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Sometimes what’s there can work

Sometimes looking more and doing less makes for a more satisfying landscape. When a fellow Kent resident asked me to design a garden to screen his work area from family activities, the first thing I asked was what they already had. The reply — “Oh, it’s just the woods” — made me expect the same invasive garlic mustard, Japanese honeysuckle and trees girdled and broken by oriental bittersweet that are taking over more and more of our woods every year. To my surprise, “just the woods” turned out to be an exquisite tapestry of choice native plants, growing in community, despite the hard work of maintenance contractors hired to neaten up the property. I’m afraid that I blurted out, “Do you know how much money people pay to remove the invasive plants you don’t have and plant what is already here?” The answer, a sincere and curious “No, show us; what do we have?” led to a delightful change of direction.Lowbush blueberries, Canada mayflowers, partridge berries, several native sedges, a few ferns, white wood asters and other wildflowers carpeted the forest floor, interspersed with taller huckleberries. They were shaded by oaks, hickories, red maples and more shadblows (so named because they bloom when the shad are running) than I have ever seen in one place. Most of the understory shrubs and small trees — “the brush” — had been hacked back to clear the woods. But cut shadblows were sprouting from the stumps along with maple leaf viburnums (whose berries are favored by thrushes), striped maple and sassafras. Once I pointed out each plant, explained which birds and butterflies depended upon them, showed pictures of their flowers, berries and fall color, I was asked to label the plants and write it all down so they could teach their kids. They were game to learn something new, engage the kids and shuck the high-maintenance suburban landscaping routine.We did plant a dogwood grove and some native understory shrubs, but the biggest change has been in replacing power tools with observation, selective snipping, allowing existing plants to self-seed and letting stumps, leaves and fallen branches remain to nourish the entire plant community from microbes to trees.Now the owners take pleasure in the small vignettes — a jutting rock painted with moss and sedges that catch the afternoon light, Canada mayflowers nestled between exposed roots, the plants that appear on a rotting stump. Ordering and shaping what is already there is a satisfying way to garden. On my last visit I noticed that artfully arranged rotting logs already have plants creeping up their crumbling flanks and that father and son made a path — detouring around plant treasures — by scuffing their feet through the leaf litter. The father commented that, like having a guided tour in a museum rather than just wandering on your own, having someone point out a plant, handle it and say its name makes you appreciate what is right at your feet. Karen Bussolini is an eco-friendly garden coach, a NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional. She can be reached at www.kbgarden@charter.net or 860-927-4122.

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