Excerpt: 'The New Low-Maintenance Garden'
In her new book, Pacific Northwest magazine's Plant Life columnist Valerie Easton tells us that we need to come to terms with our own time and energy versus the garden of our dreams. She suggests that a simplified, new low-maintenance garden is the route to truly enjoying your garden again.
The following is an edited excerpt from "The New Low-Maintenance Garden" by Valerie Easton, photographs by Jacqueline Koch (Timber Press, $29.95).
THE TERM low-maintenance gardening doesn't exactly bring to mind the lush, sensual, productive garden most of us long for. In fact, low-maintenance must be among the least exciting couplings of words ever written or uttered. What gardener isn't scornful of beauty bark, expanses of static evergreens, blanket spraying or whatever dismal picture low-maintenance brings to mind? Any garden worth the name takes work, and to pretend otherwise must be deceptive or ignorant, yes?
And yet we need to come to terms with our own time and energy versus the garden of our dreams. I suggest that a simplified, new low-maintenance garden is the route to truly enjoying your garden again, now and in the future.
New low-maintenance gardens are thoughtful spaces for outdoor living as well as plants, tailored to the needs of the people who create and use them. New low-maintenance gardens might be rich in flowers for cutting, feature places for kids to play, consist of a few pots or a luscious vegetable garden. Most often they're on the small side, even though they might well be part of a much larger piece of property.
While new low-maintenance gardens are as various as climate, topography, personal needs and aesthetics can make them, they also have much in common. First and foremost, new low-maintenance gardens are defined by thoughtful choices and decisive editing. They have a minimum of lawn, little dividing or pruning to be done, and no spraying, staking or topiary. Most often plants are placed where they can grow to their own natural sizes and shapes without interference.
New low-maintenance gardens offer places to relax, to play, to eat and nap. Most are neither manicured nor scruffy, but maintained at a state somewhere in between that might be called lived-in, relaxed or better yet, inviting. They appeal to the senses with fragrance, color, water and art.
New low-maintenance gardens aren't "gardening lite." The exhaustion is taken out, not the fulfillment. These are full-bodied, nutrient-rich gardens — not merely creations that might look like gardens but fail to offer all the satisfactions. What it comes down to is that new low-maintenance gardens are about so much more than plants. We usually start our gardens with the best intentions and often with a plan in mind, which is soon abandoned when we tote home nursery pot after nursery pot. All those tiny trees and shrubs and baby perennials look so innocent. Just squeeze one more in, and then another and another. Soon enough our garden becomes a conglomeration of plants that isn't particularly personal or reflective of our needs, as well as such a maintenance nightmare we don't love it for long. If you come to gardening through your love of plants, and most of us do, how can you possibly create a non-plant-centered garden?
That's the essential challenge. Limited time and resources, as well as changing weather patterns, make it smart if not imperative to find new, more sustainable models of gardening.
I probably took the simplest route to a new low-maintenance garden. We sold our house with a big garden the week our son graduated from high school. And I started over. I was so excited about the idea of creating a brand new kind of garden I hardly brought a single plant with me from my old garden. I was ready to downsize, to start fresh after so many years of gardening the same plot. Four years into the quest for a new way to garden, my island property is lush, productive, fragrant and colorful. Best of all, when I look out the window I don't just see work and more work waiting for me. These are the pieces of the garden that have proved most effective in cutting down on maintenance:
• Size matters. A small garden takes a minimum of resources and time to care for.
• Very little of the garden is actually planted in the ground. Most of the area is taken up with pavers, gravel laid over a layer of landscape cloth, or raised beds, so weeding is kept to a minimum and plants are easier to water and fertilize.
• Every inch of soil, whether in the ground, raised beds or pots, has been improved with compost, manure and mulch, so plants thrive with less intervention.
• The raised beds have a simple drip irrigation system on a timer, and this is where I start seeds and grow edibles, sweet peas, delphiniums, dahlias and any other plant that needs babying along with frequent watering.
Two tall, cedar-framed hog-wire screens take advantage of vertical space while saving horizontal space. And I'll admit that the screens are a great way to pack more plants into minimum space. Last summer we could barely see the glint of metal screen beneath the clematis vines, climbing rose, sasanqua camellias, sweet peas and pumpkins that clamber over the vertical surface. In winter, the bare screens look clean and architectural.
• I grow very few perennials, and the chosen few were carefully vetted to make sure they're long-blooming, look good in bud and in decline, work well in arrangements, and don't need frequent dividing.
• The hedge along the fence is clumping bamboo that doesn't travel (Fargesia robusta) so needs no more maintenance than fertilizing and thinning once a year, along with regular watering.
• Most of the plants were chosen for their long-lasting foliar effect. Colored, variegated, oversized and toothed leaves add impact to the garden in most months of the year.
• Most important, the garden has plenty of places to eat, nap, read and relax — activities in which, for the first time in my gardening life, I actually have time to participate.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
(Courtesy of LeMay — America's Car Museum) New LeMay exhibit to look at NASCAR LeMay — America's Car Museum in Tacoma will look at the wil...
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