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Whose garden is this, anyway?

In the gardens around this house, I've tried to produce a style somewhere between the formal, highly-ordered and dramatic ... and the romantic chaos of the cottage garden.

But now that my back won't tolerate much work in the yard, most of the place is becoming wild. Some beauties I planted have disappeared; others are spreading with abandon. Some have popped up volunteering in odd places — and some old friends, which I was lucky to plant in just the right place, are maturing into outstanding presences.

And then there are the weeds. One definition of "weed" depends on the gardener's preference: a plant where you don't want it. Another definition emphasizes how certain plants take advantage of disturbed ground, how versatile and aggressive they are, outcompeting other plants.

When annual fleabane (Erigeron annuus) sprang up all over my back garden this month, my first reaction was delight. The sparsely-leaved stems didn't crowd other plants but lifted the delicate mini-daisies four and a half feet, to float above everything else, sparkling in the sun. I've always loved a two-storey effect; nothing could have better directed my attention to the prettiness of this plant.

Still, immediately I jumped to anger: "this weed is taking over" — and started pulling them up. I got perhaps ten plants — about half — before I came to my senses and realized what I was doing to my back. As I cringed through the next day, I was forced to reflect on my habit of control.

Recently I've been trying to ignore the parts of my garden that don't fit the way I designed it to look: trying just to look at the parts that still fit my image of how they "should" be. It's so easy to cling to my notion of "my kind of garden." To want my garden to express "my style." But that means I don't enjoy the beauty that happens in the wildness that's growing. It's just not up to me any more, how it all goes together.

As I admitted this, suddenly I remembered my initial delight at the fleabane. I found myself regretting getting rid of it, and thankful I still had a lot left! I brought some into the house, where it was easier to see that the soft, thin ray petals on the half-inch flowers are not white but actually an extremely pale lavender. It's lasting well in the vase.


Photo by C.H. Clark - Erigeron anuus. The tiny hairs standing straight out distinguish it from E. strigosus, which has hairs that stay pressed flat along the stem.


Text and photos © Copyright 2006 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 7 July 2006

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For more information
  • Principles of Cottage Planting - on the BBC's Gardening site
  • Eastern Daisy Fleabane - on the Plants database of the USDA's National Resources Conservation Service.
  • Daisy Fleabane - on the site of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History, a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina. Interesting description .
  • Erigeron annuus. Note here the excellent photo of a seedling, since they look quite different from the mature plant.
  • Erigeron annuus (L.) Pers - On the Missouri Plants site. One of these photos shows much better than mine the "pubescent" stem hairs.