I Hope “Ungardening” Never Takes Root in Our Lexicon

On an internet surf earlier today, I came across this article on Yahoo called “Back to the Wild: How ‘Ungardening’ Took Root in America.” 


The article itself was fine, its content uncontroversial.  It profiled a couple of local (DC/Takoma Park) gardeners (ungardeners?) who plant natives, shun pesticides, and let their yards grow a little wilder.  It also touched on the “rewilding” of vacant urban spaces and its benefits for wildlife.

It even gave a shout-out to Sara Stein’s fascinating book Noah’s Garden, which it called a “Bible for the [rewilding] movement.”

My displeasure arose not from the content of the article but from this hideous new term “ungardening.”  Did the writers of the article invent it?  Is it a term that’s trending with Millennials that I’m only now encountering?  Whatever the case, I hope it doesn’t “take root” because it’s simply a terrible word choice for what it purports to describe.

People who strive for a more natural, “wild” look in their yards are still gardeners, and their actions still qualify as gardening.  Selecting plants from a nursery for your garden counts as gardening, even if you’re selecting natives.  Digging a hole for a plant and watering the plant in counts as gardening — doesn’t matter if the plant came from China or if you’re transplanting it from 10 feet away.  Planting flowers for bees instead of just for aesthetics is still gardening. Making a conscious decision to mow your grass at 4 inches and to mow only once a month is more an act of gardening than hiring Mow ‘n’ Blow to scalp your lawn every week.  Choosing to leave seedheads up in the winter?  Chopping up fall leaves to compost in your planting beds?  Also acts of gardening!

I get it, “ungardening” is supposed to be a cute buzzword to draw attention to more ecologically-friendly gardening practices.  I suppose what irks me is that it suggests that the word “garden” — whether as a noun or a verb — has become tainted, when in fact that word, for so many of us, represents our greatest pleasure and passion.

It reminds me of the use of the term “Unschooling”, which became popular awhile back as a “hippie” version of homeschooling.  Presumably, an unschooled child would take no tests, could spend his day doing whatever interested him, and wouldn’t have to study yucky stuff like math until he was good and ready!

Horrifying, right?  The only thing worse than an ungardened yard would be an unschooled child!

Except I’m pretty sure that’s not how it actually works (at least I hope not).  I am sure that most “unschooling” parents don’t sit around and go, “hey honey, Billy is six now. What would you think about keeping him home from school and literally not educating him in any way?  Just to see what happens.”

I suspect that most practitioners of “Unschooling” are just like these practitioners of so-called “Ungardening” — people who see serious flaws in the traditions and institutions of education/horticulture and who are ready to try something different.  Not — as the prefix implies — choosing to do nothing at all.

The “Un-” suggests passivity, whereas these folks are anything but.  There may be some on the fringe who are willing to sit back and watch their house become swallowed in saplings and vines and go, “this is called nature, people.  It’s called ungardening and I think it’s really problematic that you don’t need a machete to get to your front door.”

But creating a Certified Wildlife Habitat is not the opposite of gardening.  No, these people are not “ungardeners.”  Indeed, they are taking responsibility for something very precious, they are actively involved, making choices, and doing it all out of love.  Gardeners.


It’s February 4 and 62 Degrees

Groundhog Club co-handler Al Dereume, second from right, holds Punxsutawney Phil on Feb. 2.

Days like this always lull me into a state of blissful delusion.  Well, that’s it. Winter is over.  The daffodils will be blooming any second now.  I can put the snow shovel back in the shed, get the salt washed off my car, resolve to clean and sharpen my garden tools but then fail to do so — all signs of spring!

Time to go out and take stock of the backyard.  I’m in shirtsleeves!

The ground that was rock hard 36 hours ago from the “Polar Vortex” is now thawing into a semi-marshland.  With each step my boot sinks into the brown ooze; I know I should stay out of the garden beds, but I can’t help myself.  Winter weeds: somehow they survived the sub zero wind chill looking fresher than ever, and I’m going after them.

Little rosettes of shot weed are popping up all over the place, and the ground is soft enough to pluck them out.  I move through the beds, remembering a blog I’d read last spring saying that shot weed is edible; there was a photo of a carefully arranged tuft of the weed on top of an open-faced roast beef sandwich on a pretzel roll with mustard.

