The Back Garden Project: Nothing Gold Can Stay

Posted by Gordon Douglas

This is the 14th and final post in The Back Garden Project, one GOOD community member's effort to turn a neglected corner of the city into a thriving garden.

As warm August breezes and increasing (if still all-too-brief) rain showers lift a little of the heat and humid stillness from the city, the back garden has become a bit more pleasant again, though perhaps not soon enough for some of the plants. It almost feels like autumn back here with the ground crunching under my feet, even though I know it's a result of one of the hottest and driest summers New York has had in years, not an early fall.

To that end, the biggest news to report this week is that my initial appraisal of how the native plants were holding up to the summer heat has unfortunately proven overly optimistic. Through a combination of experimental determination and unavoidable distraction, the garden has had to survive with its native climate.

Sure, I've been carrying a watering can down a few times a week, but by and large the plants have subsisted on rain water (especially during some longer stretches when I've been out of town). The harsh conditions have really separated out the toughest survivors.

As an indication of how hot and dry it has been, let me note that even many of the hardy volunteers have been dying off, and the usually-unrelenting knotweed has barely been spreading. More significantly, I've lost some of my own plants: The dogwood and the cranberry bush seem unlikely to revive after a couple weeks of trying to nurse them back to health; the mayapple I mentioned before only continued to decline; most of the flowers, from the Tiarella to the meadow anemone, are looking pretty sorry; and several of the ferns—seemingly the more elaborate ones like the cinnamon and the ostrich, and those getting the most sun—didn't survive July.

These plants clearly needed a great deal more water than they received naturally in July. But at the same time, there are stories of success. For one thing, the wild ginger (like the one pictured at the top of the post) has been remarkably resilient, even if it gets too much sun. Also, pictured clockwise from the left below, a couple of the less extravagant ferns seem to be hanging in there, the blueberry bush is coming back to life with renewed watering efforts, and the whole patch of things that I planted in the shade at the bottom of the garden are looking perky as ever.

Certainly I've learned from this summer that "native" plants are not entirely hands-off, at least under fairly extreme climate conditions in a complicated (and admittedly pretty non-native) setting. On that last factor,it would be difficult ever to know how much any of the plants that died were also adversely affected by the contaminated soil. More to the point though, as I've known from the beginning, not all "native" plants are equally native to my particular garden plot in Brooklyn. Regardless of contamination and centuries of urbanization, the real natives to this little corner of Long Island were large deciduous trees like Nyssa sylvatica and their forest undergrowth in the coastal marsh, and probably some grasses and sparse woodlands on the rolling hills above them, including now-endangered shrubs and wildflowers like the northern coastal violet (see this great New York Times article about endangered local plants). In selecting my plants, I defined "native" as all plants that could and probably did exist in New York without humans, but not things especially suited for my back yard.

I could have guessed the cranberry would have a tough time without a lot more water, but was surprised that some of the flowers struggled so much. At the same time, the wild ginger, whose ideal setting would also be marshy, has proven resilient, as have the ferns. Of course, August isn't over yet.

Yet another reason that it feels a bit like the end of the season though is that I find myself winding down the Back Garden Project, at least online here. Of course I'll continue tending the garden and remain excited see how things change down there in the autumn as the leaves change, but the truth is there's not a great deal of blog-worthy development to report. I consider the project a mixed success; certainly I can say without a doubt that I've learned a great deal about native plants and New York City gardens, and I'd like to think that I've restored this neglected space pretty significantly, tamed the weeds some, and maybe even restored the soil a little.

Thanks so much to everyone who has followed along and commented and critiqued and suggested, and a big thanks too to GOOD for the space (and editing and web assistance) to chronicle my efforts here. Hope you've enjoyed, see you around the GOOD community!