Friday, March 4, 2011


            Today we start a new series on everyone’s favorite topic, garden maintenance.
            When Tim and I went to Ireland 10 years ago, money from the EU was pouring into the country, and many of the fine old walled estate gardens were coming back from years of neglect. Connemara’s Kylemore Abbey; Woodstock Arboretum in Inistoge, County Kilkenny; Ballinlough in County Meath; Westmeath’s Belvedere House, in Mullingar; were all the in early stages of restoration. We came home so uplifted and enthusiastic. We hope go back someday to see how they’re getting on. beautiful Co. Connemara.
The walled garden is a short walk
away at the left side of the postcard

            Every garden in the world is an artificial construct, the product of someone’s imagination and will. Nothing artificial runs well off on its own. Believe me, I’ve been trying for decades to have vacuumed. Anything ever constructed needs taking care of. It needs maintenance.
I wish I had a dollar for every potential client Tim and I have talked to over the years who, at some point or other in the interview, said, “…and I want it to be very low-maintenance.”

             A low-maintenance garden—what a concept. I’m reminded of the story Anne Lamott tells in her book, Bird by Bird, of the students in her writing classes who want to have written. They don’t want to take the time to learn the craft or put in the necessary hours and days and years confronting the blank page, but they would like to publish a runaway bestseller, rake in advances and royalty checks, preside over triumphant book signings, be reviewed by David Sedaris in the New York Times Sunday magazine, and land interviews with Oprah, the morning chat shows, and NPR.

            Just like the low-maintenance garden, it ain’t gonna happen.

            I’ve had a lot of time to ponder this subject during the course of the week: Tim and I spent 16 hours pulling several years’ accumulation of oak leaves and pine straw out of a favorite client’s azaleas, gardenias, loropetalum, hydrangeas and hollies. It’s not arduous work, just monotonous. I’m the detail man of our team, head stuck under the shrubs and hands acting as tiny rakes in those hard-to-reach places between trunks. Because this part of the exercise requires no sharp implements, my brain needn’t be fully focused on the task, so it can wander at will.

            Initial cogitations revolved around how much more difficult procrastination makes routine things. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a dyed-in-the-wool putter-offer. The final page of every term paper I wrote while at university rolled off the platen of my trusty Smith-Corona just 15 minutes before I turned it in, panting, disheveled, unshowered and still buzzing from all the No-Doz. Even now, as a professional writer, I’m only marginally better. Mostly I lie to myself about deadline dates, marking them on the calendar a few days earlier than the piece is really due. (It’s stupid, but it works.)

Newly planted boxwood walk
at Woodstock Arboretum,
Inistoge, Co. Kilkenny
(May 2000)

            When Tim and I troubleshoot overgrown landscapes, I understand completely how overwhelmed homeowners often feel. One lady told us, “We know it needs to be done. We come outside with wonderful intentions. But then we look around us at this mess, and have no idea where to start. So we go back inside, or remember some shopping we have to do, or anything else at all, really.” Or we’ll hear, “Well, we went out one Saturday morning last spring. We started at the back of the back yard and worked our asses off all day. By four o’clock, we could hardly haul ourselves into the house. When we dragged ourselves out of bed Sunday morning and looked outside, it was like we had barely made a dent. So I planted some annuals to hide the mess, and we haven’t been out again. We hired somebody, but they didn’t do a very good job.”   

            If the foregoing scenarios sound uncomfortably like déjà vu all over again, the place to start is with Tim’s “be an ant” mantra. (Unfamiliar with Tim’s “be an ant” mantra? Check out December 27th’s “Tis the Season for Excuses.”) Pick one small spot—your herb garden, or the right side of the bed in front of the porch. Make it someplace you see all the time that particularly aggravates you. Spend a few hours there on a balmy afternoon weeding, pruning, raking, and generally cleaning up. After a couple of hours, you’re done for the day. Treat yourself to something nice. You deserve it.

            Next week, finish the first spot or start clearing out the next little area you’ve selected. Only work two or three hours before moving on to something—and somewhere—else.

One of the connecting walled gardens
at Ballinlough Castle
in Co. Meath

            The idea is to not to make a single do-or-die, one-day, superhuman effort, wearing yourself out to the point that the merest thought of tackling the yard makes your stomach seize up. Be an ant, one grain at a time.

            Once you get the place whipped into shape, the next task is to keep up with it so it never gets as bad as it was ever again.

            Whenever we finish a garden installation, Tim (”Little Merry Sunshine,” we sometimes call him) gives the clients The Speech. “See this garden?” he asks. “This is the nicest it is ever going to look UNLESS you come out here tomorrow and pull that first weed, and sweep the pine straw and leaves off the path/dry streambed/patio/whatever. If you don’t do those things tomorrow, in a month, the garden will start looking shabby. In a year, it’ll be a disaster. So go out tomorrow and every day after and pull that weed.”

            It must be said at this juncture that Tim gives a similar speech during the planning phase as well. He’s brutal with clients about the maintenance chore they’re considering taking on—especially the ones who want to have gardened. (He can spot them with uncanny accuracy, too.)

Newly planted borders at
Belvedere House
in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath

            As usual, he’s right. Every gardener knows that if you turn your back on a garden for 10 minutes, it’s already inching back to what it was before you came along with your big ideas and shovel and rake and plants from China and the Alps and the Atacama Desert. He talks us out of a lot of paychecks, but it’s the right thing to do. There’s nothing sadder than a garden you put some of yourself into sinking into wildness through neglect.

            I’m not being melodramatic here. Once there was a beautiful, intricate, pond-side garden we made for a lovely couple who didn’t mind paying us to maintain it as it should be cared for. When they moved away, the new owners let us—and the garden—go. I can’t bear even to drive past the house any more. Breaks my heart.

            Okay, maybe I’m being an itty-bitty bit melodramatic. It’s still sad.

Thanks for dropping by. See you next time, when I’ll make suggestions for making maintenance more manageable.


P.S.—For Miss Patti of Trailwood Drive and Ellicott City, here are the pictures of hayracks I promised you. (You can click on them to make them larger.)

Winter planting

Summer planting