Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Backyard Succession:  The Jungle Bed

Succession is an often discussed topic of plant ecologists.  However, it is seldom considered by gardeners because they just plain don't have the time to sit back and let it happen.  Gardeners are busy ones.  They carefully tend their plants and continually are buying some new and sexy strain of hybridized horticultural variety that will move their garden toward their internalized vision.  Backyard succession can look sort of messy, so it doesn't appeal to many hard core gardeners. 

What Is Ecological Succession?

In a nutshell, ecological succession is the observed change of structure (herbaceous or woody) and species presence through time.  It's a concept that has always fascinated me as I've wondered how much impact we have on succession as we go about doing our good deeds.  

When we built our house in the Southern Black Hills eleven years ago, I put in one large bed where the soil was sandy, rocky, and thin.  Since the bed is on the south side of the house and has such poor soil, it tends to be very dry.  Initially, I had no idea what would grow in such a harsh site, but figured whatever I discovered that would grow there would be easier than lawn.  

A few years after planting some aspen and chokecherry in the bed we dubbed it with the name of" the jungle bed."  The jungle bed has done well by being mostly on its own and has taken off on its own path of succession.  It's been my own classroom to observe ecological succession.
The Jungle Bed in May 2013.
Jungle Bed, September 2004
I was so new to gardening in this part of the country when the jungle bed came to be.  In spite of going to all of local resources like SDSU Extension, Master Gardeners, and the Garden Club I never really got a good feel for what it was like to garden in the Black Hills or found a plan that suited me, so I decided to experiment.

First I went and got a package of wildflower seed.  I was in full realization that most of the seed in such a mix wasn't native, but I also made sure that the mix didn't have seeds from the more aggressive naturalized plants like ox-eye daisy or dame's rocket.  The next spring we transplanted some aspen and chokecherry that we dug up at some friend's house over on the Limestone.  The Limestone is quite a bit higher in elevation than where our house is, so it was a bit of a gamble, but one that worked out.

Everything that was planted in the jungle bed in the spring of 2003 grew well, but the poor plants had a hard time keeping ahead of the browsing deer.  I initially tried the conventional gardening practice of pulling out the grass and clover that inevitably started growing in the jungle bed, but after the first couple of years things got way out of hand, so I stopped. That's when the backyard succession really began.

In 2005, we built a permanent fence around the jungle garden because the deer continued to be a problem.  Their continuous dining was leaving all of the plants looking deformed and stunted.  The fence further helped succession by releasing some of the plants we had yet to realize were there.  When we dug up the aspen and chokecherry we must have also gotten some root runners of prairie rose and once the deer were gone the roses really took off.
A Haven for Birds

The only plants that I've tried to be aggressive about keeping out of the jungle bed are white campion (Silene pratensis), field bindweed (Convoluvulus arvensis), and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense). All of these weedy plants spread aggressively once established.

Once the area was fenced and the aspen began to get larger, there's been another wildlife problem affecting them.  We have a lot of woodpeckers in the area that  peel the bark off the larger aspen stems, in the early spring, trying to get at the sugary sap for energy.  They often will strip the bark off all the way around  the main trunk killing the entire top of the tree.

Woodpecker Damage
   At first this bothered me because it gave the trees a really ugly look to be cut off mid trunk, but then I looked at it from a different perspective.  Aspen require some disturbance in order to stay healthy.  They're clonal so they continually are sending up sprouts from the roots. Killing the tops of the trees stimulates the growth from the roots.  The relationship between the aspen and the woodpeckers indicates two species that are taking care of their own needs while benefiting another in the process.  It's a sustainable situation for both species!

I recently did an early spring crawl through the jungle bed to find and destroy white campion and bindweed.   It was amazing to see some of the good native plants that have found their way into the jungle garden over the last ten years with no help at all from me.

The yearly cover of deteriorating leaves dropped by the aspen and chokecherry has really improved the soil by adding an organic component and increasing moisture retention.  Because of the improvement in the soil I now have healthy stands of native plants like  starry false Solomon seal (Maienthemum stellatum), meadow-rue (Thalictrum sp.) and sedge (Carex sp.).  All of these plants are generally adapted to much moister habitats than the rock pile I started with eleven years ago.

If you give them a chance, they will come.

Starry False Solomon Seal


  1. So nice to have a garden where the plants do most of the work themselves!

  2. Oh my yes! Call me the lazy gardener!