Most conventional gardening practices don’t work with nature. They try and dominate it. Separating plants in a sea of mulch instead of letting them spread and shade out weeds. Cultivating alien plants that require excessive care. Blowing and bagging leaves instead of mulching them into free fertilizer.

I had never learned conventional gardening techniques because I was gardening for nature, dammit!  What could I possibly learn from toxic gardening techniques?

With conventional gardening practices, I’m learning: don’t throw out the good along with the bad. 

Dave installing Bed #1; July 2015
Bed #1: July 2016 —never have to weed it!


When we began our native garden, Dave and I removed lawn, composted, installed perennials plugs then mulched. As the seedlings matured in Bed #1, Dave watered them and I weeded until the native flowers and grasses spread into all the mulched spaces leaving no room for weeds to get in. Standard practice in native gardening: Install. Weed and water the first year. Done! It definitely works in the beds that get full sun.

But the beds in the shadier parts of our garden have a tougher time competing with crabgrass, oxalis, porcelain berry, nutsedge and my latest enemy: mock strawberry

Every year we replace some patch of lawn with new native plantings. The spaces in between become pathways that Dave regularly mows. The paths are simply long bits of remaining lawn. The same lawn that’s filled with turf grass and plenty of weeds

Where’s the edge?


The lawn weeds stay somewhat in control by regular mowing (at least they don’t go to seed). But once they reach “pay dirt” inside a garden bed they rise up and spread by underground rhizomes, running tendrils or by dropping seeds.

Sometimes it’s just plain old turf grass that slowly creeps into a planned garden bed. A few years ago, Mom grabbed a bunch of tall grass and asked in her clipped British accent: “Now, why don’t you take this out?” Kind of annoyed, I said: “but look at all the beautiful grass-seed heads!” I also thought…how boring to control every last plant in your garden. Mom had a good point, but she didn’t press it. So, lawn grass kept on silently advancing into the beds.

It never occurred to me to separate the garden beds from the lawn — because Bed #1 taught me I never had to weed it again. Still true! But the shadier garden beds don’t completely fill in. Aggressive grasses and weeds reach in from the adjacent paths and slowly colonize any empty spaces.

Planted right in the lawn! (Bed #2: 2015)
Spring, 2016: Bed#2 prepped and mulched one year after planting.


Bed #2 was established with faded black-eyed Susans and Coneflowers that I got on sale from a big box store. I could see that the roots were good, so I put the discounted flowers directly into the lawn. I was proud of all the money I saved while I imagined lovely flowers surrounded by tall grass next summer.

Instead, next spring it was clear that the black-eyed Susans and Coneflowers were getting shaded out by the taller lawn grass. I had to prepare Bed #2 in reverse, carefully digging out lawn and mulching around the flowers long after planting. I still spend way too much time weeding Bed #2.

This Old House YouTube Tutorial on Edging


I had assumed edging was strictly for looks; unnecessarily neat and tidy. But this spring I was spending hour after hour, day after day weeding the borderlines between garden paths and garden beds. Desperate for an easier, non-toxic way to control these invaders I turned to YouTube and found: How to Keep a Lawn and Garden Beds Separate  (watch from 1.5 min.):

What we’ve actually done is dig a trench. Now that trench is going to create air space between the lawn and the bed. So what’s going to happen is that as the plant starts to grow, little rhizomes are going to come out and try to come into the bed. But because of this air space it’s going to dry out and die, so we won’t get any more growth in here. This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook

That’s how you stop a weed from spreading!

Keep This Old House’s advice on trench edging, but please throw out TOH’s bad advice to treat unwanted grass with toxic glyphosate.  

BEFORE edging the fern bed. (June 2022)
AFTER edging the fern bed. (July 2022)


I immediately used the This Old House technique in a new bed that I hope will fill in with Christmas and Hay Scented ferns. I dug a deep trench around the fern bed and filled it with mulch making sure the deep air pocket was packed tight enough so that Dave can run the wheels of the mower over it and cut down all the grass growing alongside.


Pat Sutton explained to her Garden Gang that once a year her garden paths get covered in wood chips. Pat has been gardening for wildlife for decades. Still, I thought her wood chip pathways were JUST for SHOW … cheaper and more environmentally friendly than traditional hardscaping.

But, Duh! Now I realize wood chip paths are a standard solution for preventing weeds not just in the path, but beyond!


I began to garden with no hands-on knowledge. (I’d spent decades explaining the importance of biodiversity at AMNH; but I never got my hands in the dirt until Dave and I moved to New Jersey.) Knowing how toxic conventional gardening can be, I had overlooked the good along with the bad.

Armed with this new, basic knowledge I went to Dave: “We have to get rid of the lawn paths! Anything growing in the lawn is infesting the beds.” Being a guy, he loves a reason to use a power tool and wanted to rent a sod cutter right away adding, “we won’t be able to rent one in spring at peak demand.”

But I wonder: should I weed the beds first, then remove the weedy paths? If the beds stay weedy, before the paths are removed, will they just re-infest everything? Now we’re deep into an August heat wave. The drought may help kill the lawn paths. But heat exhaustion may take me out too!

I was annoyed by Dave’s lack of understanding of just how tenacious these weeds are. Never mind, that I had only just come to this understanding myself.

Reader, what are your thoughts on edging, lawn paths and tackling lawn weeds? Should I wait until spring and slowly edge all the beds? What’s the best time to do this? Should I tackle it little by little, one bed/path at a time or all at once?

 What “conventional” gardening techniques do you use in your wildlife garden?

What do you think of this four-part defense plan:

  • Weed the beds
  • Edge the beds (carefully teasing out the weeds and the turf grass that encroach the beds)
  • Then clear out all the lawn paths that meanders between the garden beds with a sod cutter
  • Finally, replace lawn path with mulch

Please share your thoughts and comment below!  And stay tuned to see our next steps in the #WILDintheGardenState garden!

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