Let us permit nature to have her way. She understands her business better than we do. ~Michel de Montaigne
When we moved to our small farm in Massachusetts, one of the huge draws was a farm pond at the bottom of the pasture. I had big plans for “restoring” this area. Horses had destroyed part of the shoreline and there was little growing there except a small willow, a wild elderberry, lots of barnyard grass and the beginnings of a bramble thicket. We used electric fencing to create an area of shoreline off-limit to horses, that I planned to devote to native plants and shrubs for wildlife. A wet meadow… quite simply a wildlife gardener’s dream!
The shrubs I planted in this area have all worked well – serviceberry/juneberry, highbush blueberry, buttonbush, summersweet, and meadowsweet. All of these native New England shrubs love the occasionally saturated soil and the thicket they form is a popular feeding and nesting site for birds and pollinators all through the year.
The pond shoreline (pasture side), soon after we fenced it off and began planting native shrubs and perennials:
The perennials? Ahem. Well, it was a bit embarrassing….
Nature stepped in and took over from my attempts to design and plant a native wet meadow. The first year after planting, the voles took up residence, destroying the roots of the swamp sunflower, ironweed and New England aster that I had carefully grown from seed. Two years in a row, I lost expensive white doll’s daisy (Boltonia) plants, before giving up on that one. I was frustrated but undaunted. I planted more blueberries and a leatherleaf shrub and tried to pretend that the weeds weren’t getting away from me. My new passive approach ended up becoming my most humbling lesson as a gardener (so far!).
Have you ever seen a wet meadow devoid of plants? Me neither.
When I first tackled this meadow planting, it’s true, I followed my very own advice, which is to pick plants for the specific site conditions. I carefully chose native perennials that grow naturally in moist meadows. Trouble was, a LOT of plants like moist meadows, competition is fierce, and the most vigorous plants usually win that war. I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of other plants that would try to make their home there.
Within a few years of not being grazed, the area quickly filled with typical farm weeds such as common milkweed, goldenrod, jewelweed and stinging nettle. Unwanted weeds to those who use their land for livestock, but as it happens, this garden planted by nature, without my interference, turned into the perfect low-maintenance “habitat zone” for an AMAZING array of wildlife.
Hummingbirds fight over the jewelweed flowers in late summer, and the goldenrod and milkweed blooms are always covered with butterflies, bumble bees, predatorial beetles, parasitic wasps and other “good bugs” that feed on the pests in my nearby veggie gardens. Goldfinches and song sparrows pick at the loaded seed heads through the fall and into winter. The milkweed foliage is a host plant for countless insects, including monarch butterflies and milkweed tussock moths.
So I leave them alone here – these weeds can all duke it out with each other. Eventually, they’ll mostly be shaded out by the nearby willow and juneberry, so they are only a temporary floor covering as the shrubs and trees fill in.
The swamp sunflowers that I had planted from seed died right away, but interestingly, swamp sunflowers that later seeded by birds into my wild area grew tall and strong:
The non-native stinging nettle had to go, for sure, because this area requires occasional human access and brushing this plant’s foliage causes a painful sting to bare legs. I yank them out by the roots whenever they pop up, although I do allow this plant to grow in other “wild” areas of the farm, because nettle is an important host plant for question marks, red admirals and eastern comma butterfly caterpillars, and I’ve noticed a marked increase in these butterflies’ populations since I’ve let them grow in places. Stinging nettle foliage also brews into a fine organic plant “tea” loaded with the nutrients mined by the nettle roots. It’s also edible by humans, and makes an interesting pesto!
Apart from this selective weeding and the occasional yanking of non-native barnyard grass (seeded from our horses’ hay), this wet meadow is mostly self-maintaining. It evolves from year to year, and may look a bit “wild” by cultivated garden standards, but I satisfy my formal garden urges in other areas of our yard, and the living spectacle of wildlife that entertain us here year-round more than makes up for any disheveled appearance.
