Shut Up and Dig

Management, Not Maintenance

Last Monday I went to Plantorama at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a sort of jobs fair, symposium and reunion all rolled into one that is a must for any horticulturist in the New York area in January. Serious gardeners – whether novices or veterans — are also, of course, welcome. I don’t mean to discriminate against the more casual practitioners of our field, but they probably would be bored by the chatter about the latest floral discoveries and the boutique nurseries that are offering them.

What struck me most forcefully was something Kelly Norris, the Director of Horticulture at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden said. Morris is a rising star in the horticultural world and with good reason. He gave a stemwinder of a talk about “Planting for the Future” that focused on the changes he believes we gardeners must make in how we perceive and use plants in the times we are entering. What struck me most was one sentence, when he said that we must remove the word “maintenance” from our business descriptions and replace it with “management.”   He was referring to a principle expounded in Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s book, Planting in a Post-Wild World

That is, we have to learn to let go. We gardeners must stop making pictures, “compositions” that we then try to keep from changing by our weeding, mulching and clipping. We have to recognize our domestic landscapes as living things and treat them as such. If we borrow our design principles from ecology, we can make landscapes that are not only attractive but also functional.

Rose's garden

It reminded me of things Larry Weaner had said when we were writing Garden Revolution.   He encourages gardeners to study their site and figure out what could be growing there had the area not been disturbed by our clearing it to build a home (this is a several step process that includes looking for remnants of native vegetation, and matching the characteristics of topography and soil with similar but still-intact ecosystems nearby. To plant not in menageries (as we gardeners so often do) but in communities of plants that naturally associate with each other. Then expect the garden to evolve: welcome volunteer seedlings, encourage the plants to propagate themselves and knit into a design of their own making.

Cardinalflower 6

Manage, in other words, not just maintain.

Posted by on February 6, 2017 at 7:48 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.

11 responses to “Management, Not Maintenance”

  1. Karen says:

    I also have chickens, and they are tremendous helpers in the maintenance part. They seem to prefer to eat the the “white man’s footprints” and leave the Monarda and Echinacea alone. They also are not too hard on my daylilies and Hosta. I am enjoying the adventure with my cheap labor.

  2. Mick says:

    I think you are right when you say it’s best to plant not in menageries but in communities of plants that naturally associate with each other. When I first started gardening (I’m still just a hobbyist) I would plant flowers and layout my garden area for purely aesthetic reasons but after much trial and error I learned a little prior research eliminates a lot of trouble later.

    It is so easy to pick plants that actually compete with each other for resources leaving you will a garden full of stunted growths or lifeless plants (if your lucky enough to have them grow).

    A simple little saying my mum loved to use sums it up “a stitch in time saves nine.

  3. […] becomes more about management than maintenance. The popular gardening blog, Garden Rant recently had a post about the use of the term management as opposed to maintenance and why it’s […]

  4. Martha says:

    For a mere garden hobbyist, this describes my experience. I can create a certain garden, but plants do not like to be managed (or maintained, for that matter). A few years later and the original array needs to be changed out as plants overgrow or exhaust their blooming. So I create a new palate.

  5. John by the river says:

    I don’t have to weed after March because those are my native grasses and plants.

  6. JodiepCook says:

    It is so true that the way we design with plants must change and is changing!

    I would challenge you to revise your wording even further, however. The words maintain and manage are much the same and lack a sense of the warm, welcoming envelope so many of us experience in gardens, large or small, commercial or residential – when designed well.

    I would challenge you to use the word ‘care’ instead. Once a new garden is planted we should care for it as we care for other newly emerged living things.

    And at the same time we should talk about the ‘experience’ of a garden rather than how it looks…As Lawrence Halprin once said, ‘The great challenge for the garden designer is not to make the garden look natural, but to make the garden so that the people in it will feel natural.’

  7. Chris N says:

    When I saw the title, I thought this was a guest rant by Thomas Rainer. Then read it, looked at the writer again and realized it was Thomas Christopher! The idea is certainly in the air. Roy Diblik used the term “Know Maintenance” for his book, punning on the oxymoron of “no maintenance.” If you read his book though it is all about creating plantings that need only management not maintenance.

    I first came across the concept in the 90’s when in the graduate program in Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. One of the subprograms was Evaluation, Management, Restoration of, and Design with Native Plant Communities. Management was always the idea whether you were looking at a high quality remnant prairie, a savanna restoration or a mini woodland planting in the backyard.

    The big difference now, as Thomas Rainer and others have pointed out, is that for many areas we need to look at plant communities in a much broader fashion, mixing elements from similar habitats around the world. Some of this is esthetics and some practicality. Thomas Rainer and Claudia West do an excellent job in their book discussing these aspects. I have not yet read Thomas Christopher and Larry Weaner’s book but I just put a hold on it at the library so I will soon see what gems it holds.

  8. Thomas Rainer says:

    That phrase is the fifth principle in our book, Planting in a Post-Wild World. Glad to see the idea being spread by such articulate speakers as Kelly.

  9. Ruth Rogers Clausen says:

    Good job Tom. I know Kelly will be pleased and Bob Hyland as well. anyway managemnet sounds like a lot less work and more fun than maintenance!

    Happy upcoming Birthday Kelly

  10. Laura Munoz says:

    This post hit home for me. I also realize it’s not necessarily a native versus non-native article.

    Management is a goal for me. I honestly think about where my young garden is headed. It won’t stay stagnant, and I won’t militarize it by being inflexible. I wish every gardener would manage, not dictate, to their land/garden.

    In my old garden, we were forced by our soil to manage and evolve. While we planted non-natives, the non-native plants refused to grow in our caliche. The bad soil plus several droughts dictated what we could plant. The poor soil had never been disrupted by builder’s fill. Anyway, we grew all sorts of lovely natives and a few non-natives.

    In the new garden, the soil is terrific. More plant varieties, native & non-native, grow here compared to the old garden and of course I’ve planted some non-natives that I’ve lusted after for years. Still, I choose to plant a lot of natives and not to remove the natives already growing such as wood violets, oxalis, yaupon holly, penstemons, native sedges, and native lantana. I’m trying hard to pay attention to what the land tells me, but I came by this the hard way–all learned from plants that died in the former garden.

  11. Tara Dillard says:

    Management, yes.

    Larger story, stewardship.

    In management, we perform. In stewardship, we perform, and receive. Proper stewardship increases property value and reduces HVAC too, in addition to being Earth healthy.

    Learned a great phrase recently in regard to old pecan trees. From looking at a bag of pecans, the man at the seed shop about to take the pecans for cracking, made a quick glance, and said, “Oh, those are past management.”
    Wow, beautiful pecans, yet he knew exactly what the trees had been doing, without ever seeing them.

    Have always designed historic gardens, they were my teacher, STEWARDSHIP.
    More, historic gardens have never separated horticulture from agriculture.
    Landscaping is commodified, hence the slowness to change the destructive habits of designing lawns to be mowed, fertilized, insecticides, fungicides, bushes to overgrow so they can be pruned yearly, and blah blah blah.
    In addition to those historic gardens, I must give credit to my chickens for teaching the most important layer of a garden, stewardship.
    Great to read this variation.

    Garden & Be Well, XO T

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