Disturbance in the Garden Can Generate Renewal

disturbance gardening

The burnt willow trees

On the smoldering edge

Of the lazy torpid brook,

Bend to the wind like a

Nervous, anxious crowd

Waiting for the night train.

I watch in silence, feeling a

Disturbance in the earth,

I turn away nervously humming

a song of the past when the air was pure,

Then slowly walk away, wondering if

The earth will be here tomorrow.

— James G. Piatt, “A Disturbance” in “The Silent Pond,” 2012

James Piatt says most of the poems in “The Silent Pond” were written while he was “sitting on the edge of a lazy pond contemplating life, nature and the feelings they created.” The poet lives in the California foothills where wildfires are not uncommon, so I wonder if “A Disturbance” originated as he observed the smoky aftermath of a recent fire, or if the poem sprang from his imagination or memory.

Most interesting to me is the “disturbance in the earth” Piatt felt at the smoldering scene, and how his anxiety made him turn away. It’s a typical reaction for humans to avoid or try to resolve disturbances in their surroundings. In fact, the word “disturb” comes from the Latin roots “dis” (complete) and “turbare” (turmoil).

Yet, disturbances aren’t always bad, in life or in gardening. As ecological landscape designer Larry Weaner wrote in his book “Garden Revolution” (2016), disturbances can generate renewal. Piatt walked away before he could see that the vegetative and soil disturbances created by the wildfire would trigger California goldenbanner (Thermopsis californica) seeds to germinate, and these brightly colored pioneers would help heal the scorched earth.

If the poet wandered back to the same spot a few years later, he would see that other native perennials had emerged, whose seeds had been waiting patiently in the willow’s shadow for decades.

Ecological cycles of disturbance and regeneration portray hope and health, not dis-ease. Apparently, Piatt didn’t recognize the disturbance he felt by the pond as new growth stirring within the earth, and he was unnerved by the unknown.

Conceptualizing disturbances as opportunities for renewal not only inspires poetry critique, it offers practical guidelines for gardeners.

I have learned that in order to remove weeds effectively, I need to pull them out by the roots; otherwise, the usurpers will quickly regrow. However, pulling weeds triggers some to vigorously discharge their seeds (hairy bittercress immediately comes to mind) and disturbs the soil, which encourages more seed germination.

In addition, removing plant roots destabilizes the soil and may lead to erosion. Weeding becomes a continuous chore if the space left by removing the weeds is not filled with other, more desirable, plants that can outcompete the undesirables.

Weaner recommends cutting weeds to soil level, rather than pulling them out by the roots. Removing above-ground foliage disrupts the plant from photosynthesizing and making food. It will eventually die, leaving its roots to decompose and add organic matter to the soil.

On the other hand, I’ve learned the advantages of allowing some weeds to grow. For instance, common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) often springs up in bare, disturbed earth left by spent annuals in the pollinator garden in my front yard. I’ve come to appreciate this uninvited guest for its tall spikes of yellow flowers that attract pollinators in the summer, and for its large, fuzzy leaves that chewing insects can’t seem to resist. Right now, the mullein looks like Swiss cheese (along with my hollyhocks), but the other garden plants have largely been left alone.

Also, mullein is another pioneer plant that tends to emerge quickly after a disturbance, such as an excavation or a fire. It helps hold the disturbed soil in place until conditions allow native plants and grasses to regrow, or until landscape plantings are installed.

Jerry and I thought about disturbance generating renewal when tackling the gorse on our Bandon property. Long before we got there, a homesite had been cleared out of the conifers and then abandoned, providing the perfect opportunity for gorse to proliferate. We cursed the prickly, 10-feet-tall shrubs as we dug them out of the ground last year; however, we also had the gorse to thank for slowing down soil erosion and, as a leguminous plant, fixing nitrogen in the soil.

Of course, removing the gorse created another soil disturbance that triggered innumerable dormant gorse seeds to germinate. We countered gorse regeneration by planting an intermediary cover crop of competing annual grasses and clovers, which now serve the same ecological purposes as the gorse once did, except we like the cover crop much better.

Next, we’ll replace the cover crop — another disturbance — with a mixture of two types of native plantings that Weaner describes as r-selected plants and K-selected plants (there are r-selected and K-selected animals, too).

R-selected plant species, typically annuals and short-lived perennials, respond to disturbed earth by growing quickly and producing lots of seeds. Like gorse and mullein, our r-selected plants will help stabilize and replenish the soil after being disturbed, creating conditions that will encourage slow-growing but long-living perennials to thrive.

Once established, K-selected species will form an interrelated plant community with companion perennials. The r-selected plants will dwindle over time or disappear altogether. Accepting, and even relishing, an ever-changing garden comes from understanding that disturbances, whether from human or natural forces, generate renewal.

It’s not difficult to see how this perspective applies outside of the garden, to disturbances in our personal lives, as well in society. The coronavirus pandemic has been sweeping over the globe like the wildfire in Piatt’s poem. Will we use this devastating disturbance as an opportunity to renew inadequate systems, or will we walk away, wondering if we will be here tomorrow?

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener, and her website at www.literarygardener.com.

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