The Feral Garden

I will confess this to you, my friends, a fact which fills me with great shame—I have given up on the garden this summer.

Everybody does this at some point, but they usually wait until August or so. This year, on the first of July, I threw in the towel.

I’ve traveled too much this year. I have been too busy. I have neglected it shamefully and it has gone feral.

I have just accepted that I will not tame it again until fall. I no longer need a hoe for the weeds, I need a chair and a whip.

It’s the weather. I honestly expected to come back from my two-week trip to find it wilted and panting in the heat. It’s summer! Summer is hot around here! Usually—in what passes for a normal year—it’s fairly dry and thundery. So, with the best of intentions, I set up my automatic watering system to keep the vegetables from drying out…

…and it rained.

And rained.

And rained.

It’s raining right now. If I didn’t have to leave town tomorrow on another trip, I’d be building an ark in the garage. There are flash flood warnings for my entire county and roads that no one should drive down until sometime in October.

Climate change? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe this is the way this climate is supposed to be—we’ve been in drought for quite awhile. We’re not in a drought now, for the first time in three years, and groundwater is finally inching back up to where it’s supposed to be. I look out into the garden and think “Oh god. This is normal. I have been gardening under a complete misapprehension.”

The effect of this rain on the garden is extraordinary. It shoots up eight feet tall, then falls over. My neatly mulched paths squelch underfoot. Water drains toward the low points and stands there, leading to an extraordinary crop of smartweed and frogs and an even more extraordinary crop of mosquitoes. The wheelbarrow fills up with rain and I fish weary lizards out of it. (One wheelbarrow is now home to a population of the predacious diving beetle, which leaves me deeply conflicted, since I was using that wheelbarrow, damnit!)

There are very well-meaning sites that will tell you that you should try and prevent standing water on your property, to reduce mosquito populations. I laugh. Bitterly. Then I go make a mojito. (The mint is leggy and floppy and not as strong as I might like, but one makes do.)

The beans and tomatoes have fused into a single wall of green that eats away at the edges of the deck. My cucumbers are utterly useless–the variety I planted this year is terrible in this climate and turns yellow and bitter overnight, when the cukes are no longer than my index finger. I won’t grow this kind again. Every time I go out of town for a weekend, I return to dozens of fat orange oblongs squatting in the dirt.

The liatris flails like a Dr. Suess serpent. Everything has fallen down and snaked along the ground. Only a few tough salvias stay upright. Everything needs a savage pruning, since the number of plants I am willing to stake grows smaller and smaller each year. Even those plants that never need staking have been beaten sideways by torrential rains. I shall have to cut back at least one arrowwood viburnum halfway to the trunk because whole limbs have been slammed flat and are draped apologetically over the Stokes aster.

Everywhere, the weeds, the weeds, the weeds.

It’s healthy. Don’t get me wrong. Most of my native plants are used to such extremes, and they are terrifyingly lush, horrifyingly lush, almost lewdly fleshy and extravagant. Caterpillars wrap themselves in leaves. Assassin bugs lurk, waiting for the caterpillars. Bees and wasps crawl over the flowers, butterflies puddle on…well, anything they want. You could puddle on anything in the garden at the moment. It is soggy. We have frogs in the oregano, making a noise like a buzzer, and frogs in the pond making a noise like dying bagpipes. My burrowing crayfish (Craw-Bob) has his own moat.

As a wildlife gardener, as one very concerned with conservation, I try to think in terms of what will grow in this region. I have never yet had to think in terms of what will STOP growing.

I had assumed—I suppose, as many of us have—that as things heat up (and they will heat up) that I would be dealing with a desert. I thought of rain barrels and supplemental hand watering and whether it would be worth it to find a spot for a cistern.

Now I gaze at the lush green havoc and wonder if I should be thinking of a rainforest. All those bog plants I shunned because my garden was too dry…what if that’s what I needed? All my waterwise planting notions…do I need to take out my yuccas and echinacea and put pitcher plants and sweet flag instead? Is all this lushness going to rot in the ground over the winter? Should I be chopping everything back by half in early May to keep it from flopping in the mad rains of June?

Forget French drains and other such half-measures–do I simply need to hire someone to build a raised wooden boardwalk through the garden, as is done in swamps and bogs all through the state?

Well. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, one torrential season doesn’t make a trend. But this is proof—like I needed it—that four years is not long enough to learn the ways of a garden.

This fall, I will have mulch. I will have shears. I will have a month or so at home. And I will force the garden back to its allotted spaces and perhaps salvage a few meagre cucumbers.

Until then, it runs on without me, in all directions, an eternity of green.

© 2013, Ursula Vernon. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    My heart goes out to you; we’ve had chronic heavy rain here as well (Duluth, MN), but here it has been combined with much cooler than average temperatures. Thus we don’t have the overgrowth, but the rain and cold has caused other problems.

    It seems that here (Duluth, MN), we never get “average” weather. It’s always hotter or colder than that elusive average I used to plan my garden around. Or dryer or wetter. Or normal weather with a series of straight-line winds. And yes, the climate is changing, throwing even more uncertainty into the mix.

    I am humbled by the knowledge that if I’d had to spend the past few years growing my own food, I’d be very very thin right now. At any rate, I support your decision to let things be until fall; it might be very interesting observing how things evolve without your intervention.

  2. says

    Oh I do feel for you….I felt this same notion this weekend as I tried to do a bit of gardening in the heat and humidity and after 2 hours came in with a migraine and covered in bug bites. We are in the tropics up here and the weeds are taking over…we try but there is no way right now to machete through them…skeeters will carry you away and that lovely early blight has hit the heirloom tomatoes again. I have thought of giving up on the garden and will not put in effort until we get a break somewhere.