On the other side of the pond, bordering our horse barn area, is a more serious challenge. The horses spend much of their time here, which means high levels of ammonia & nitrogen from their urine flows through the soil straight towards the pond – toxic to many plants and pond life. After moving the fenceline back away from the pond to create a vegetated buffer to filter nutrients, we tried planting ninebark (below) and summersweet shrubs. Although they each did well and bloomed for a few years, eventually they could not cope with the nitrogen levels and they both bit the dust.
However, many native perennials DO love this area. Bee balm thrives here, along with blue flag (above), oxeye, New York ironweed, New England aster, blue vervain, and native violets that achieve epic size in all that moisture. There are still vestiges of an old stand of non-native ditch lilies at water level – I removed a few to make room for the blue flag, but the others won’t be removed as they are firmly shoring up the banks of this unstable area. And, if you’ve ever tried to remove ditch lilies from a garden, you’ll know they don’t give up easily.
Like the shrubs, the ‘Gateway’ Joe Pye weed that I planted gave up the ghost within a few years. But then, in another example of nature’s irony, a self-seeded Joe Pye weed appeared, growing out of a soil pocket in the stone bank of the dam, where it seems very happy. I probably wouldn’t have succeeded if I’d tried planting something there myself…
Spring blooming foamflower, Virginia bluebells , sedges and native violets spread thickly in the moist, rich soil here:
We maintain people access to the pond by keeping a rocky bank open for access by bare feet or kayak. Native rushes and sedges have popped up, and we leave them to help stabilize this area of shoreline, which sometimes floods.
Since this photo was taken, we have moved the raised vegetable beds back by 4′ to keep them from sliding into the pond, and have encouraged native vegetation to flourish. Yes, I learned my lessons from the wet meadow! Swamp aster, grass-leaved goldenrod, daisy fleabane (an annual), rudbeckia, blue lobelia, and non-native licorice mint have all seeded in, along with common milkweed and Canadian goldenrod. I weed out the milkweed and goldenrods to keep them at bay, and let the others remain:
Another “weed”, daisy fleabane (below) has popped up here in the last few years. They look exactly like the Boltonia that I struggled to establish nearby in the wet meadow -with white daisy flowers that cover the plant. Think of the money I could have saved on the plants that failed!
The south side of the pond has not been disturbed for many years, and a number of trees have grown up along that bank. Their shade keeps the pond water cooler, preventing algae levels from building up and choking out the fish. The tree cover also provides safe protection for turtles and breeding opportunities for tree frogs (who lay their eggs on tree branches that overhang water). The trees also produce a spectacular scene in winter:
Except for a few (stunning) rose mallows that I just added, I don’t plan to introduce any more plants to my wet meadow these days. I’m hoping for volunteer seedlings from nearby ironweed, swamp milkweed or perhaps the wild bergamot will try to make inroads. The shrubs are gaining size and eventually they may shade out many of the perennials. But I know that something else interesting will pop up in the increased shade, and my wildlife meadow will continue to evolve as nature sees fit. One thing is for sure, my natural meadow is a huge hit with the wildlife I want (birds and insect predators) so maybe I’ll carve out another chunk of sunny pasture to expand my habitat meadow. I hope my horses don’t notice…
Below: Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) grows in the saturated soil on the pond’s edge:
The nectar-rich flowers of Buttonbush are amazing orbs the size and shape of a ping-pong ball. Buttonbush is the host plant for the beautiful luna moth caterpillar as well as the amazingly camouflaged saddleback butterfly caterpillar:
Next month: More lessons in acceptance..or aquatic “habitat” gardening in our farm pond…
Want More Information?
Do you have a pond (manmade or natural)? Here are some related articles:
Take your cues from local wetland plant communities as Heather Holm recently wrote in a great NPWG series about planting in wet areas, woodlands or prairies.
An article from Audubon Magazine about a Washington family who added a pond habitat to their backyard.
An NRCS article about landscaping backyard wetlands with native plants.
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