Wildflower garden or salad bar?

I’ve been trying my very best (for several years now) to start a completely natural wildflower garden at our cottage on the Bruce Peninsula in southwestern Ontario. The garden is a small patch of land, decorated with several dead logs and a tree stump, just feet from the shoreline of our small freshwater lake. I use the word “land” loosely because the garden is actually a bunch of rocks (some small but most footstool-to-table-top in size) covered in a thin layer of dirt. The reason why the rocks are exceptionally large here is because the Bruce Peninsula is essentially one humungous limestone escarpment with parts of it crumbling into boulders and above mentioned rocks. The dirt that settles in and around the rocks on our property is black gold, however. It’s beautiful loamy earth made up of years upon years of natural leaf decay.

Here’s a photo of the garden, taken just a few days ago. Feel free to snicker.

A wildflower garden seemed to be a good idea to me for a number of reasons:

  • A garden of non-natives would look weird (not in a good way) considering the rest of the property is an untouched forest
  • I liked the challenge of planting a natives-only garden
  • I didn’t want any of the plants becoming invasive. Yes, natives can be invasive, too, but at least they belonged there to begin with.

The two photos above were taken by me, full of hope and enthusiasm, during the first year of trying to establish the garden.

I’d given up on the whole notion of garden design during the garden’s first season. The rocks are just too big and there’s too many of them so when I plant a plant, the garden tells me where it’s going to go. I just poke around trying to find a crevice between rocks big enough to shove the plant’s roots in. Sometimes I get lucky and find smaller rocks that can be pried out of the ground, allowing just enough space to put in the plant. But, over the years, the garden has evolved pretty haphazardly.

I don’t weed the area, either, because I figure a weed is a native plant, too. Am I getting to be too much of a purist? Perhaps.

Anyhoo, this spring, eagerly anticipating a flourishing garden, I would check on my plants’ progress regularly. Slowly unfolding utter devastation may be describing the scene a tad too dramatically but…

From garden to salad bar

Most of the plants that I had put in last year never appeared. Of the few that did survive, almost all have been nibbled down to the base of their stems or stomped on, torn and munched. The photo above is of a cup plant with its stems bent and broken.

Up until now, it hadn’t occurred to me that native plants could be fodder for native wildlife. Deer and rabbits can wreak havoc on a non-native garden but native plants in a wildflower garden? Nah.

[Insert bewilderment emoji of your choice.]

Muskrat love/hate

But, like the proverbial ton of bricks, it hit me that the likely culprit actually lived only a few feet from the garden’s edge. Here’s the little bugger on his/her evening swim back home, below.

Muskrats can be found all over North America but they’re partial to marshes, quiet lakes and slow-moving streams. “My” muskrat has a den burrowed into the lakeshore at one corner of our property–the same corner as my wildflower garden. We loved to watch him swim along the shoreline, often coming within inches of the end of our dock. He’s so comfortable here that once I caught him (at least I think it’s the same critter) stealing some of the peanuts we left out on our deck for the chipmunks.

Here’s a rather blurry cell phone image of him:

Their diet consists mainly of bulrushes, cattails, pondweed and sedges. But that’s not all that they’ll eat. Clearly, they don’t mind gorfing down a peanut or two. When I started researching the types of plants I had planted, it all became too painfully clear as to what was going on.

For instance, all the buds and stems of the Golden Alexanders I had planted had been chewed down to the ground. As it turns out, Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), also known as Golden Meadow Parsnip, is from the Parsley Family (Apiaceae). This most definitely translates in Muskratian as “Yum, yum, yum”. I also discovered that my Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) (the one that got mangled, see photo above) has been on the radar at Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture for having potential as a forage crop, comparing well with corn silage. More yum. Even my goldenrod (some which just planted themselves and some I planted), isn’t safe from that voracious little !@#$&!!!.

The moral of this story

I can’t blame a muskrat for doing what they do naturally. But I won’t be planting any more goldenrod. While researching for this post, I found out that the roots of goldenrod release a chemical that produces an allelopathic effect, discouraging other plants from growing nearby and thus reducing competition.

And so it goes.

2 thoughts on “Wildflower garden or salad bar?

    • Actually it is a muskrat. We’ve seen it swim by us regularly. It’s tail is thick but not at all like a beaver’s. We have beavers on the lake as well. One slapped its tail near me while I was kayaking. Scared the bejeebers out of me!

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