    Every day we get rain…and I mean rain…half inch, inch and it just keeps coming….I am lucky to not be where it is flooding (yet) as they are getting no relief from the incessant downpours adding to the already overflowing waters…add all this rain to our 20 feet of snow and we are drowning….and yes the natives are resilient…more so than me….at least the critters like the garden. They eat, nectar and nest all over the place and the dragonflies are more numerous than ever…my only sad note is the lack of butterflies this year…so I also have thrown in the towel for now
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Simply The Best Herbs-July

    • Denise says

      I have to Echo your post: Where Are the Butterflies? I have the Milkweeds, Sassafrass, butterfly gardens with water, ponding, places to sun. And i have seen; maybe 3 white butterflies. Or the same butterfly 3 times. I plan to ID today, if it is safe to go out. I have a deadly allergy to bee stings; mosquito bites stay with me for 3 months minimum, and poison ivy ? I cannot even look at it.

      I am trying to stay on top of standing water, but the skeeters have plenty of tall moist green places to breed. :(.

      I really wonder if our butterfly community was another victim of Sandy ? It is puzzling and being a Native/Wildlife Gardener in the NY Suburbs sucks this year! I am thinking ferns, mosses and pavement! ;)

      The only reinforcing thing I have seen, is a Pileated Woodpecker stopped by. Our first, ever

  3. says

    We’re at the opposite extreme. Climate change is supposed to bring us more and more whiplash between extremes – and I’d say it’s doing a good job. You’re drowning – we’re desiccating. At least we got some rain this spring, so we’re not as dry as we were (yet) last summer.

    I guess that gardeners are always wishing for what they don’t have!
    Cynthia, aka Gaia gardener recently posted..Wavy Leaf Thistle – A Welcome Prairie Native

  4. says

    Apologies, but it occurred to me after I hit post that I have a web presence now. Though the feedback has been nil to date! Next up on that is life cycle of the Monarch and a giveaway of the book
    “Four Wings And A Prayer” autographed by Bill Calvert. Since I plan to mail it, you are welcome, encouraged, begged to contribute when it is up!

    I think the only thing Harder than Native Gardening this Summer, is writing about it for my neighbors…who all have landscapers and picture perfect yards! Top that with the new Nuisance Yard law my town passed and it is Very Hard to get motivated! I plan to have post 3 up by Friday.

    Thanks for letting me vent and Pimp here Ursula! :0
    Denise recently posted..Empty In: Ex-Dairy Barn on Route 110

  5. Kim says

    I hear you and feel your pain. We’ve had the same forecast here in Georgia, today however we have some glorious sun. I went out this morning and just stood there with my eyes closed happy to feel the sun on my face! I gave up the vegetable growing, more like playing at it, years ago. Now I enjoy the local farmers market 2 days a week. Great Produce and Farmers! I still garden for wildlife and for my own pure enjoyment. Here’s to that month or so in Fall, when we whip it all back in to shape! Enjoy your travels.

  6. Diann says

    Can I ever sympathise! We live in Ne, Nebr., and have had severe drought the last few years, to the point of even losing trees. This spring we had rain and more rain which brought WEEDS! There’s no end to them. However, I’m also concerned that I see very few butterflies and I have great habitat. Birds are doing great, but bugs, not so much.

  7. says

    Oh yes, it is a wild world here, too. I’m sharpening my machete now. I have a load of stones to mark my path through this jungle that I am no longer waiting for to fill in but as you say, to stop growing! The bindweed entangles me. I am slathered in eco-safe bug spray. I just may join you in throwing in the towel by the end of the week! Hardly any butterflies even with all those butterfly favorites, but plenty of rabbits and chipmunks who seem to enjoy my favorites. I may also have to resort to the farmer’s market.

  8. says

    “Until then, it runs on without me, in all directions, an eternity of green…” I can relate to that being as I have been traveling this year, too! SoCal, of course, having the opposite problem: NO rain this year. Grass is drier than dry; too easy to see deer down by the creek looking for any kind of a drink; natives lucky enough to be near the coast are making due with fog mist! I can’t wait for fall!
    Kathy Vilim recently posted..Return of the Hummingbirds

  9. sallie tierney says

    Enjoying my feral garden. This year the garden might not be conventional but I have wild native blackberries, and flowers everywhere – and more hummingbirds than I ever had when I used to set out feeders. Messy? Yes, if your eye is looking for artificial order but the chaos has a wild and gentle beauty.

  10. Jan Gable says

    This is the most welcome report and commentary! I moved to my blank-slate 1/3 acre 2 weeks ago. After 4 decades of gardening, my mission is wildlife gardening for this great phase of life. So I am studying all your writing and comments by the hours. Everything beautiful, fruitful and beloved by the birds and bugs and butterflies. (Oh, the yummy pictures.)
    Finally here is the reality we forget in January when we dream! I chuckle.
    So, give me some thoughts and links on keeping it under control. It is true that until I got the gospel of wildlife gardening, I thought of native plants as messy and unruly and not artistic.
    Don’t worry, I’m not turning back. When I am 90 I want to be enjoying the animals as well as the plants here. And I want this to be the giving-back for my retirement years.

  11. Sharon says

    You write so well! I just love this post. I think every gardener on the east coast can relate. It beats forest fires I remember as I prune and stake.

  12. Roseanne says

    Oh yes ! We live in Penna. ( Lehigh Valley ) and our garden so lush . The natives have gone wild and weeding and gardening is almost impossible because I get eaten alive by all the bugs. My backyard is so overgrown but oh so beautiful….Roseanne

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