Today, in place of the lawn there’s a garden filled with flowers, golden grasses, burgundy shrubs, pops of red, rich blues and purples of every shade.
Once upon a time, the sloped land that would become my wildflower garden was a rocky forest of native trees, shrubs, perennials and ephemerals. Sixty years ago the developer’s bulldozers cut streets through the oak-hickory-red cedar woodland. They built brick houses that had deep backyards and shallow front yards. They left a few trees and took out the understory. They planted grass so that boys and girls could play baseball, kickball and reach for the sky on their backyard swings.
Twenty-five years ago I surveyed the property around my new home and dreamed big dreams. I envisioned lush green grass and a cottage garden filled with the palest blue, pink and white flowers, just like I saw in gardening books and magazines. That young woman would be shocked were she to time-travel to this garden. Today, in place of the lawn, there’s a garden filled with flowers, golden grasses, burgundy shrubs, pops of red, rich blues and purples of every shade. The canopy trees are taller, the yard is shadier and it resembles an oak-hickory-red cedar forest woodland again. An understory of smaller native trees and shrubs has been added for year-round interest and color. Native perennials, grasses and ephemerals that were a part of the herbaceous layer of the forest have returned to the garden.
I walk the garden every day and I am often reminded of that young gardener who dreamed of a garden spilling over with flowers. My garden does resemble an exuberant cottage garden, but instead of the imagined exotics, it’s planted with wildflowers endemic to Middle Tennessee. Way back then, I had no idea that the garden of my dreams was an impossibility, nor did I imagine that I would someday create a garden of my heart.
When people ask me how I became a wildflower gardener I always tell them that it started with a rock and then another rock.
Solidago flexicaulis, Amsonia hubrichtii and Symphyotrichum species in the fall garden.
Symphyotrichum shortii drapes itself all over the garden.
Penstemon calycosus, endemic to my garden, and Baptisia sphaerocarpa.
Baptisia australis and a bumblebee
I had planned exactly where the cottage garden would be planted. Right off the patio there were three steps that led up to a sunny flat area. It was the perfect spot – easily accessible from the patio and visible from the house. Armed with youth, enthusiasm and a new spade I started my garden on a beautiful spring day. When I stuck the spade in the soil it clanged against a rock. I moved the spade back a few inches and tried again. There was another clang. I spent the morning prying enough rocks out of the border to build a wall around most of the garden. As it turned out, everywhere in the yard was rock hiding just beneath the surface.
But rock wasn’t the only issue.
I soon discovered that my soil couldn’t support any of the perennials I lovingly planted. Like many inexperienced and eager gardeners, I assumed that if plants were being sold at the local nurseries they were appropriate for my garden. So I bought them, a lot of them. They all died. Of course, I tried more cottage garden plants: hosta, coral bells, lamb’s ears, hollyhocks, foxglove, roses, hydrangeas and lavender. They looked beautiful for a season, and then began a slow decline culminating in death. That’s when I took a good look at the soil. It was hard as concrete after our usual dry summer. A month later, the fall rains arrived. The soil quickly became saturated and could only be described a sticky, icky wet mess. My garden soil was terrible, nothing like the moist, well-draining, loamy clay soil that the garden magazines described as ideal. It killed everything I planted. It ate the amended soil I added to the planting holes and pushed up more rocks and clay! Gardening became a frustration, not the delight I thought it would be.
It all came together.
It was a wonderful day when I stumbled upon Thomas Hemmerly’s Wildflowers of the Central South (Vanderbilt University Press, 1990). I’ve never had the honor of meeting Dr. Hemmerly, but he became a kind of garden mentor to me. I came to understand and appreciate the special native plants that grow in Middle Tennessee. He put a name to the unique plant community I was struggling to garden. Mine is a xeric oak-hickory forest community with areas of extremely shallow soil and exposed limestone. The shallow, nearly neutral clay soil is hard as concrete during our dry summers and wet and sticky during our rainy winters.
He introduced me to concepts that were important to know if I were to have any success at gardening. I learned that Middle Tennessee had a unique microclimate, very interesting wildflowers that grew nowhere else, and that the rock in my garden is limestone bedrock overlain with thin soil. I finally understood that plants have to be rugged to survive in my garden and that planting native wildflowers made sense. After all, they had evolved and adapted to our wet winters and dry summers.
It didn’t take me long to find just the right plants for my garden and it wasn’t long before I fell head over heels in love with wildflowers. You might say they became my passion.
Clay and Limestone Garden
Rather than fight the unique characteristics of my plant community, I’ve embraced them. The limestone that I dug from the soil is now part of the rock walls that line the garden. The woodland garden looks like it has always been here. Wildflowers that were found growing in the backyard’s woodland edge are now part of the herbaceous layer tucked under the native shrubs and understory trees. Leaves fall into the garden and decompose, but it’s still clay and it’s still dry in the summers and wet in the winters.
There are times when the shallow clay soil and rocks wear me out, but when I sit in the garden and see my beloved wildflowers, my spirit is lifted. I know that my garden of indigenous wildflowers and carefully chosen exotics is a delight to visitors and a haven for wildlife.
My journey to become a wildflower gardener was bumpy. Yours doesn’t have to be. If there’s just one lesson that new gardeners can take away from my experience, I hope it’s this one: Get to know your plant community. There are many good resources. Try your local botanical center, your state’s native plant society, purchase a good state wildflower guide or search the Internet. I can promise that if you do, you’ll have a successful garden and maybe, a shorter journey to the garden of your heart.
Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about them on her blog, Clay and Limestone.