Shut Up and Dig

A gardener’s insouciance

Do we become more tolerant of the multiple problems and imperfections in our gardens, or less so? It is certainly the former with me. These days, as long as the ground is more or less covered and something smells nice, I’m happy. These days, just sitting on the steps next to the jasmine (whose winter defoliation I am tolerating) can be enough. I can see the weeds, the various perennials that seem to be faltering, and the inexplicable/unfortunate planting decisions I’ve made over the years, but it just doesn’t bother me that much.

The list of issues I’ve become willing to overlook has grown gradually. There’s more than I can remember to include here.

•Weeds. These are generally allowed to flourish unseen until I happen to notice them and pull enough out so that they become less noticeable. I don’t go nuts trying to get every little piece of root.

•Pruning. I don’t like it. I do cut away the dead branches of my roses.

•Insects and diseases. Oh the joy of embracing the no-spray movement. When I first started out I really thought you had to buy the treatments sold at the garden center. I know better now.

•Plant dividing. I have actually never done this, except inadvertently when moving a plant.

•Cutting back and deadheading. I have a hard time remembering what’s supposed to be cut back, but I do cut back spent blooms if they’re unsightly.

•Hoeing. I don’t have one. I am not sure what I’d do with it if I did.

•Planning and design. This never really happened, as I was fortunate enough to inherit a courtyard space where the beds were already laid out.

There are some things that even I can’t avoid. The pond has to be cleaned, the roses do benefit from at least a springtime fertilization, and I throw compost and mulch down when I can get to it. New things have to be planted when old things die or don’t work anymore, and I love anything to do with bulbs—and that’s work.

Otherwise, I’m beginning to forget there was a time when I spent most of my time in the garden working on the garden.  It helps of course that I am not a food grower. What’s your experience? Do you find that you relax your vigilance with time, or increase it?

Posted by on May 14, 2012 at 5:35 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.
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26 Responses to “A gardener’s insouciance”

  1. Robin Ripley says:

    Since I grow a fair amount of food, the work is quite steady from year to year on that front. For the ornamental beds though it does get easier since plants mature, fill out space and crowd out potential weedy areas. But then there is a little thing called ambition…You just never know when that will rear it’s ugly head.

  2. Terry says:

    I wax and wane. With Bermudagrass, I have no choice but to gird up and do battle – fairly frequently. Otherwise, it would smother and choke out everything. But there are times I can have “clutter blindness” in my garden, and simply focus on when looks and smells good, and ignore anything that looks like work.

  3. Sandra Knauf says:

    This is a great post, Elizabeth.

    My garden is like my home, beautiful and with delightful surprises, but rather wild and unkempt. I like it that way, and the outdoor creatures love it that way. That stated, I do tend to take a closer look and panic (just a tad)and clean up (more) when company is coming. I dislike all the tasks you listed except for dividing plants–to give to friends! And I do use the hoe in the veggie garden. Gardening should be about joy, not drudgery and anxiety.

  4. Mary Gray says:

    Elizabeth, I love this post. I’m like Terry…my motivation is cyclical. Also, I tend to expend most of my effort in the areas close to the house where visitors will actually see what i have going on. In the far corners of my yard I’m far less diligent.

    Case in point: I have an orange 5 gallon paint bucket that’s been sitting under a nice Kolkwitzia at the far edge of my yard. I’m sure I was using it as a weed-collecting vessel at some point and I just set it down mindlessly. It’s a terrible eyesore and would take only seconds to pick it up and stick in the shed.

    Yet it’s been there for about 3 years.

  5. Full disclosure: I am a food grower – or rather, the plants do the growing, and I provide foster care. That is something I’ve realized over the years, just as I’ve realized the word “weed” is perspective-dependent.

    Regarding ongoing vigilance, I know more now than I did ten years ago when we began the conversion from city-lot grass yard to raised-bed, organic gardens. I think wisdom dictates the level of effort required for a happy, bio-diverse environment.

    For me, grass must go. It has a tenacious root system that spreads and clumps, choking out growing space. I certainly don’t need a golf course where a nice plot of asparagus or strawberries will suffice.

    Who knew that feverfew, revered in ancient tomes for its medicinal properties, is actually a prolific seeder with an annoying root base? Same goes for the beloved purple coneflower (echinacea).

    I once discovered a clump of garlic chives in the neighbor’s yard, and I asked her if I could take some. She, a much older and wiser person than I, said I could have all I liked, but that I would be sorry.

    I’m sorry.

    And don’t get me going on hops. Those are the most monstrously aggressive plants I have yet seen. I spent some quality time with them and a pitchfork this weekend.

    These were the “seemed like a good idea at the time” plants. Live and learn.

    But there are other plants – even the common dandelion – that I have learned to live with, within reason. Where other city dweller run around with Cold War chemicals spraying their own environment with poison when they see the glorious butter yellow-orange flowers, I recall the few times I made dandelion wine, or the many times I add the greens to early spring salads.

