Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Shut Up and Dig

Designing with your hoe

More than three decades ago, my wife-to-be dragged me kicking and screaming to central Texas, where she had a job at a scientific research institute. A born and bred Yankee, I had a keen sense of what I was leaving behind me. What wasn’t clear to me at departure time was all that I would learn in small town/rural Texas. Those lessons would change my life in many ways, and in particular the way I gardened.

I had learned horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where creating a new garden began with a carefully drafted design and then a trip to the nursery to buy the necessary plants. These purchases were carefully installed according to the blueprint; anything that popped up elsewhere and altered the original vision was treated as a weed.


Larry Weaner landscape where volunteers are encouraged and the design is allowed to follow the site’s natural ecological bent

In the cottage gardens of small town Texas I encountered a thriftier and more relaxed concept of design. These gardeners practiced what I came to think of as designing with a hoe.   Most of the plants they set out in their gardens were acquired as “starts” – seedlings or rooted cuttings – from other gardeners. As such, these starts most often belonged to species that reproduced prolifically and spontaneously in the local soil and climate. They might be natives or they might be naturalized; once released into the garden, these starts began to seed themselves into hospitable niches within the landscape. The gardeners then did their design work by hoeing out the volunteer seedlings wherever they were unwanted and leaving the rest.

This approach reduced to almost nothing the cost of acquiring plants. It also encouraged robust growth because the seeds that germinated tended to be the ones that fell into hospitable conditions. In general, the result was a lush tapestry that reflected the ecology of the site as well as the tastes of the gardener. It was a demonstration of the principle that Larry Weaner, my co-author on Garden Revolution, describes as “Letting the plant find its niche”.

The danger of this style of gardening is that it could release a too-prolific plant, an invasive species, into the landscape. One way to guard against this is to limit your planting to plants indigenous to the area (as my co-author Larry Weaner typically does), or to plants which, although exotic in origin, have a long history of good behavior in your area.

Posted by on June 6, 2016 at 10:39 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Shut Up and Dig.
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8 responses to “Designing with your hoe”

  1. Janice Goole says:

    My first garden was planted from seedlings given to me by co-workers and relatives. With a little help from other gardeners, my plantings grew and gave me beautiful flowers. At the time I was only 21 and had no gardening experience. The help from friends and the plants given to me instilled a love of growing things–both herbs and flowers. I believe you can have a beautiful garden wherever you live the difference being my Michigan garden can only be enjoyed for about 5-6 months and your warmer climate allows for a much longer enjoyment.

  2. Mimi says:

    Oh the quaint folkways of rural Texans!

    Dude. Seriously. Get out more. Many people in many different places have many different gardens. I grew up in small town Central Texas and only ever once saw anything like a cottage garden. They are stupid, especially near the house, because of the danger of copperheads. In fact, of all the places I’ve lived, only in the desert would it be less practical. I do far more plant sharing on the East Coast than I ever have elsewhere because gardening is so much easier here that more people do it.

    In my small town in central Texas with a research institute, a typical day of planting would be Lowe’s for the annuals, home again, a nice lunch in the garden district where the independent nursery is, then to the nursery for a decent selection of (very expensive) more interesting plants that can handle the climate. Major planting times are October toNovember and February to March.

  3. Whatever do you mean…..hehehe. I love my hoe!!! Okay, I’m done.

  4. Excellent insight on a time-honored technique, Thomas. I don’t often practice “design by hoe,” but I certainly select some prairie natives, like Butterfly Milkweed, by pulling them if they pop up where I don’t want and leaving them alone if they find a nice home for themselves. Others, like Catnip (Nepeta cataria), I originally let self-seed, but found them so prolific and nonrespectful of neighbors that I now eliminate it wherever it appears.

    A Greater Power practiced another form of design in my garden this year; let’s call it “design by climate”. I don’t know if it was the dry summer and fall of 2015 or something weird about the winter, but I have no garden varieties of Oriental poppies or Monarda this year….they just never appeared in spots where they’ve been growing the last decade or so.

  5. Barb Gorges says:

    Just an hour ago I pulled up some feverfew, which I love, but my husband thinks is too weedy the way it self-seeds everywhere, to make room for a new plant from a friend. What works in central Texas works in SE Wyoming–on a city-sized lot.

  6. Anne says:

    Haha! Laura, I’ll never forget the day my brother looked out in my garden and said “Is that a bent hoe I see?!”

  7. Ruth Rogers Clausen says:

    I hear that pass-along plants are especially popular in W. Texas. Not so good for the nurserymen and women who work so hard to put good well-grown plants in the marketplace.
    Not so sure that this technique works well in limited space in suburban gardens, but to each his own. In my own garden there are so many “gotta haves” that design is pretty much out of the question. I always fall back on the “cottage garden” in desperation!

  8. Laura Munoz says:

    Interesting article since I live in Texas and lived in central Texas for 27 years until I moved a year ago. Gardening in central Texas, at least for me, is nothing like gardening anywhere else.

    While I do not mean to be disrespectful, that title is something else. It made me laugh. Sorry. (I read it wrong ’cause I’ve lived in Texas for too long and have become accustom to the slang.)