Ungardener meet Gardener: Grappling with human instinct in the woodland
Clearweed is native but still an aggressive seeder in garden beds and woodland alike. 
Photo by Dee Salomon

Ungardener meet Gardener: Grappling with human instinct in the woodland

After ten days of holiday away, I returned to a jungle where there had been woodland. That my jungle is a proliferation of aggressive natives rather than invasive plants means that my efforts at clearing them off the property is working. But now what? What is the ‘right’ thing to do when native species grow out of control?

I have never seen so much Clearweed, Pilea pumila, on our land but with the amount of rain we have had this summer I am not entirely surprised to have seen a carpet of it spreading over the strawberry groundcover and throughout the woods. 

Until I read about this plant several years ago on Margaret Roach’s “Away to Garden” podcast transcript I did not know that Clearweed is a food source to at least four types of caterpillars. With that knowledge I then left a swath of them around. Now I needed to make a quick decision. I began by pulling the bigger ones, cutting off the bottom half of the plant below where the seeds nestle around the stem. There is so much moisture in the translucent stems, it seems to me that leaving the stems could be useful for the soil. As the smaller ones grow I am getting to those as well but there are thousands left.

I find myself in a perplexing situation that is, perhaps, the next level of ungardening — making decisions that are less about restoration and more about ensuring both a diversity of native species and, dare I write it, imposing an aesthetic — my aesthetic — into the woodland. More like a gardener than an ungardener.

Terms like “wilding” and “ungardening” suggest letting nature have its way which, more often than not, becomes synonymous with unruly, out of control and messy. My human instincts fight against that notion; most of the time, in most circumstances, I want control over the visual. When it comes to the woodland, nature’s way is usually good enough for me…most of the time.

Consider the native plants whose seeds are enclosed in nature’s Velcro. Enchanters Nightshade, Circaea lutetiana, has attractive leaves and a rather delicate spray of tiny white flowers above them. But those flowers turn into burrs that attach themselves to animals and, left to their devices, spread profusely. I pick them, knowing that I will never get them all and rationalizing that their riddance will continue to allow me to walk more easily in the woodland.

The burrs on Virginia Stickseed, Hakelia virginiana, are even stickier than those of Enchanters Nightshade. They have ruined several wool hats, many pairs of work gloves and a fleece jacket or two, not to mention the havoc to Scout’s fur. This plant also gets an unsightly mildew on the leaves mid-summer, making for an easier decision on aesthetic grounds. I cut it back when the mildew appears and before the flowers turn into the nasty small burrs. I have read that Native Americans used the roots for medicine but I cannot find any information on whether the seeds are an important food sources for birds. It could change my opinion...

Apropos of seeds — there is a profusion of them this year and my office is lined with paper bags and small jars into which I have collected an abundance: Devil’s Walking Stick, Aralia racemosa; Wild Sarsaparilla, Aralia nudicaulis; Dolls Eye, Actaea pachypoda; Mapleleaf Viburnum, Viburnum acerifolia, Hobblebush, Viburnum lantanoides; Early Meadow-rue, Thalictrum dioicum, Foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia and others. I will plant some in the woods and some in the marsh where we have so far cleared out about half of the stilt grass. (Thank you to Jane for the suggestion of the Mini Dragon weed torch with its pinpoint flame.)

There is enough Penstemon digitalis seed, when it is ready, to send a packet to ten readers. If you would like a seed packet please send your mailing address to me at dee@theungardener.com. First come, first served and I will respond to all of you to let you know if you are one of the ten or not.


Dee Salomon “ungardens” in Litchfield County. 

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