(Low) Maintenance

I almost called this post "Book Review Review", because it's inspired by two most excellent book reviews I read recently.
  • 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.
DISCLAIMER: I have not read those two books. Instead, I'd like to share my reactions to the information I do have, and follow up with some thoughts on maintenance and time spent in the garden.

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.
Now here's the interesting question: Is my garden low maintenance? I often get that question during the garden tour. And I'm tempted to ask back: Compared to what?

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.


Christine said…
I guess I'm not sure what I'd do in the garden if I wasn't out maintaining it, but that's not a chore to me. Even digging out oxalis has a meditative appeal. Thanks for bringing this up!
Country Mouse said…
Maintenance to me is tweaking the irrigation. I guess one person's maintenance is another person's garden magic! I got lots of chuckles and wry grins from this post - passed the time pleasantly here in the airport, en route to Savannah!
Rosey Pollen said…
My husband always thinks I am nuts for adding more to my garden, he says aren't you creating more work for yourself? Yes and no. It is the kind of work that helps me sleep good at night. And I like that.
As for concrete, who wants a park in their yard? Not I.
Good post... considering I have just checked out 20 books on gardening from the library. :)
Teza said…
Thank you my most level of headed garden blogging friends. I am happy I was not the only one to physically cringe when I saw yet another(LOW)maintenance gardening book on the shelves of my local bookstore. I made a point of telling the owner that it shouldn't be in the true gardening section - rather with day-timers and calanders - you know, the area where you spend all of your time planning you life, and yes, ignoring your garden because it is just too 'high maintenance!'

Luckily they expect these idiosyncratic outbursts from me every once in a while! I am always thrilled when I come upon a conscientious reader - someone who questions the content of 'yet another gardening book' Great post as always!
Benjamin Vogt said…
You garden like me! I worry about selling this house ina few years, that the garden will turn off everyone as a ton of work and not turn them on for the efuge and beauty it is for us, and nature. Still, if you didn't want to spend tons of time with it (mowing takes up more time!!) I just cut everything down in March in a few hours, weed a few times each summer and spot water about once per month. A fresh application of mulch every few years of an inch is about right. EASY, I think!
Pam/Digging said…
Nice commentary on the concept of a low-maintenance garden, TM, and I appreciate not only the link to my review but your pointing out the value of using many species of plants for a garden designed to attract wildlife. As I pointed out in my review, I don't think many garden bloggers, who tend to really love spending time---and working---in the garden would be attracted to her concept. But many non-gardeners and "retiring" gardeners who still want a beautiful garden would be.

In Easton's defense, she did not advocate large sweeps of concrete or other hardscaping but rather smaller gardens with appropriately sized hardscaping as well as many "green" approaches to creating and maintaining that space. And as you noticed in the pics of her current garden, I too think she is still very much a plant person.
Anonymous said…
The best tip I ever got on Low Maintenance was about 10 years ago from Anne Lovejoy's 'Organic Garden Design School'. It is still in print and available on Amazon. The basic concepts here are to choose the right plants for the site (climate, natural water, sun, shade, etc.) & give them the room they need for maximum growth.
I love planting & putzing around in the garden and of course watching things bloom & grow, but other than that, I really don't like maintenance. I have no tolerance for non-performers (although I have gotten more patient with age). We water as little as possible, mow once a week, trim rarely, fertilize almost never, keep mulch down to minimize weeds, sweep & pick up dropped fruit & leaves occasionally.
"Low Maintenance" and "Garden" are terms that, when used in combination, always make me cringe. It is good to read someone else's gut response to this concept which seems to parallel my own.
If you have time to blog, then your garden is low maintenance. Just kidding!Everything is relative, you are right. You are a rebel, Mrs. Mouse, aren't you?
Valerie Easton said…
It doesn't seem fair to me to review a review of my new book! I think if you'd taken a look at the book itself, you would have seen that it includes many ideas for permeable hardscaping, as well as an emphasis on wildlife friendly gardens and sustainable practices. My own garden, and many in the book, are full of beautiful edible and ornamental plants - the point is an emphasis on design and thoughtful choices so that you get the most joy possible out of your garden!

By the way, my preference for the title was "The Simplifed Garden", but authors don't get to choose their own titles these days...that's up to the marketing department!

I invite you and your readers to take a look at my new book before judging it by a review - which, by the way, was really a good review...
Val Easton
Town Mouse said…
Hi Val,

Well, as I said IN LARGE LETTERS I never read the book, it was really more a conduit for me to ponder the question of low maintenance.

While it's possibly odd to review a book review, it's possibly even worse to spin off a post based on the minimal information I had about the book.

I like your title better ;->
Apologies if I stepped on your toes. I tend to do that...
Katie said…
When I reviewed the Low Maintenance Garden, you left a great comment about "why less varieties?" and extolled the wildlife virtues of diversity. I'm so glad you left a comment there and followed up here. As much as I did like the book, I absolutely agree with you. My garden is not a showpiece or modern sculpture in which there are 2 varieties of some high-falutin' plants, but instead it feeds my family and the families of all passing critters.

And honestly, how much "new" gardening is really happening? All these books talk about "new"...it kind of makes me laugh!
Susan Tomlinson said…
An excellent, thoughtful post. While I'm intrigued by incorporating more hardscape in the garden, mine is for an aesthetic reason, not a maintenance reason. I don't think any true gardeners are concerned about maintenance--in fact, I don't think we call it maintenance at all. We call it gardening, and call it good.

However, your point is good that one of the bennies of touting "low-maintenance" is to get people who are not enamored of gardens to reconsider their own little spots of heaven, and perhaps to incorporate more enviro-friendly practices.

Finally, ditto your thoughts on concrete in the garden.