Permanent Impermanence

Recently I read the delightful biography about and  chronicle of Beatrix Potter and her life as a gardener and naturalist: Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, by Marta Mcdowell. Most people know Beatrix Potter through her “Peter Rabbit” series of children’s books, but she was also an important conservationist whose land comprises most of the Lake District National Park in Great Britain.  In one chapter of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, McDowell is discussing Potter’s penchant for a garden “makeover.”  McDowell called that need for change in the garden “a permanent impermanence.”  Those  who garden understand that gardens are journeys, not destinations. We continually amend and refresh sections or entire gardens and for many different reasons.  We augment our gardens because of overgrown plants or development of too much or too little shade or sun. We refine our gardens as our aesthetic choices evolve or because we want plants appropriate for the changing needs or conditions of our gardens.

Earlier this spring, I decided to remove all of the Berkeley Sedge, Carex divulsa, that I had planted in my gardens.

I discovered  Berkeley Sedge while employed at the  Green Garden at Zilker Botanical Garden  and liked its hardiness, evergreen growing habit and attractive seed-heads. I bought small pots and planted them in various places on my property.

In the first few years, I was pleased with the sedge; it added structure and foliage interest  and Berkeley Sedge is drought tolerant.

There is a garden space in the Green Garden titled “Hill Country Shade” in which scads of  Berkeley Sedge seeded out.  Aside from the fact that I philosophically disagreed with the non-native Berkeley Sedge  planted in a garden touted as “native,” I also found I was constantly weeding out the seedlings produced by those sedge plants.  It was one of the more persistent chores of that job–pulling one seedling up, it seemed as if six more appeared.  One winter day, I met a California landscape designer and we visited about that plant.  She mentioned that the Berkeley Sedge was labeled as invasive in California and asked if it was labeled so here in Texas.  I later checked and according to Berkeley Sedge, Carex divulsa, is not considered an invasive plant in Texas.  San Marcos Growers in California originally tagged Berkeley Sedge as a native, later concluding that it is not a native sedge.  A quick Google search shows two different sites, Pacific Horticulture and  which state definitively that this plant is an invasive non-native and spreading throughout California.

Back to my gardens. After several growing seasons in which those attractive seed-heads developed and dropped seed, I noticed baby Berkeley Sedge everywhere.

Obviously, the density of seedlings was greatest near the spots where the sedge was growing, but I’ve found rogue seedlings in all parts of my gardens.  I water my gardens infrequently and for several groups of  Berkeley Sedge, the only water received comes from the sky.  And still, lots of seedlings.

I’m in the process of pulling those seedlings as I see them and as new seedlings develop, but it will take some time.

To be clear, I have other plants that could be described as invasive:

Heartleaf Skullcap, Scutellaria ovata ssp. bracteata,

definitely qualifies as an aggressive grower and invader!

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium,

spreads magnificently.

I continually weed out the always obnoxious, except when beautiful,  Inland Sea Oats, Chasmanthium latifolium.

And the ubiquitous (in my gardens), Lyreleaf Sage, Salvia lyrata, appears throughout my property.

These plants seed out or spread  and I don’t mind. Perhaps I’m more tolerant of these particular “invasive” plants because they are all native to this area–they belong here and I’ve cultivated a situation in which they thrive.   I use them as I see fit in the garden–pulling them up where I don’t want them and transplanting them where I do.  I am a practitioner of  the constant refreshing and reworking which is that gardeners’ creed of permanent impermanence.  I have no choice.  The garden is dynamic– an organism in perpetual, organic motion, responding to environmental changes and sometimes, gardener whimsy.

Or not.  I routinely pass plants which spread  to other gardeners or toss unwanted seedlings in the compost for future use as soil amendments. But with the Berkley Sedge, I decided that I didn’t want a non-native to become a pest plant in my gardens or possibly, surrounding landscapes.  Much like my decision to remove the Berkeley Sedge in the “Hill Country Native” space, I  removed a potentially aggressive plant because of my concern about its spread  and because I prefer to use mostly native and non-invasive non-natives in my personal gardens.  Taking out the sedge and adding “new” plants to the area will alter the feel of those spots–adding blooms and varying foliage.

One of my last projects at the Green Garden was removing the Berkeley Sedge in the “Hill Country Native” garden and transplanting as much as possible to a formal, rocked in space, located in deep shade, to serve as a demonstration of a low water lawn alternative to the water-hogging St. Augustine grass so common here in Texas.  Despite some misgivings about Berkley Sedge in a garden, I think it has value as a an alternative “grass” lawn–especially if the seed heads are kept in check and not allowed prolific procreation.  I haven’t visited ZBG since leaving that job a year ago, so I don’t know how that Berkeley Sedge lawn has fared, but I’ll bet it’s growing well.  I only hope it isn’t spreading too much.

Removing the Berkeley Sedge in my gardens allows me the opportunity to rethink some small sections of larger garden spaces. I didn’t run out and purchase anything new,  I dug up and separated favorites from my gardens and recycled them in place of the sedge.  I’ve planted Heartleaf Skullcap paired with a common, non-native pass-along day lily,

…some lovely native Yarrow,

…and native to West Texas, Mexican Feathergrass, Nassella tenuisima.

