news from the waterfront by Tim Matson


A wetland contractor once gave me some good advice. It was his job to dig wetlands in the midwest, replacing those lost to development and adding to the general wetland inventory. I asked him what plants he used in creating these shallow ponds. "After I get the wetland dug, I scrape out some nearby ditches and drop the material in the new wetland. Nature does the rest." He explained that better than importing plants from afar, which might not be suited to the new wetland, and might even be an invasive or exotic species, letting native plants naturalize worked best. Plants that already did well were most likely to succeed.

I was familiar with this strategy based on experience with my own pond. Over the decades I've seen that most of the plants, shrubs, and trees that do well here have naturalized on their own, and go through stages of succession and evolution, adapting to the changing terrain and climate. The coming and going of various plants offer surprises and mysteries that fascinate me as much as purchased varieties do.

Long ago I created a 1ft to 2 ft border of unmowed grass along the pond shoreline. I watched wild plants find their way into this circle, including various sedges, among them my favorite: wild cotton grass (actually a sedge, not a grass), eriophorum angustifolium. Also known as bog cotton, this is a sedge that likes acidic moist soil, producing flowers like small cotton balls, which were once used to stuff pillows. I found that over the years the bog cotton would come and go in various spots around the pond, sometimes disappearing completely, then coming back like the scamster's ball under the cup, in a most surprising place.

This year the bog cotton is back, clear across the pond in what would seem the least auspicious of places, a wet bed of shoreline mud and gravel. These flowers brilliantly redeem the area.

Another flower that has come back is a sweep of lupines that nearly disappeared after their micro climate changed. They once grew on the north shore in the partial shade of a big yellow birch, then withered away when the aged and rotting birch tree had to be cut down. After that the shore lay in full sun, which the lupines didn't like. Over the years they straggled up the hill, looking for who knows what.

Meanwhile, as if by some magical command, a single new tree emerged in the footprint of the bygone yellow birch. But it's a balsam spruce, quite the opposite category of tree species (conifer vs. deciduous). This is exactly the sort of amazing plant adaptation that makes watching the naturalization process as interesting as tending imported plants. And this balsam is growing faster than any tree I've ever seen.

Meanwhile, perhaps in synch with the proliferation of the bog cotton and the balsam tree, the lupines are back. They seem to have adapted (mutated?) to the full sun, and love it. At least this year.

Now for one more item on the topic of pond landscape revivals. After being out of print for several years, Landscaping Earth Ponds is back in a 10th anniversary edition, published by Echo Point Press. Out of four books in the Earth Ponds series, this is the only one featuring color photos of ponds and plants. It's a book that connects the dynamics of pond design, maintenance, and function with landscaping, because the pond and its landscape need to coexist in balance. For example, a pond embankment looks like a great place for plants and trees, until you take into account fertilizer runoff, tree roots, leaf drop, invasive plants, etc. The book's examination of the balancing act between pond and landscape makes it unique in the array of pond landscaping books.

August 1, 2016

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