Tuesday, October 23, 2012


This field, on a sandy hillside outside Oxford, Mississippi, spills down from the front of a new house recently built. A traditional American landscaping approach would be to bring in soil and lay sod to create a lawn. The sandy soil would require tremendous quantities of water to keep the lawn alive. Fortunately, this has not happened.

The field is beautiful in itself, and an ornament to the house. The question is, can the field be maintained  always to look this good?

The plant community we see here is in part a result of disturbance during construction of the new house. Some of the most significant and beautiful plants are ruderals, pioneer plants that quickly come in to  colonize open ground, and thus likely to be replaced by other species over time in a natural process of succession.

The first and second photos show feathery dogfennel (Eupatorium capillifolium) in bloom with broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus), the predominating plant in the field. Broomsedge is a keeper and is likely to stay a long time. It's a beautiful field grass, especially in the fall and winter, common throughout the area, well adapted to local conditions. But the dogfennel is a pioneer plant, and is likely to disappear as other, more stable plant communities establish over time. Though it's considered a highly undesirable weed by agriculturalists, it's a striking perennial, with delicate, feathery foliage that captures and reflects light and a flexible structure that allows it to move about in the breeze. It's an animating plant, taller than broomsedge, providing vertical accent, aesthetic interest, and tactile pleasure. If touched, it has a distinctive, highly aromatic odor I find pleasant.

It may be possible to manage the field to retain its ruderal species but that would probably require repeated disturbance of the land surface, perhaps by rough mowing in the late winter, just enough to break the ground surface and expose seeding area for the ruderals to take hold anew each year.

Another option might be to let plant succession occur with minimal intervention (mowing once a year to clear the field for regrowth and prevent its reversion to forest). A third option might be strategic planting of cultivated species appropriate to the environment, actually managing the landscape, almost like a garden.

A fountain of dogfennel laden with seed.

Dogfennel and wooly croton contrast with the thin verticals of broomsedge.

Above, in front of the dogfennel, is another ruderal that adds textural and color interest. Known by various common names such as hogweed and wooly croton (Croton capitatus), this plant is an annual with grayish foliage and distinctive gray flowers and seed heads. Here it appears to be growing in linear patches that follow the wheel tracks of heavy equipment.

Below you can see a "river" of wolly croton running up the hill from the road.

A river of wooly croton running up the hill.

Here, a close up of wooly croton. It's a very attractive plant though not likely to be used widely if it has to be seeded every year. Some experimentation may be in order.

If this were my field, I'd roughly mow it once in the spring, making sure to break up the soil surface where I want the ruderals to reproduce, and watch what develops over the next two or three years. On second thought, I recommend that to the owners. I'd probably start by adding one or two large, distinctive perennials right away.

That's just my inclination.


  1. I like your general game plan. Adding a few flowering, native perennials appropriate for the location would be a good idea, as would adding some sort of art or attractive signage to make it obvious to the recreational mowing crowd that this IS being managed, just differently than they choose to manage their own landscape.

    1. Good idea--the forbs. No signage needed because they are on private land, not in a residential development, and not subject to county or municipal mowers.

  2. Just lovely. I would keep a few paths mowed through the long grass for contrast (not to mention easier strolling).

    Several months ago, I was struck by some Frances Benjamin Johnston photos of old (sometime ruined) southern homes with similar beautiful rough "lawns" --

    1. They certainly are beautiful. I can't recall seeing anything like that in the south I grew up in, except for the occasional abandoned house, but those have their own special appeal.

  3. James, first of all, I love the lack of disturbance of the surrounding landscape. I'm looking to live that way myself, where as little as possible needs to be done to retain a longstanding environment. Gardening can create as many problems as it imagines it solves.
    These are very beautiful pictures, the dogfennel, wooly croton and the broomsedge. I feel, on immediate impact, nothing more needs to be done, just keep it as it is.
    Gardening can sometimes be a practice or habit where too much is done where very little or nothing needs to be done.
    Nonetheless, your questions are pertinent. Surely the owners will want to do something.
    For me, gardening is a process of discrimination, of deciding what best fits and what least fits. That process of engagement can be very subtle, as you've shown here.
    It will be interesting to see how things develop.

    1. Faisal, I agree, a very light hand is sometimes the best approach. I remember dogfennel from my childhood. It had a delightful texture and an extraordinary fragrance. Of course, no one could give me a name for it. I remember many plants from childhood, but because I didn't have names for them, I didn't realize I loved the plants until many years later, when I learned the names. I was sort of like a sighted Hellen Keller. Only when someone spelled out the names did the plants become real, filled with life.



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