Tuesday, March 8, 2011


           Most time spent in one’s garden involves maintaining. Oh, we design, and plant, and dig new beds; we rip out, redesign, replant. But mostly we take care of what we’ve got. It’s not glamorous, or exciting, but tending the things of the earth is what gardening is really all about.

           Whenever I get jangled, too busy, too multi-tasked, nothing soothes like a little quality time with my nose to the soil in a weedy patch. Most people I talk to in the course of my work consider weeds the biggest bugaboo in garden-land. Well, yes and no. Yes, if you’ve let them establish. No, if you keep them in bounds.

            I admit I enjoy weeding. I actually think it’s fun (go figure) to pull a plant out of the ground and look at its roots and branching patterns, flowers and seeds, its colors and smells. Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying most common local weeds by all those criteria. This course of study has also resulted in smaller populations in the places I practice. Even if you leave some roots, vigilance in keeping top-growth removed will eventually starve even tenacious survivors like pennywort and cat briar.    

A sort-of low-maintenance garden,
but it still gets covered
with leaf litter and acorns
Of course, new challenges arise. For instance, weeds of cultivation replace the wild-area ones—vetch and wild briar edge out sand spurs and plantains. But if you’re a gardener in your soul, no time spent outside feels onerous.

Weed seeds come up whenever the ground is disturbed. If you don’t expend a lot of effort tilling the soil, your weed population naturally decreases, as their seeds stay too far away from light to germinate. Toss out that silly Mantis, and invest in Lee Reich’s Weedless Gardening and/or Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza (see "Good Reads" in the sidebar). 

Intensive tillage causes other maintenance headaches. In addition to raising weed seeds, digging disrupts microbiota in the soil. For instance, Tim and I double-dug our first Oak Island garden, thrilled by the at-the-time novel experience of moving sand as opposed to the heavy, rock-laden, Adirondack-foothills dirt in my Glens Falls back yard. Double-digging is a labor-intensive European invention, intended to improve tilth—a.k.a. workability—of the soil. Unfortunately, what double-digging actually accomplishes is to shift upper-level aerobic organisms to anaerobic depths while exposing lower-level anaerobic microbes to fatal amounts of oxygen. Oh, dear.

You don’t even have to go to the extreme of double-digging to damage soil structure. Our tiny dirt friends go about their business in little colonies. Any time you thrust a shovel into the ground, you’re wreaking havoc, including any earthworms you bisect. (No, earthworms do not regenerate from severed bits. Cutting them in two kills them. Dead.) Of course, some of this ruction is necessary, for planting and so forth. But it can be, and often is, overdone by the misinformed. I get riled by well-meant instructions by so-called “experts” to “work organic matter into the top six to 12 inches of the soil.” Digging in compost is counterproductive: the activity decimates the very populations you’re trying to feed.

Another strategy for minimizing maintenance is to never go out to the garden without your pruners. It’s far easier to whack off that odd-angled or annoying little branch right now than to wait until its removal requires major surgery and a protracted recovery time. Cut out all dead wood and crossing branches as soon as you spot them. Limb up your shrubs to increase air circulation in their interiors before the suck-bugs and fungi arrive. Deadheading perennials can result in a longer season of bloom.

Don’t think I don’t know that a healthy percentage of you are scared of pruning your plants. Well, get over it. Remember two things—it’s hard to kill something by pruning it; and if pruning it kills it, you’ve done both of you a favor.

To recap: Three of the four pillars of minimizing maintenance are: 1) do keep up with weeding; 2) don’t disturb the soil more than is absolutely necessary; and 3) do prune as you go.

We now interrupt this post to take a small side trip.

The Irish Cathy Fitzgerald’s most recent EcoArtNotebook introduced me to 11-year-old Felix Elstner. At the launch of the U.N.’s International Year of Forests, “Felix… stole the limelight with his passionate speech and ambitious project to get the world to plant a Trillion Trees this year… with his pleas for us all to remember that he and his companions will be living in the future of a largely and dangerously un-forested world,” Cathy writes. His international poster campaign, “Stop Talking, Start Planting,” sends a powerful message to all us grown-ups who like to discuss issues ad nauseum in lieu of actually doing anything. Check out the Plant for the Planet website for a video of Felix’s speech.

Planting trees should be a no-brainer for gardeners. You needn’t plant a million of them, but one or two would be nice. I’m hoping to get my red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) and sweetheart tree (Euscaphis japonicus) into the new bed this coming weekend. Early spring’s a really good time to get woodies into the ground, to get a start on establishing before summer sets in. For the sake of Felix, and Felix’s kids, stop talking and just do it.

This young man from Mongolia
wants Mary Robinson,
former head of the
U.N. High Commission
for Human Rights,
to can the discussion about
reforestation already

What kind of tree should you plant?  Choose a genus suited to your soil, to your climate, and to the space you have in mind for it. That’s because the fourth pillar of minimizing maintenance is putting the right plant in the right place.

The concept “right plant, right place” seems so obvious, it’s amazing how often it gets overlooked. In my neck of the woods, within a mile of the Atlantic Ocean, the soil is sandy, neutral to alkaline in pH. Newcomers wanting all the acid-loving landscape staples Southern Living magazine promised them go ahead and plant azaleas, gardenias, camellias and Chinese hollies anyway, setting themselves up for disappointment. High pH soils stress azaleas, gardenias, camellias and Chinese hollies, increasing the likelihood of openings for pests and pathogens. It’s a rare azalea that doesn’t have lacebugs, a rare gardenia with no whiteflies, rare camellias and hollies without tea and/or wax scales.

Pests and diseases mean treatments. Treatments mean expense, worry, exposure to some nasty chemicals, and plants that look awful and then die. Avoid this disheartening cycle by getting a soil test and doing some homework before replacing your dead darlings.

Someone should have told
these homeowners that
Leyland cypress doesn't make
a good foundation plant
(click to make larger)

Listen, this is important: work with what you have instead of pretending really hard that it’s something—or somewhere—else. Deluding yourself will only lead to frustration and heartbreak. Gardening is supposed to be fun, right?

An important corollary to “right plant, right place” is to always look up. Don’t put that Leyland cypress on your foundation—it’s going to mildew your siding and lift your eaves when it grows up. Don’t plant a red maple that wants to be 60 feet tall under 25-foot-high power lines. Don’t plant that maple in a grove of pines either, unless you like the crammed-together, interspecific look.

What all this comes down to is knowing the characteristics of your patch and your own limitations and making appropriate choices based on what you know. You may not achieve the holy grail of the low-maintenance garden, but you can get pretty darned close.

I spent the afternoon pruning one side of my dwarf yaupon hedge, a chore I’ve put off for two years. Blistered index finger aside, I feel pretty good about that. But the damned Poa annua is burgeoning, a sure sign of spring. I gotta get on to them next.

Thanks for dropping by. You’re keeping me honest.