    And if a dandelion is in the way of my garden scheme, I use a simple tool to extract it, root and all, god willing.

    Then there are the happy accidents, the volunteers from last year’s crops that suddenly appear just at the moment when we wonder if we planted enough things (ha!).

    All in all, with a limited Minnesota growing season, one has to be prudent with one’s time and energy. I’ve learned to pick my battles.

  6. Rochelle says:

    We bought 5 acres with just one tree on it ten years ago. The rest was bare bare bare. Not even a dirt road to get to it! We are still filling in vast areas with trees and bushes very slowly. Because we are on a strict budget we have grown most from seed and cuttings. We even learned how to propagate redwoods from cuttings and have started maples and silk trees from seeds. I can’t wait ’til the day when we can sit back and look at a mature landscape and decide if I want to mess with it or not. This year I’m cheering on 10 little trees that are shorter than my hand!

  7. John says:

    I fall into the camp of a “food grower” as well which may or may not be a justification for my vigilance about certain things. Weeds for instance don’t bother me, but only to the extent that they don’t get in the way of my food crops. I’ll weed like a madman for the first few weeks of planting things, just to make sure that the weeds don’t choke anything out. Once I’ve started harvesting though, my hatred of weeds starts to subside and I focus on canning, preserving, and eating my bounty.

    It’s always been funny too me how certain people will abhor certain things and be perfectly OK with others. My significant other? She hates dandelions with a passion, but other weeds? They’re not really a menace for some reason.

  8. Lisa C says:

    Forgive an off topic post, Ranters! I could torture my question into being relevant, but instead I’ll just ask it: the old grotty garden apartments across the street from me are being torn down and replaced with bigger new apartments. We have a meeting with the city council and the builders today, and I want to give them examples of good landscape design for apartment buildings. If I don’t advocate and made a big stink we will end up with pavement, lawn, and a couple of shrubs trimmed into blobs. Torture for this gardener to look at every day! Any resources, folks? This is in Laurel, Maryland. Thank you!

  9. Susan says:

    Age and fibromyalgia have mellowed me in terms of gardening, Elizabeth. Good enough works just fine. I’m to be on a garden tour in June, so I’m working to smarten things up more than they are at present, but I refuse to obsess too much. Physically, I simply can’t. Besides, I figure that people newer to gardening deserve to see some examples of what NOT to do – it balances things nicely.

  10. Elsa says:

    Whew! I let a bunch of flowering weeds take over a bit last year, and I’m totally paying the price this season. There are small white asters and queen anne’s lace everywhere. I’m trying to be Zen about it, but between this freaky spring weather and the fact that they’ve covered over many of my favorite perennials, action will have to be taken!

  11. UrsulaV says:

    I’m still in the stage where I have to build flower beds, and so spend a lot of time with a wheelbarrow and shovel, but the established beds certainly are getting benevolent neglect, and I have already made peace with the fact that some of my “design” decisions are…eccentric at best.

    But as Henry Miller said, the chief function of a garden is to delight the gardener. My weirdass funky garden delights me endlessly, and if that means that for some reason, there’s a four-foot plant at the front of the border or a row of daikons shoved in front of the native prairie plants, or clover rioting through the beardtongue, so what?

  12. celine says:

    I’d say I am more aware, but probably because I’m a newish gardener. Also I have loads of young plants, so I guess it’s like with kids : you watch them a lot when they’re small, then you let them live their life !

  13. Jodi says:

    Recently, I’ve been mulling over how paying attention really pays off in the garden, so I think I’m getting more vigilant with time.

    Stay on top of really aggressive weeds. Stake the tomatoes. Closely inspect your azalea for sawfly larvae. Keep an eye on that lily of the valley before it takes over the whole bed, choking out other stuff and you have to spend hours carefully disentangling it. (That was this spring’s project.)

    I like things tidy in general, but am also somewhat lazy, so my garden will never match the expectation in my head. Still, I do take immense satisfaction in seeing the results of garden work. Epecially when it’s been combined with cocktail hour….

  14. Deirdre says:

    The sight of a weed about to go to seed, or swamp a better plant is a great motivator. Some weeds are so pernicious, they are pulled on sight. Otherwise,…..

    Lilies want their head in the sun and their feet in the shade. Growing through a perennial or the skirts of a shrub is the perfect place for them. you did good.

  15. Pat says:

    I grow both food and ornamental plants (some of them fit both categories) and I do enough to keep them healthy, but my standards have fallen decidedly over the years. I am also becoming more forgiving about those plants I put in the wrong place…. they’re there and they can stay.