I hold up one of the weeds.  A glob of mud clings to its roots.  I will probably stick with romaine, but it’s always good to know I can forage for food in my own yard should society unexpectedly collapse.

I continue to remove the shot weed, plus some dead nettle, wild strawberry, and creeping Charlie.  Hmmmm, should I be doing this?  I look back and see I’ve squashed a bunch of soil.  Damn.  Now I’ve gone and destroyed the soil structure and deprived the plants’ roots of oxygen.  What would my local extension agent have to say about this?  Nothing good, surely.  Here I am, always trying to teach the young people in my life about the virtues of delayed gratification, and yet at the first sign of spring I can’t keep myself from traipsing all over the delicate, exposed beds.

I tip-toe out of the garden bed back to some stepping stones.  The sky is turning a deeper blue, tinged with orange.  The hint of warmth that had settled into the garden at noon is quietly dissipating as the sun sets.  I pull off my mud-caked boots and head back inside.

Still a bit giddy from this blissful taste of spring, I decide to check the weather forecast.  66…50….68!!…64….hmmm, 38.  Well, that’s days away….the weathermen are probably just guessing.  After that, who knows?  Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring after all.  And nothing says science like a group of elderly men in top hats leaning in to hear the pronouncement of a giant rodent-oracle and then reciting it from a scroll.  I think that more scientific discoveries should be delivered to the public in this milieu.

Later that evening, I retire to the couch with a glass of wine and a gardening magazine. As garden activities go, it’s not as satisfying as doing stuff in the dirt under the sun, but it’s not half bad.

November 6, 2018

Some imagery from today in my backyard:


I have always had plenty of good fall yellows, but I am happy to be nurturing along some more reds:


This Hosta ‘Stained Glass’ looks pretty good for Nov. 6.


Autumn fern, Sarcococca, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, fish


Judd Viburnum


our shed and bee area:


Some yellows…American hazelnut, Bottlebrush buckeye, and spicebush


Fall color fail. This redbud, which I got at a native plant nursery a few years ago, has been a disappointment.  It had one flower last spring, and so far the fall color has been non-existent.


Some fading pennisetum, aster, chyrsanthemum in our old wheelbarrow:

P_20181106_160425My lone Colchicum autumnale ‘Pleniflorum’…I ordered and planted 5 from Brent & Becky’s but only this one bloomed.  Awwww…


My fall vegetable gardening attempts.  Carrots: 1/10


Broccoli: It’s not going to happen.


I can always count on my Super Sugar snap peas:


75 ‘Marit’ tulip bulbs from Brent & Becky’s


Gardens, Kids, Time.

When I started gardening, my son was 12 months old.  I took the baby monitor outside with me while he napped and laid it in the grass while I worked.  I vividly remember that first summer clearing bishop weed from one of our backyard beds, digging down into the soil to find every bit of fleshy, white root, all the while keeping an ear out for those little noises he made when he woke up from his nap.  I can still recall those sounds, through the static of the receiver, little whimpering noises that meant my gardening session was over.

A few years later, I bought him some plastic gardening tools.  He wanted to do everything mommy did.  I have a picture of him at two years old, very seriously wielding an orange plastic trowel over a pot of herbs.  Oh, there’s my little gardener, I remember thinking at the time.

Age five, six, seven, etc., he still wanted to come outside whenever I did.  Often he would make gardening quite difficult!  I bought a plastic sandbox shaped like a turtle in hopes of  keeping him occupied while I gardened.  Sometimes it worked but often it didn’t.  He would roll in the mulch or bother the dog.  Sometimes he would pick up stones and toss them into the flowerbeds. Cut it out! I remember snapping at him and telling him to go inside if he couldn’t behave himself.  If only I could garden in peace, I thought.

Now he is 12.  Occasionally he wanders out to see what I am doing, but more often he stays inside and pursues his own interests.  I am free to garden in peace.  No baby monitor, no interruptions.  Sometimes I stop and look up at his bedroom window and wonder what he is doing.

Today he wandered the garden with me and we picked herbs. I challenged him to name each herb just by smelling it.  He got about half of them right.  I told him that the smell of herbs warmed by the sun was one of my favorite things about summer.  He told his dad and me about his excellent sense of smell after differentiating chocolate mint and spearmint.  We agreed that this was exceptional.

