by William A. Niering (1924 - 1999)
If one has a half-acre or more of land which is an old field or thicket phase of development as a result of abandonment from agriculture, one is in an excellent position to initiate a project in naturalistic landscaping. Such a situation presents the opportunity of learning some of the more interesting wild plants around your home and there begin creatively to accentuate the most attractive species and to eliminate selectively those that will not enhance your semi-wild landscape. This operation is in lieu of creating more lawn or of letting the area develop into a forest, although the latter alternative will result in a self-maintaining type in the northeastern United States and is thus recommended as another way of producing a naturalistic setting.
By selectively eliminating certain species of trees you can produce many lovely shrubs, low-growing trees, grasses, and other showy broad-leaved plants that would normally be shaded out by the competition of forest trees. You will also encourage the songbirds and other wildlife typical of a habitat where scattered shrubs and grasses intermix. You will be creating the so-called "edge-effect", long recognized as a habitat rich in wildlife. And you will also be surprised at how little work is needed in maintenance once the initial tree growth has been eliminated.
With increased caution being exercised in the use of weed killers, some homeowners may be reluctant to use herbicides. If one does not wish to use weedkillers it is possible to cut unwanted woody growth periodically, but most species (except evergreens) will resurge, necessitating continued maintenance. Another technique which Dr. Frank Egler has found especially satisfactory is girdling. This involves the removal of a complete section of bark around the tree with an axe during any season, or literally pulling off sizable sections of bark in the spring when the tree is actively growing. Such trees can be left standing to die in place. If herbicides are employed, they should be selectively applied. However, the use of herbicides in selective basal or stump applications is highly effective. Stem-foliar techniques are not advised. For further information on maintenance The Wild Gardener in the Wild Landscape by Warren G. Kenfield is recommended.
A brief review of our naturalistic landscaping project, which has been underway for over two decades at the Connecticut College Arboretum, will serve to illustrate the potential of this technique on your home grounds. In 1953 we selected a half acre within an abandoned orchard that was rapidly reverting to forest. By selectively removing the less attractive trees, especially wild cherry, and leaving the more attractive shrubs, a beautiful semi-open naturalistic landscape has been created. Within a matrix of wild grasses, and goldenrods are scattered shrubs of highbush blueberry, viburnums, huckleberries, gray birches, red cedars, and flowering dogwood. Depending upon your site, butterfly weed, black-eyed Susans, daisies, asters, ferns and other beautiful old-field species can be preserved by this technique.
The autumnal aspects of our Arboretum area are especially striking. Highbush blueberry and huckleberry lend their distinctive reddish tones and hold their leaves late into fall. On the tall columnar red cedar, Virginia creeper adds a spark of red within the dark green. In winter the evergreen cedars and the spreading trunks of gray birch lend a striking contrast to the tans of dried grasses. In spring the flowering dogwood bursts forth in a cloud of white. This is the potential in store for you.
A basic reconnaissance is your first step. A tree and shrub identification guide may be helpful in enabling you to compare your species list with ours. Then begin to eliminate certain trees, to open up vistas and to plan accent points along your trails. You may even wish to introduce certain species that you especially like such as the blue iris (Iris sibirica) planted in the old field around the home grounds. Wildlife will be attracted and future maintenance will be minimal. Over two decades of experience at the Connecticut College Arboretum have demonstrated that such a setting can be beautiful and environmentally sound.
From the Connecticut College Arboretum Bulletin No. 21, 1975, available to download in the Arboretum online bookstore or hardcopy in the Arboretum's administrative offices, Olin Science Center, room 103, on the Connecticut College campus.