Mount Auburn’s Horticulture – Do Try this at Home!
In May 2013, I bought my first house and along with it, my first piece of landscape that was all mine to maintain. Although my landscape by comparison is just a tiny fraction of Mount Auburn’s 175 acres, I was inspired by the horticultural achievements and practices at the Cemetery to undertake two major projects, one in the front yard for the sake of pollinators and one in the backyard to provide more bird habitat, as well as stabilize an eroding hillside. Further inspired by one of my favorite places at Mount Auburn, Consecration Dell, I wanted to use as many native New England plants as possible to restore this land, adjacent to a small pond, to something like it might have once been.
My neighbors all thought I was insane when a couple of months after moving in, I flattened all our cardboard moving boxes*, laid them out over the front yard lawn, and buried the whole thing in a good six inches of leaf compost, a technique known as sheet mulching. Let’s just say we did not have the most picturesque front garden that summer. As fall rolled around, I put in a number of native plants, both potted and from root stock, including Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor), Alumroot (Heuchera americana), Leatherwood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis), Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), loads of Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), Shooting Star (Liatris spp.), Beebalm (Monarda spp.), Hyssop (Agastache spp.), Asters (Aster spp.) and of course Milkweed (Asclepias spp.), among many more. Then I watched and waited all winter… Come spring, I was thrilled to find that most of my plantings had been successful, and as the season turned to summer, it was deeply rewarding to see just how many bees, butterflies, moths and other insects appeared, as if conjured from thin air. On any given flower stalk, I could see four or five different species of bees represented, all so content at their feeding that I could easily move and garden among them without disturbing them. And speaking of gardening, I found that the native plants grew so quickly and densely that I had very little to do as a gardener, apart from pick out the stray invasives and provide some water during dry stretches. Now that it’s fall and the plants are starting to die back, I am leaving the stalks and dead blossoms in place for the edible seeds and habitat they provide for birds and insects. I never stop taking joy from seeing just how much life even a fairly small yard can sustain. Lawns truly are green deserts, in terms of what they have to offer the local fauna, and I am so glad to provide this oasis in my suburban neighborhood.
My second project was to reclaim my backyard from encroaching Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica, that’s another article in itself) and to shore up an eroding hillside, reconstructing a woodlands edge with shrubs and future trees that will provide birds with food and shelter. Even before I planted anything, I saw that given a chance, native plants like Asters, Ferns of various types and Spotted Jewelweed or Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis) thrived in the absence of competition in the newly cleared space. Taking a page from the Dell restoration book, I used burlap and mulch** to create tubes staked into the hillside and thickly mulched the area upslope from the tubes. Then I collected some of those Asters and Ferns and transplanted them along the edges of the tubes, so that their root systems will help further anchor my burlap bulwarks. I’ve planted Blueberry bushes (Vaccinium angustifolium), Pussy Willow (Salix discolor), Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum), Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea), Common Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), and further up the hillside, a Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). Even though these plants are not large yet, birds are already regularly using them as approach paths to my feeder, and I feel like I am on my way to giving something back to a piece of land that badly needed it.
Both of these projects were directly inspired by Mount Auburn Cemetery, and show that you don’t need 175 acres or a team of horticulturalists to have a hugely positive impact on the ecosystem around you. Just as Mount Auburn provides an oasis in the metropolitan Boston area, we can all provide oases in our own areas. And someday, the oases will become something greater than the sum of their parts, contributing to a patchwork that can help support those vitally important pollinators and all forms of wildlife.
*word to the wise: if you ever do this, remove all the packing tape from the boxes first, or you’ll be digging up strips of it forever after.
**compost would have been far preferable, but I had a lot of mulch on hand.