Farm Progress

Tossed salad approach to landscape

Throw up seeds, see where they fall fosters garden diversity; needs borders.

Scott Woodbury

August 31, 2018

3 Min Read
HEALTHY GARDEN: Variety is the key for landscapes. Many different flowers and plants thrive together as a result of a tossed salad approach to gardening.Doug Bauer

Some native gardens look like somebody threw plants up in the air and planted them where they fell. At first glance it may appear random and disorganized because the arrangement is chaotic, sort of the way nature looks.

But when you realize that specific native plants were selected for their ability to grow in either sun or shade, and wet or dry soil, and are intended to be kept weed-free and watered, then it starts to make sense. However, to the untrained eye it may still look out of place.

For traditional garden styles, this kind of garden may look unkempt and forgotten. But this “tossed salad” approach is becoming more attractive to gardeners — especially those who seek maximum diversity.

Plant diversity attracts more wildlife species to increase ecological function, such as butterflies, birds, bees, wasps, flies, bugs, moths, ants and sawflies.

What I find is that some people do it well and others could use a garden coach who can help identify weeds and invasive plants, and make these gardens look more like a garden and less like an abandoned lot.

Need for borders
Tossed-salad gardens work well when they have a border or frame to define the edge. Mowed lawn or massed sedges or grasses make a great edge.

MESSY IS BEST: It may appear unkept, but this native garden was by design. A variety of seeds and plants were strewn within borders to create a unique landscape at Prairie Garden Trust just south of Fulton, Mo.

Plants like prairie dropseed grass and fox sedge in sun, and palm sedge in part shade work well. They are relatively small and grow densely to help keep weeds out.

Turf grass is best where people will be walking. These simple plantings provide a clean edge to the controlled chaos in the middle. This border should be 3 to 4 feet wide in small garden spaces, 5 to 10 feet for medium gardens and wider in large spaces.

Split-rail fences also make natural-style gardens look intentional and under control, especially when plants are over 3 feet tall. The fence holds plants upright at the edge and can serve as a place to grow small, behaved vines like leather flower and yellow honeysuckle.

Fostering diversity
When cultivated plants grow close to native plants, mixed and in layers, the garden can look wild and controlled at the same time.

Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Mo., demonstrates a natural-garden style in the upper woodland, near the Joseph H. Bascom House on the reserve. This garden was originally planted like a tossed salad with plugs and divisions, and then mulched, weeded, dead-headed (cutting off seed heads) and watered for two years. After two years, mulching and dead-heading ended and plants began spreading from seed, further enhancing a natural look.

The main activity involves a practice called “editing” or “negative gardening,” where seedlings of more aggressive plants like garden phlox and blue-stem goldenrod are pulled when they crowd less-aggressive plants like maidenhair fern and Indian pink.

Today the garden somewhat resembles a natural woodland plant community, albeit more colorful and packed with showy native plants. It’s also an insect and bird magnet, where a turf grass desert once grew.

Diverse gardens promote food chains that support life. Native plant leaves feed caterpillars that feed baby birds and lizards. Plant roots and seeds feed voles and mice that feed hawks, snakes, and if you are lucky, coyotes and bobcat. Plant nectar feeds many bee species that lay eggs in plant stems. If these kinds of interactions inspire you, then perhaps it’s time to consider a tossed salad garden full of a diversity of native plants.

Woodbury is the curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Mo., and adviser to the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native! program.

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