I once had a notepad depicting a lady in a floppy garden hat and flowery dress cheerfully deadheading flowers. At the top it read, "Gardening Is Bringing Housecleaning Outdoors." This provoked wry laughter in me and my gardening friends. We were feeling overwhelmed and, suffering from various degrees of perfectionism, we were in danger of turning gardening into a grind.
At some point, I resolved not to be that person who, when complimented on her garden, nods distractedly while fixating on the dandelion she missed. Instead, I started collecting ideas for how to have more pleasure with less work.
Note with Interest
Plants reseed and come up in the conditions that are best for them. They tend to be quite stalwart when they get to pick their own spot. A therapist of mine used to say about emotions, "Note them with interest—and allow them to be." I try to do this with volunteer plants, too, instead of automatically pulling those that are "out of place."
Over by the telephone pole, a bladder campion is quietly spectacular, with a profusion of showy white flowers atop fused sepals that look like little green balloons. It doesn't grow anywhere else on my property; it's growing where it grows best. Common mullein plants pop up near the base of the pin oak tree by my porch. The silvery, fuzzy leaves are to me as ornamental as those of any garden perennial. When drifts of birdsfoot trefoil (little yellow flowers) or thistles (purple flowers) or wild yarrow (white flowers) appear in my lawn, I mow around them, emphasizing their beauty.
Keep Resources in Place
For so many years, I followed the rake-out-the-leaves, put-down-the-mulch dictum. More recently, rather than removing leaves from the garden beds, I've started raking the leaves in strategic directions, like away from bulb foliage (which would have suffered from lack of light if covered) and toward the perennials and shrubs. It is so much less work.
My colleague Liz Elkin, owner of Bloom Landscape Design and Fine Gardening based in New Paltz, concurs. She says, "I tend to let sleeping leaves lie under big shrubs and in hedges. Then I mulch on top to cover the leaves up. This hides them, while also feeding the garden with organic matter. Plants create the environment in which they thrive. For instance, acidic plants like to live within their own acidic debris. Leaving leaves around them gives the plants what they actually want, while giving yourself what you actually want—time to spend elsewhere."
I used to whisk away my weeds and throw them into the woods. What a waste of perfectly good biomatter. As long as the weed hasn't formed mature seeds, and with the exception of some pernicious rerooters like crabgrass, I return the pulled weeds to the garden. I generally toss them atop the aforementioned leaf matter, where there is no root-to-soil contact, further minimizing the chance of any rerooting.
I wrote about this in detail ("Till You Never ... Weed Again") in the May 2012 issue of Chronogram. In my own vegetable garden, I've applied what I learned about no-till from Jay and Polly Armour of Four Winds Farm in Gardiner.
I haven't fired up a rototiller in decades, but now I've dropped even the manual spring "turning over" that I habitually did. Per the Armours' advice, I use cardboard and several inches of compost to create new beds or convert existing beds to a no-till system. I also lay cardboard under my path system. I mulch everything with straw as I've always done.
The vegetables and flowers grow vigorously, while there is a sharp decrease in weeds throughout the garden beds and paths. Needing to weed so much less, I thus have more time to stand up and look around at all the other cool community garden plots. I am indebted to the Armours and would love to see more fellow gardeners take advantage of this method. (Please see my May 2012 story for particulars.)
When I started graduate school in 1997, I saw my adviser's exquisite five-acre landscape and thought, "I can't wait to do something like this." Mercifully, I never had enough property to go crazy like that; it makes me tired just thinking about it.
I advise new gardeners to put in fewer gardens that they think they want. Otherwise, they may be surprised at how soon the maintenance can get to be a frantic chore, especially if one has an unexpected injury or other unforeseen life event that compromises gardening time. It's so much less stressful to feel on top of things and so pleasing to have time to savor the beauty of what's there.
Toward that end of a more joyful landscape, Liz Elkin guides her clientele through a process of garden prioritizing. First she asks, "What purposes do you want your garden for? Is it to create a welcoming entrance, have privacy, grow edibles, or host outdoor parties? And what are the areas you see every day?" After establishing the client's main goals, she helps them approach their gardens in pieces and sections so that they don't feel that the outcome is an overwhelming chore.
Elkin says she wants her clients to feel proud of and invited to enjoy their gardens. She finds that focusing on the most visible spaces and making them manageable to maintain helps engender these good feelings.
In terms of plant material, Elkin says, "Low maintenance to me means lots of shrubs. They compete readily with unwanted weeds and are generally more vigorous than other kinds of plants. Bringing in perennials with their stunning flowers is still great, but I recommend starting with a solid framework of woody plants."
Take Accurate Measure of Thy Critters
I am grateful for the community vegetable garden, where there is both a sturdy communal fence and so many people milling about at all hours, the critters don't have the crushing impact they do on vegetables in my home garden.
Liz Elkin has a lot of experience dealing with the deer in the Hudson Valley, so much so that she created a list of deer-resistant plant suggestions for our region on her website (http://bloomfinegardening.com/deer-resistant-plant-list). "Planting a vulnerable shrub or tree with the intention of keeping it fenced off from deer for the rest of its life is no fun," she says. "It takes time, energy, and money to do that. There are a host of plants and shrubs that are mostly deer resistant, depending on what your local deer population likes to dine on. It is always possible to find the right plants for your personal needs and interests that aren't an open invitation for the local critters."
In my own home garden, I avoid planting tulips, crocuses, and other bulbs they favor. I plant ornamental grasses, purple smokebushes, rugosa roses, and other things I've found the deer don't bother. I've stopped planting kale because the woodchucks love it so (I grow it in my community garden instead). I gave away a special fine-petaled echinacea because Chuck kept eating it. I plant shrubs like elderberry and ninebark that regrow readily after bunnies chew on their stems in very early spring. Given the amount of wildlife traffic through my property, I feel grateful for everything that does escape the jaws of the animal kingdom.