- The Blue Planet Garden blog had a review of "The American Meadow Garden: Creating an Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn" by John Greenlee.
- And Pam at Digging had a review of "The New Low Maintenance Garden: How to Have a Beautiful, Productive Garden and the Time to Enjoy it" by Valerie Easton.
Readers of this blog might think I'd immediately be enamored of The American Meadow Garden. After all, the vision of clump grasses, annuals, and a few perennials, the pollinators and butterflies frolicking in the garden seem enticing. The photos are stunning -- well, they're by Saxon Holt, so of course they are.
Problem is, I've talked to people who've tried to have a meadow. One woman just had a small area, with lupine and some bunch grasses. She told of endless hours of weeding to get out the bad seeds and encourage the good. She hung on for 2 years. Next time I drove by her garden, she had some perennials in the spot where the annual lupine used to be. My fair city actually sowed California wildflowers on the former dump after it had been covered with soil. The first year was spectacular: Owl's clover, poppies, lupine, and some bunch grasses. The second year was more of a mixed bag. By now, the European annual grasses have taken over completely, with a few poppies as a reminder of great things past.
So, would I discourage anyone from trying to establish a meadow in their garden? Not at all! I think the small lupine meadow might have had too much shade, and the meadow on the dump probably had the wrong soil. It's possible do do this, especially with the no doubt excellent instructions from the book. But to be quite frank, I don't think I can handle the weeding. I can barely keep up with the weeds I get, and they're not bad. Maybe when I'm retired.
The New Low Maintenance Garden actually pushed the exact opposite button for me. As I understand it from the review, the premise of the book is that we have no time to enjoy our garden because the plants are just trouble. Having more hardscaping and a limited plant palette is the author's solution.
I've actually taken issue with using concrete in the garden in my Blog Action Day post. I hope the author does not advocate concrete as hardscape, but I know many landscape architects do. Realistically, it's the easiest way to have a weed free surface, but the environmental problems are manifold.
I also very much question the limited plant palette approach. For the wildlife gardener, more species is almost always better. Pollinators need nectar and pollen year round, birds need seeds and insects for their young. I'd leave the limited palette to the industrial plantings and encourage everyone to think diversity. An estate garden planted with natives that I saw a few weeks ago had a plant list that covered 4 spreadsheet pages. Several hundred plants, and yet it looked tidy and had clean lines. Good planning is key, regardless of how many plants you use. And having plants in the right spot will allow them to grow well with minimal pruning, watering, fertilizing or otherwise molesting the plant.
That said, the photos in the book review look appealing, and the ideas of using less lawn, collecting water on the site and -- gasp -- enjoying the garden all sound great. Who knows, I might like the book after all.
Here's what's interesting, though. I searched for the book on Amazon, and typed "low maintenance garden" (leaving out "new"). And pages and pages of books about the topic were displayed. I could not believe it! It seems as if, next to the search for the flat stomach and the wrinkle-free face, the low maintenance garden might be one of the holy grails of Americana.
So I asked myself whether my garden is low maintenence, and what I spend time on in my garden. Here it is:
- Spot watering (summer) -- The irrigation in the front garden is broken, and I want to stop watering the front, so it makes no sense to fix it. I spot-watered the plants approximately every 10-14 days this summer. It took about 1 hour each time, and I enjoyed spending the time and seeing the progress (or not) of the new plants. Next year, I'll switch to every 14-18 days, then to once a month.
- Container watering (summer) -- I have some water-loving container plants in the shade. In summer, I water them every 2-3 days, 5-10 minutes. Note to author of The NEW Low Maintenence Garden: Containers are more work than plants in the ground, not less.
- Weeding (fall and spring) -- When there's water and some warmth, there are weeds. I tend to weed as I go, 10 minutes before I go to work, or a brief period here or their. This year, I'm finding the dreaded Oxalis pes caprae, so I'm trying to be extra vigilant.
- Pruning (summer and winter) -- I prune most natives in summer (or not) and my fruit trees in winter. The fruit trees actually take quite a bit of my time, between pruning, raking leaves, lime sulphur application, and harvesting. But then it's also one of the most enjoyable parts of gardening. Does eating the fruit count as maintenance?
- Leaf raking (fall) -- For about 3 months in the fall, I spend quite a bit of time raking or sweeping leaves or redwood branches. However, here's the catch: Most of the time is spent clearing off the hardscaping or the dry streambed. What falls in the other areas is often left to rot. I did try out a neighbor's electric leaf vacuum last year. I found it heavy and very noisy, and it took me a long time to clean up most of the dry streambed. I decided I'd rather go back to sweeping and picking up the leaves.
- Planting (mostly fall) -- Each summer, I plan some changes or additions to the garden, and I buy and plant things in the fall. I'm also planting bulbs and hope to start annuals from seed. Is that maintenance? Does it stop me from enjoying my garden? Probably not. In fact, probably the opposite.
On the one hand, I don't have a lawn I need to mow, fertilize, and otherwise coddle. Most plants don't need a lot of pruning or care. I only fertilize the fruit trees, mostly with my own compost. On the other hand, hand weeding and dealing with the leaves does take a little time. And I'm truly behind on the bulb planting. But I usually enjoy the times I spend outside, listening to the birds, smelling the leaves, imagining the joys of spring to come, discovering new blossoms or spiders or mushrooms. Then I run inside to get the camera for a photo, or to get a cup of tea and have a break, and I think I'm so lucky to have this special time to play. Is it maintenance? Is it low? You decide.