After you’re gone? What survives in the garden?

Poppies, Siberian Iris, Chives and Peony putting up the good fight against Big Bluestem grass

There’s a saying that a garden doesn’t outlive the gardener who plants and tends it. Sadly, that’s mostly true. I’ve learned this the hard way. But, happily, there are a few exceptions, if you plant the right plants.

My country garden is attached to a small house that was rented out for a few years. With me not on the premises as garden slave, the results of prior hours and hours of tending and weeding disappeared over time. Where once were gardens there was grass and weeds. Mostly grass. (This was before I discovered the wonderful power of mulch)

I have a great deal of a particularly lusty form of grass: Big Bluestem, a twitch grass. There’s nothing it likes better than to grab hold of a freshly weeded patch of soil. The stems are thick, and they grow in clumps, colonizing the next square foot, and the next and the next, until, where garden once reigned, all you see are amber waves of grass. Most perennials don’t have the oomph to muscle out guys like this. A once large perennial garden simply had disappeared.

However, certain garden survivors kept up the fight and were still visible: daylilies, siberian irises, poppies, peonies, chives, and a clump of nepeta (ornamental catnip). I’ve spent a good part of the last few weeks attempting to re-claim this garden, liberating these tough die-hards from the surrounding grass.

At first I wasn’t sure how to tackle it. There was so much grass and these clumps were just little islands in a high sea of greenery. Should I just dig up the clumps and re-plant them in new beds somewhere? That seemed onerous. The grass was over waist high. How to even get to the plants and get in there with a fork? Finally I decided I’d take the easy way out, and probably the most efficient way. Just kill the grass where it stands, and for this I am using my perfected Newspaper Shock and Awe Smothering Technique.

1. Get a huge pile of newspapers

2. Walk on the grass to flatten it. Really smunch it down. (With tall grass like I have, it’s kind of fun)

3. Pile up the newspapers very thickly everywhere the plants aren’t. Everything goes in. Phonebooks, magazines and catalogs are fine here. I’ve used IKEA and Home Hardware catalogues, brown paper bags.

4. Use rocks and planks of wood to hold down the newspapers. Cover with mulch later.

5. Don’t use mulch till you know you have won the battle with the underlying grass. Grass will try to take hold in anything organic, so keep only inert sterile stuff on it to smother it first. Maybe for a whole growing season.

From now on, I am a wiser gardener, and a believer, where mulch is concerned, so the grass onslaught won’t be as fast as last time. But even mulch is no permanent guarantee. So, if you’d like your garden to outlive you, make sure you plant daylilies, siberian irises, poppies, nepeta and the other old standby, peonies. And, if you just want to weed a little bit less, you won’t go wrong with these tenacious wonders. Just use tons and tons of mulch.


  1. Well desccribed, I have helped kill crabgrass this way and it does take TONS of material, and persistence. Cardboard can sometimes help, on top.

    I'm always fascinated by old gardens (Secret Garden complex), and envy you your fun. (Well, some of it isn't fun, but you know what I mean.) In my area the after-gardener survivors are a form of double daffodil that seems to have been very popular here earlier, lilacs, and various kinds of fruit trees. Also the ubiquitous myrtle (vinca) about which the less said the better. Only wish it were the less planted.

  2. I'm a great believer in mulch, as well. And you've pointed out one terrific, effective use for it.
    There are few, if any weeds in my garden's beds and borders, as I'm a devotee of mulch & compost twice a year. If one begins on clay or any less than ideal soil, mulch helps to build a loamy soil as time goes by.
    I'd love to see your country place. It looks delightfully inviting! Alice

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