Mastering The Art of Garden Maintenance
By this time of year your sweet and pretty garden has grown up into a wild and wooly extravaganza. There’s crowding you hadn’t anticipated, plants dying back in the late summer drought, maybe some powdery mildew from the August humidity, and plants flopping or breaking from heavy storms. It’s either everything you dreamed it would be (back in January), or now, kind of a mess?!
Having a vision, creating a gorgeous landscape on paper and executing it is quite a feat- but it ain't nothin’ if you don't have someone to care for it into the future. So I’m going to touch on one of my favorite subjects: garden maintenance! I absolutely love garden maintenance. I love showing up, seeing what needs to get done, doing it, and seeing the results.
Maintenance is a word that can have grungy connotations. We think of the guys that show up with lawn mowers and leaf blowers, who wreak havoc on your landscape, make a lot of noise and then leave. But I think that maintenance is really just this… gardening. And there is no such thing as a garden without maintenance. Not even a native plant garden or native meadow that you seeded and walked away from…because when you turn around, the invasives and tree saplings will be thigh high.
I’m not saying that you better show up and do the work or it's gonna look like crap! I’m saying that you get to do it! You get the opportunity to let your creativity shine. You have the opportunity to make decisions that will affect the feeling and aesthetic quality of your landscape, as well as the ecological benefit it will provide.
Here’s where you get to respond to what you see in front of you, working with nature to create a beautiful and evocative picture. You work with the lifecycle of plants, throughout the seasons, and really get to train your eye. No two gardens- or gardeners- are ever alike. They always have their own ideas, ideals and approaches.
Because, All Maintenance Decisions are Artistic Decisions.
Gardening, like other art forms, has gone through different fashions, trends and styles, each with their own historical significance. I’m excited that today, the trend is moving toward the concepts of sustainability, regionality and ecology, all which create a ‘plant powered’ approach. Instead of a maintenance aesthetic of clipped hedges and straight lines, the New Aesthetic for maintenance is really let the beauty of nature express itself. And we get to collaborate!
Feeling inspired? Here are two maintenance strategies to dig into; I like to oscillate between the two of them:
1) Go for Perfection to Maintain Legibility
For the go-getter and the savvy professional, this is the way to make your garden sing. If you look at your garden and see chaos, take a deep breath and look closer to see the details that are causing the jumble. Plants may be falling down, crowding each other out, turning yellow or worse, or perhaps there are plants growing that you didn’t plant (i.e. Weeds). You need to create legibility in the planting, so your eyes can rest without feeling confused.
So first off- gardening 101- is straight-up weeding. This is really the very first thing you must do, to see what is meant to be there. Then, notice where there is crowding. Be ruthless about letting your key plants have some room. Cut back stems that are in the way, hiding other plants, or crossing. In my experience, eyes don’t like to see things crossing. Eliminating crossing branches can have a wondrously calming effect.
So really, go for perfection: Weed every weed. Cut every crossing branch. Remove every brown leaf. Every single one. Stand back and remove anything that catches your eye. Do this until you are satisfied. Doing this will create remarkable results. And satisfied clients.
2) Shake it up and Go Deeper
When I feel like I have a bit more dreaming space, I like to take a moment and start to ask some questions, like, “Why am I making the choices that I am making?” “Is it because it’s always been done this way?” In fact, the native plant superstar Larry Weaner always starts with, “What will happen if I do nothing?”
Many people like to look to the artist Claude Monet for garden inspiration; lately I like to think of Jackson Pollock. Not for his aesthetic per se, but rather for his revolutionary intention. When Jackson Pollock first started drizzling paint onto his canvas without ‘proper’ brushstrokes, there were many uneasy takers. It took some time for people to expand their concept about what fine art could be. The same goes for garden maintenance. Many people still want the perfection approach, and, I for one love to get in there with my pruners and cut stuff down, make space, create clarity in the chaos… but I invite you to think outside the box and slow down. There is a deeper approach we can tune ourselves into, a more expansive one, one that Dutch designer Piet Oudolf introduces to us when he says that ‘Brown is a color.’
They say the mind is elastic, so why not take this opportunity to play with new ideas about what maintenance can be? Why not question your gardening habits to expand your aesthetic palette? Sometimes I like to take a cue from Piet Oudolf and instead of automatically deadheading every bloom, learn to appreciate the beauty and development of each unique seedhead. Even when it turns brown. We can also leave plants up all winter instead of cutting them to the ground in the fall. We can let their vertically and architecture create winter interest during the barren months. This can also be an ecologically positive practice, which provides food and shelter for birds. Instead of raking away all debris, leaving some leaf litter promotes natural cycling of organic materials (hello free fertilizer), and also provides places for overwintering desirables, like the chrysalises of Luna moths.
There are so many concepts we can play with-like what if we take a cue from Merce Cunningham and John Cage and work with the concept of ‘Chance?' You’ve done the work with your design and installation, so what if you step back and just see what happens. What artful compositions will mother nature provide if you just don’t interfere? Perhaps that dipping plant, crossing branch or towering mullein will create the perfect whimsy or movement that your garden needs.
As you can imagine, both of these strategies can go to extremes. I like to move between them in my professional work, working for 'perfection’ but leaving spontaneous beauty when it appears, and always pushing new concepts that will help the local environment and wildlife. Also remember, you don't have to have the same maintenance strategy each year- you can experiment and play- each year is new!
So have I confused you enough? Given you too many options? I've said that there has to be maintenance, but then I've also said you could leave it all to chance. I'm here to say that there are unlimited options. My goal is to expand your concept of what garden maintenance can be and what it can create- from being a chore to becoming an artistic endeavor. Just like our plant and color choices can showcase our preferences and ideas, maintenance is yet another layer of self expression, and I encourage you to find your own style.
So get out there and get those creative juices flowing, because, as you are now aware, all Maintenance Decisions are Artistic Decisions!