The situation that I face here is somewhat unique in that the property immediately surrounding the house is forested. I am not, therefore, dealing with the concerns of imported, compacted soils that usually inform the decisions of the gardener on the urban lot. Rather, I am surrounded by disturbed native soils that have been cleared of native vegetation and allowed to grow all manner of invasives.
My decisions are thus: chop up the soil and add amendments to create a nice, smooth planting surface, or remove undesired species by hand and disturb only the immediate area necessary for planting.
As an ecologist, I identify strongly with the latter approach, particularly in areas where the soils have been allowed to settle and form a rich humus top layer. In many instances, the predominant ground cover is moss, through which small herbaceous plants grow protected from the damage of raindrops and the drying effects of the summer drought.
In other places, a dense layer of fir needles creates thin but effective mulch nurturing a community of microorganisms that keep the underlying soil moist and fertile. Often while I am installing plants near a natural border, I will take a scoop or two of the topsoil from an undisturbed area and place it in the hole in lieu of potting mixture.
Removing non-native species, in particular Himalayan blackberry, while preserving forest soil integrity has become a time-consuming process, but it not without its rewards. In fact, I take a curious pleasure in wading into a thicket higher than my head armed only with gloves and bypass shears and clipping the canes down to the ground. Perhaps it is part of the simian nature to want to clip and pull things, much like chimps grooming each other’s fur. Whereas lawnmowing or watering are chores that quickly tax my admittedly limited patience, I can stand for hours complacently chopping briars.
The results in the areas where I have implemented this practice have been good. Leafy forbs such fringecup (Tellima grandiflora) and youth-on-age (Tolmiea menziesii) have emerged from areas once dominated by dense thickets of briars. Ferns appear to enjoy the light as well. Furthermore, as I trim, I do a plant survey of what lies beneath so that I can easily avoid anything that I want to preserve. Based upon my personal experience as a biologist, I recognize that the plant diversity here is quite low, and getting lower as more invasives enter areas that have been previously disturbed. There are, for instance, very few populations of fringecup left here, or of the few small clusters of coral root (Corallorhiza maculata) that I have located here. Finding and preserving them will be a big part of my personal conservation plan for the property.
Goats are another option, but these cute little cud chewers tend to prefer already open areas, perhaps a function of their innate desire to avoid predation in dense vegetation. They will not wade into a brush and blackberry canes unless constricted only to that habitat. Subsequently, I encounter them each day in their half-acre pen contentedly chewing their cud in a sunny dust wallow of their own creation while the briars threaten to take over the garden at the other end.
I will be the first to admit that this approach to soil conservation is slow, and as I do my six-month progress review with my camera, I feel as though I have achieved very little. In many areas around the house, the weeds still encroach, the areas I have landscaped have not reached maturity, or some of the plants have not met expectations and will need to be moved. Meanwhile, I struggle to assimilate the principals of design and apply them to my unplanned, off-the-cuff ideas. In many ways, I am more comfortable when I step off into the back 20 leaving behind the world of the manipulated landscape and entering the forest ecosystem that I know and love.