The only other people I have seen in the woods are the occasional sewer worker.

I think my neighbors are afraid of the woods simply because they are unknown. It is hard to see through the branches. The ground is unfamiliar. It drops off suddenly, and is full of abandoned and decaying terrace walls. This is not a wild space. City sewer lines run under this ground, and I do not see a tree that looks more than 100 years old.

The greatest dangers in our woods (besides injury from my work) are ticks, which can carry Lyme disease, and dogs. The ticks are a problem because the deer proliferate, free from large predators and fed by city lawns. The dogs are the meathead monsters that the neighborhood breeds for home defense, and fail to keep restrained. The ticks can be held off with insect repellent, clothing tucked into shoes and gloves, and careful examination when I come in. The dogs have no solution, but they also are not a problem that stays in the woods.

I do not find our woods scary. They are full of light, especially now that the honeysuckle is cut out. I know where the stone terraces crumble and where they offer steps. (I wish I could say it keep me from stumbling.) Working in them, even though I only know a particle of this ecosystem, makes them beloved. I cannot imagine being scared.