“If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” – William Morris.
What Morris said might as easily apply to a backyard, as to a home. But when you buy a home—even an old home—it’s empty. An old backyard, by contrast, is often anything but.
Nearly 3 years now since taking possession of our home in Cobourg, I’m finally getting the feel of the backyard. By which I mean, I’m getting to know a bit about what’s beautiful, and what’s useful.
As a hard-working lazy gardener, I’ll go to all kinds of trouble to just let things be. And it’s amazing what happens if you allow what wants to grow, rather than hacking and pulling at every unfamiliar plant that pops up.
Here’s some of what I’ve been able to identify that grows around here without any encouragement or effort:
Star of bethlehem, lilac (pink, purple, white), choke cherry, Solomon’s Seal, lily of the valley, violet (white, purple), strawberry (wild, ornamental, cultivated), spirea, sugar maple, Norway maple, Manitoba maple, black raspberry, raspberry, evening primrose, thistle, day lily, pear, wild bergamot (bee balm), cutleaf coneflower, clover (white, yellow, purple), bladder campion, fleabane (Robin’s plantain), aster, goldenrod (various), hosta (various), tulip (various), Virginia creeper, wild geranium, garlic mustard, mullein, daisy, honeysuckle (various), wood sorrel, wild cucumber, English plantain, daffodil, bleeding heart, mullein, milkweed,
salsify goats-beard, cedar, yew, rose, echinacea, gill-over-the-ground (creeping charlie), soapwort, dandelion, yarrow, wild grape, red osier dogwood, sage, ornamental crab, spurge, lamb’s-quarters, forsythia, redcurrant, Queen Anne’s lace, bittersweet nightshade, cinquefoil, motherwort, avens, spiderwort, lady’s thumb, pineapple-weed, small cranesbill, bindweed, privet, false indigo, common toadflax, campanula (bellflower & harebell), forget-me-not, mock-orange, creeping jenny, coreopsis, zinnia, sowthistle, common mallow… and the list goes on.
Now, many of these plant species are introduced, some are cultivated, and a substantial number are native species commonly seen as weeds, mainly because Europeans didn’t know them when they first saw them—so they didn’t consider them beautiful or useful.
Of everything that grows in our backyard, only dog-strangling vine and European buckthorn are really what I’d consider ‘weeds': invasive, not particularly beautiful, not obviously useful. A few others need to be managed (garlic mustard, I’m watching you like a hawk.)
But for the most part, when I look over the list, and imagine what would have happened if I had simply kept mowing the lawn and pulling the “weeds”, I feel humbled. What damage might I have done, unknowing, had I only done more?
What’s found in the garden? Everything but what’s lost when you don’t let it grow.