  16. donna says:

    I call mine a Darwinian garden — whatever adapts and survives gets to stay. If it’s a fussy plant it’s gone. I’ll move things around to give them a chance somewhere else, but sometimes they just die anyway. And then it’s lesson learned, don’t plant that again. I’ve given the yard over to more hardscaping as the kids grew up, less grass as the droughts became longer, and while I keep trying at the veggies, there are some that do well here and some that don’t, so I just grow what does well. The volunteers tend to take over when I like them — the tomatoes and sunflowers in the meditation garden that weren’t intended to be there. Some things sit in pots longer than I would like, some pots don’t stay as pretty as I would like. I’m using more succulents and have always favored perennials, now favor natives and edibles. My landscape designer friend alternates between loving my “collector” style and chewing me out for not doing more design and for planting onesie twosie.

    I no longer care, I just enjoy, and let it all evolve as it will.

  17. emily says:

    I’ve always said my house isn’t a museum. The yard isn’t much different. My vigilance waxes and wanes subject to the other commitments in my life. I also suffer from biting off more than I can chew.
    The part of the post that really got to me was “Oh the joy of embracing the no-spray movement. When I first started out I really thought you had to buy the treatments sold at the garden center.” I think this is an extremely common problem. And it’s one reason I go a little crazy every time I see a commercial clearly aimed at beginners and pushing herbicides and pesticides. I think a lot of people don’t question this approach until they’ve already got a shed or garage full of poison. Maybe we need some public service commercials that say all you really need is healthy dirt and a little water.

  18. tibs says:

    I am more aware. This time of year I can spot a weed across the lawn. I take a spin around the yard with my fish tail weeder and 5 gallon bucket every night. I like to prune except the shearing of the privet hedge. Deadheading really makes the place look better. (I just came in from snipping off all the frost ruined lilac buds – not one flowered this year) That said, the place is not spotless. I tend to pull weeds and leave them lie. The grass is spouse thing. Don’t care what it is as long as it is green and no thistles. NO, that is a lie. This year we have been inundated with these little weeds that you pull strand by strand. I am consummed by the passion to pull them. This is usually after I return from visiting my mother and it is a great way to releve stress. Sweeping and blowing hard surfaces just doesn’t get done. I am lucky, I live next to total slobs (in the garden) to one side, and neat freaks on the other. Makes my place look just right, not to messy, not to neat.

  19. gardengeri says:

    You will love dividing when you get around to it!

  20. Astrid Bowlby says:

    I actually like to do many of the chores you list, and I enjoy it when my garden is tidy, but I was ill last year, so everything went wild. I was also reminded that plants want to thrive and proliferate without my ministrations. That is their intention all along. I enjoyed every rose bloom although there were fewer. I was delighted by every columbine that self-seeded. I was grateful that things came back despite my neglect. I was happy to be reminded that I have a clematis Roguchi growing in a five gallon pickle bucket because of its prescence there to remind me. I garden all in containers on a scorching hot parking lot next to my husband’s woodshop, so this survival rate is even more amazing to me. And, the things that did not make it, I have forgotten about anyway!

  21. Nicole Brait says:

    I’m with you. If the ground is mostly covered and I can sit near something that smells good I’m happy.

    I don’t need to get every weed and fallen leaves look natural to me and not like things that need to be raked up.

  22. DC Lacy says:

    I love to prune. I also grow a lot of edibles. Weeds? Oh well. They come out when I get around to it. I currently have volunteer poppies (not the California variety so much) among my lavenders and blueberries. Love it!

  23. Catherine says:

    This post struck a chord with me because there are years when I garden obsessively and years when I don’t. The ebb and flow of life takes its toll on the garden-as well as on me- and I am trying to be ok with that. In the ebb years any time in the garden is good and in the flow years well, you know, nothing seems good enough. Somewhere in there is balance and I strive ever for it.

  24. Cheryl (and the cats) says:

    I am an intensive food gardener and I spend all of my available time in the garden but very little of it is work. I do all of the things others do, including trying to weed out the ground ivy we thought the was harmless the first year and ignored. I avoid work by redefining all of those tasks as “play.” Because I have a garden, I get to spend my time playing in the dirt, making a mess, getting hot and dirty and sometimes scratched up. It’s every child’s fantasy of a good day.

  25. Kassie says:

    I’m lucky to prefer things on the funky side in the garden, because that look matches my abilities. I do like weeding, but my main thrill is gathering in the flowers. If the plants are blooming, I can forgive a lot. If they’re not, action is required.

  26. Lani Wilkinson says:

    I’m a landscaper and would love to have my 3.5 acres looking as gorgeous as my customers’ yards. But, I’m rarely home. And I’m slightly handicapped and can’t move the way I used to. So the weeds are pulled sporatically, mostly when they’re interferring with a plant, or if I happen to have some excess energy at the end of the day and there’s still some sunlight. Don’t really have bug problems cause I don’t grow plants that are inclined to attract bugs. The birds take care of most things and my cat Puppy takes care of the moles, voles, and mice. Do have some pretty spectacular plants at various times. Only spraying I ever to do is Roundup and Surflan one time in the gravel driveway, which is a weed attractant. One time in May/June takes care of the entire season.

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