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The Blog: Let's Talk Gardening

Go Au-Naturel

by Kathy Van Mullekom, a lifelong gardener and gardening writer living in York County, Virginia

My yard is all about “au naturel,” going without chemicals as much as we can.

For years, we used a turf-care company that sprayed far too many chemicals on the grass. Now, we follow Virginia Tech’s Virginia Cooperative Extension lawn-care recommendations, which provide guidelines on soil testing for proper nutrient application. We also grow Bermuda turf which naturally suppresses weeds with its thick growth and requires no supplemental watering during summer.

Most importantly, my gardens and other parts of the creek-front property are eco-friendly – uncultivated and sort of purposefully wild looking.

In my perennial garden filled with pollinator-beneficial plants, I confess I don’t always know what’s emerging through the soil. In recent years, what I think is a weed sprouted, yielding gorgeous purple flowers along tall stems.

Because the bees and butterflies flock to it, I leave that “weed” alone and just manage its spread by pulling up seedlings. As I remove the seedlings, I remember the wise words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”

My au naturel garden is also where I planted native milkweed seedlings two years ago. This year, I have milkweed sprouting everywhere because each fall I allow the pods to naturally open and scatter their seeds for next year’s germination. No need to collect and keep the seeds over winter – just let Mother Nature do her magic.

My yard is also home to a small natural area with no grass beneath the tall pines, cedar and holly that grow there. Pine needles carpet a thick layer of humus that nourishes camellias, native azaleas, hydrangeas, beautyberry, nandina and Virginia sweetspire. A red Japanese maple, wax myrtle and sweetbay magnolia are also worked into the mix. It’s among my favorite garden spots because there is minimum care for maximum show. It’s a natural area that can be created if you don’t have one and want to reduce your lawn space.

Now that I’m into an “au naturel” landscape, I worry less about the perfection of gardening and instead enjoy the beautiful sights of bees, butterflies, birds, turtles and frogs living among my “weeds.” In fact, I think I saw one of them giving me a “thumbs up” the other day.