Border control with natives, garden variety
Photo by Dee Salomon

Border control with natives, garden variety

I have been thinking about borders, those of the garden variety. The word can connote both a barrier, such as a border with the neighbors, and a gateway, as with a border along a path, or with an entrance into the woods. Aesthetically, plant borders create focus, drawing the eye toward them. The traditional herbaceous border is comprised of plants that die back in winter; typically many are non-native. Mixed borders can include trees, shrubs along with herbaceous plants and annuals; a good opportunity to go native.

Several years ago I was looking for guidance to plant a border by the river which would serve the purpose to both reinforce the river bank and enhance the view from the house. Knowing that I wanted to work only with native plants, my friend and garden guru introduced me to Robin Zitter, a Sharon-based horticulturist with extensive knowledge of, and passion around, native plants. Robin helped me create a border that could echo the more formal non-native plantings established when the house was built. Robin added a path that she describes as ‘a meander through the border as one experiences the ecological and human connections of built landscape, border, and river.’ Robin added structure using native dogwood, nine-bark, inkberry, fothergilla, sweet fern and witch hazel and filled in with native perennials and grasses. It was proof to me that, with creativity and ingenuity (and money of course, although some of the plants were sourced from our woods) a native plant border can be as beautiful as one planted with non-native species, preserving the riverbank from erosion and creating a habitat inviting to native bees, insects and birds.

If your property abuts the woodland, it is visually pleasing to have sight lines into the woods — to see beyond — but still bring the liminal space between shade and light to focus. According to Robin most plant diversity exists in these transition zones. At the edge of the woods nature creates its own borders as the dappled light encourages growth. This is where you will find, if you are lucky, the creamy flowers of a native dogwood or a serviceberry’s white blossoms, though you are far more likely to see nature’s equivalent of a border wall, thanks to the razor-sharp thorns of barberry, which is effectively barbed wire, keeping out humans as well as other animals who used to rely on woodland habitats. Here is an obvious place for a border between traditional gardening and ungardening. Repair this important area by removing the invasives, including the spread of non-natives from garden planting (the Japanese snowball viburnum is a common border jumper.) If you are dealing with a large woodland area you might try removing a slim layer of invasives each year so that you can also remove the herbaceous culprits; for me these are garlic mustard, narrowleaf bittercress and nipplewort. In place of these, Robin recommends installing a dense edge where sunlight doesn’t come in as this will mitigate invasives. Remember that a border is also a gateway in; don’t forget to create an entrance into your woodland after which you can begin to plot out a trail throughout your woods.

Borders also exist as property lines. In fact, we call the area between our delightful neighbor’s property and ours the ‘DMZ’ because the dogs are not allowed beyond the far end. This was easier to enforce before we took out all the invasive barberry and bittersweet. We planted Mountain Laurel and native Rhododendron, adding soil acidifier for a couple of years to counter the alkaline effect of decaying barberry leaves. This year I will add some plant ‘fencing’ for which Robin suggests native roses. She describes Virginia rose as ‘exuberant’ and also recommends the hard-to-find climbing prairie rose (try Prairie Moon Nursery) Also good for the purpose, Robin suggests, are suckering shrubs such as gray stem dogwood. We are fortunate to have neighbors who allow us to do this work and who have even shared the cost of replanting; I realize this is not always the case. Let’s save a discussion around the more complicated neighbor for another time.


Dee Salomon “ungardens” in Litchfield County.

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