I love all of these plants and use them repeatedly in pockets throughout my gardens.  Each will require reining in at some point, but that will be another opportunity to observe, learn and experiment. And maybe, to garden with something new.

Permanent impermanence:  As the Berkeley Sedge established and multiplied itself, I wrest control of the developing problem (as I defined it) and revised the landscape to better reflect my desires for my garden.

I’m not a purest, I grow many non-natives in my gardens.  I transplanted a ‘Nana’ Nandina from a  garden  in which the signature plant, Barbados Cherry, froze completely this past winter. When I thought the Barbados Cherry died, I welcomed the opportunity to diversify  and redesigned the garden with a more varied set of native plants.  In re-imagining that garden, I understood how out-of-place the ‘Nana’ would be,

so after I pulled up two more Berkeley Sedge in another section of the front garden, I transplanted the ‘Nana’ to that spot.

Permanent impermanence: I augmented two gardens to better reflect their evolution and my desires.

Several years ago, the native Texas Sedge, Carex texensis, moved into my front garden, but inconveniently and stubbornly, in a pathway. As part of my recent garden reconfiguration,  I transplanted the Texas Sedge clumps to a different spot. They’ve struggled a bit, but  I think they’ll survive.

The foliage is finer than the Berkeley Sedge and they aren’t as consistently evergreen– they were nipped by the last hard freeze on March 2. Texas sedge doesn’t spread rapidly, either.  I don’t find them quite as attractive as the B. Sedge (sacrilege!) and I suspect that’s why they’re not commonly found in the commercial nursery trade.  Pretty sells.

Constantly evolving, the garden reflects life and nothing is permanent.  Conditions change and the gardener responds. Gardeners follow fads and styles of gardening, always longing for that newest, cool plant to pop the palette of the landscape, sometimes regretting that decision and action.

Tastes change.  Styles change.  Needs change.   We learn as we garden and our gardens reflect our growth.  Nothing in gardening is permanent.

10 thoughts on “Permanent Impermanence

  1. Just as valuable to hear about what doesn’t work in people’s gardens here as what does. Thanks for the details of your journey with Berkeley Sedge!


  2. I’m grateful for your observations. I’ve heard so much about sedge ‘lawns’ and I’ve been curious about long term experiences with them. Thanks for your perspective – especially the contrast of the B sedge with the Texas. I’ll be interested to hear how the Texas sedge does going forth.

    It’s interesting the plants we tolerate and the plants we decide to evict. We all have our threshold and measurements and what stays and what goes varies so with each gardener. I was at a friend’s garden recently and she has obedient plant and seems happy with it. Another friend has nearly forbidden me to plant it because of the experience she had.


    • It is interesting how one gardener’s love is another gardener’s bane! I think the Texas sedge will be fine–I moved it, we froze, and very late. Sometimes I forget to water and even the hardiest of transplants needs some water. I’m with your second friend on obedient plant–I hated it and yanked it years ago.


  3. I was just reading excerpts of an interview with UK retired “official” gardener John Sales and he was talking about how gardens are constantly changing – like a slow ballet. Thinking about my spaces that way allows me to to make mistakes – and changes – and allow for ongoing learning.

    As in, when I’m tempted by a showy non-native plant I ought to go lie down until the feeling passes. Most of my biggest “mistakes” involve non-native invasives. Particularly a ruellia I let get out of hand (or rather, pot!) and deeply regret. I was originally charmed by the blooms in unexpected places but it’s sneakily gone everywhere with a vengeance now and I’m constantly digging it out.


    • Yup, we’ve all done that. I like your solution–lie down until the feeling passes. I have done that (well, not exactly lie down), but waited–until I read more and though about “it” more–in other words, practice a little self-discipline. Now, if I could only do that with ice cream….


      • I’m pretty sure ice cream and self-discipline barely belong in the same paragraph, much less sentence. Let’s not get carried away!


  4. How I wish my Berkeley sedge lawn would spread! After a year, I’m still struggling to get it established, where I’m using it to replace a large swath of St. Augustine lawn. I have the native Texas sedge in clumps in my back garden (you’re right: not as pretty as Berk sedge, but still nice), and it seems much happier. I guess I should have gone with the native sedge, but I was swayed by visions of Berk sedge “lawns” I’d seen on garden tours here in Austin and wanted one of my own. I still think it’ll eventually fill in; it’s just taking much longer than I’d imagined. Obviously, if it becomes aggressive in my garden I’ll think twice about recommending it to others, but I haven’t experienced that yet. And you’re right — sometimes corralling an aggressive plant in the right place makes it useable. I certainly use and recommend heartleaf skullcap and inland sea oats, BUT with the caveat to go after unwanted seedlings early, before they get established.


    • I wonder why the Berkeley is taking so long?? As I recall, you just planted it last spring, so maybe it’s just an issue of time. I liked mine for the first couple of years and have experienced the invasive nature this past year. I still think it’s a better choice for a lawn than St. Augustine, because it requires so much less water. I also don’t recommend the heartleaf and inland sea oats for those who aren’t committed to basic maintenance of weed control/patrol. Good luck with your Berkeley–it’ll be interesting to observe its progress.


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