The “dog days” of August have never been high on my list of favorite times of the year, but this year, something is different. The days, although hot and humid and punctuated with afternoon rain showers or downpours, are filled with plants that are actually thriving – hibiscus and hydrangeas are happy; tomatoes, squashes and beans are bearing fruit in abundance; and pumpkin vines are flowering profusely for all the pollinating insects. Trumpet vines are covered in flowers beckoning to hummingbirds to sip their sweet nectar, and tropical houseplants are flourishing in the hot humid air. Grasses are shooting up plumes of flowers that wave in the breeze. And, the weeds – ah yes! The weeds of August make gardeners crazy. My “something different” this year is that I’m not letting the weeds get the best of me.

After years of weeding naturalized grass plantings, the grasses and wildflowers are beginning to take control of the ground plane, leaving some, but very little room for the weeds. And, so what?

In Thomas Rainer’s recent book, “Planting in a Post-Wild World,” he discusses the “native state” of some restored landscapes. Thomas explains, “Removing invasive species can take years of heavy labor or herbicides. Once invasives are removed, sites must be covered with new native plants to keep the invasives at bay. Even then, they rarely stay away. So a site must be continually weeded and replanted…” This type of gardening can and often feels like the endless pursuit of trying to put the sand back into the sea.

Loss of control

Gardeners and horticulturists find themselves in a strange place these days as a true shift in the created landscape garden is occurring. Many of us, including myself, are still selecting plants of interest and planting them in collected and carefully curated beds neatly made with mounds of mulch as the coverlet. My epiphany is that I can let go and let the garden plants – both native and non-native – that I once so carefully tended to begin to grow into a plant community. Our collective American experience of carving space from the wilderness is essentially complete, but our thinking about gardening and managing landscapes has not fully shifted to embrace gardens that are loose and enchanting.

Where can gardeners who are living in vast and varied landscapes find inspiration for created and managed frivolity and enchantment? Places that spring to my mind include the High Line in New York City, our region’s own Lake Lure Flowering Bridge or even The North Carolina Arboretum’s Forest Meadow, with its native and introduced trees, grasses, perennial flowers and even a few weeds.

At the Arboretum, we are working to embrace this new concept – using Rainer’s book as a guide – as part of a new adult education certification program, Blue Ridge Eco-Gardener. To find out more about this program that explores ecosystem-based gardening, please click here.