Some of the changes that occur in the garden make me ecstatic and some make me weep. I am glad there are a few things, like the stones, that never change.

Toxic Relationships

Very few can survive, let alone thrive, living in the vicinity of a toxic individual.  Many will succumb instantly, unable to co-exist even for a short time in a toxic environment.  Others make a go of it, only to perish slowly or merely limp along, never reaching their full potential living in the shadow of a toxic presence.

Those of us with black walnut trees need to find those plants who are co-dependent, who will not only put up with juglone (the toxin present in all parts of Juglans nigra) but who will thrive under its canopy, bringing the tree its slippers and laughing at its offensive jokes.

I got an email from Simeon in Ithaca, NY, who gardens under black walnuts and inquired about planting a Kousa dogwood beneath his trees.  Would C. kousa pack its bags after encountering a black walnut’s toxic personality or would it accept its adverse circumstances and become self-actualized anyway?

I wasn’t sure, but I did ask Simeon to send me a picture of the perennial border that he has planted under his walnut trees, and he kindly obliged:


As you can see, all sorts of hostas and ferns look completely at ease in the presence of juglone.


Simeon also highly recommends ‘Sunburst’ St John’s Wort (Hypericum frondosum ‘Sunburst’) as a plant that flourishes alongside black walnuts.  Thank you Simeon!

I find it both comforting and inspirational to find other souls who are committed to finding plants who tolerate the presence of black walnuts — messy, pernicious, beautiful, bountiful black walnuts. What? You’re too good for to live with one?  Oh, you don’t want to live with someone who drops bombs on your head and poisons your environment?  Get outta here, snowflake!

July 7, 2018

A glorious, sunny, breezy day today and I spent it toiling around the perimeters of my property at war with ivy and Virginia creeper.

Each year I make a little more progress on the unkempt regions of my backyard, and this summer I am doubling down on the vines that grow along the fences.  When I am feeling defeated by these vines, I convince myself it’s okay to let them crawl all over the stockade and chain link and slither under my shrubs.  It’s a wild garden, I say to myself.  These vines are just “rambling” and “scampering” among the other plantings and they “soften” the look of my ugly fencing. It’s a William Robinson look.

Ha-ha. Except that’s mostly delusional because in truth the ivy twines between the fence boards, grows, and wedges the boards apart.  The little sticky pads on the Virginia creeper cling to the sides of my cute little shed, ready to tear off the yellow paint when I try to remove it.  The wild grape sends out its wiry tendrils, like antennas on some alien life form, searching for a delicate little garden plant — like my thalictrum! — to smother to death.

There is something very satisfying about grasping a vine that runs along the ground and pulling on it with just right amount of force so that the roots come up without the vine breaking.  I always try to see how many feet of vine I can get up just by pulling, before the vine breaks or gets caught on something and I have to come in with my clippers.  Sometimes I can get like eight or ten feet of vine in one tug.  Oh, yeahhhhh….

I have a serious problem with Virginia creeper and wild grape along my chain link fence. After years of ignoring them, they’ve developed massive, inch-thick roots that run right underneath the metal of the fence.  My little forked weeder is useless in this situation — like putting out a fire with a Waterpik — so I haul out my shovel and try to wedge the tip of it under the root.  Try to pry it up, though, and the damn metal fence gets in the way.  Blast!  Except every once in a while I get the shovel under there at a sweet angle and when I push down on the shovel handle pop! a giant section of vine comes up.  Pull hard on it and — if I’m lucky — pop, pop, pop! — I’ll get a couple of feet of that mother extricated from the soil.

I pulled on so many vines today that even now, sitting like a lump in this chair, I see and feel myself pulling vines. I feel my fingers closing over a piece of ivy and pulling.  Chunks of cool, dry dirt fly onto my bare arms as I rip it out.  I cram the piece into my yard waste can and crouch down to search for more. Did I get it all?  No, there’s some more encircling the trunk of that euonymus.  Crouch, grab, pull, repeat. Pretty sure I will dream about pulling vines tonight. In my dream, the vines will be endless, the world will smell of dirt, and William Robinson will be laughing at me, laughing so hard.