Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Low-maintenance Myth

"A Manager is a person who finds a competent person to do a job, gets their commitment to doing it, and then gets out of their way. A supervisor is someone who assigns some part of a job to somebody, monitors them closely, and ends up doing most of the job herself."

One of the things I was musing on the other day, as I forked bushels of  Pale Swallow Wort roots out of the ground, was the idea, widely circulated in the 1980's, that native plants are low-maintenance. I was at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, working on a Fern Trail project (more about this in a later post), and I was remembering that one of the goals of their Model Backyard Garden was to show suburban gardeners how to use native plants to reduce the garden maintenance they would have to do. There were other goals as well, but that is the one I was thinking of between swatting late mosquitoes and wiping sweat out of my eyes.

One of the players was Landscape Ontario. They were pushing a sod they said was low-maintenance. I forget just what they called it, but the implication was that because the sod used native plants, it would require less work than regular grass. Of course they charged a premium for it. The thing that blew it out of the water, at least for me, was that the natives they were talking about were things like white clover. Probably a lot cheaper to produce than pristine sods of various grasses..... but they were charging a premium. They knew a money-making opportunity when they saw one. Unfortunately for them, most homeowners knew a marketing boondoggle when they saw one, so I don't think it caught on all that well. Anybody can have lawn with clover in it, all you have to do is wait.

If you do little or no maintenance, you will have a low-maintenance lawn. You might not like it, and your neighbours may point and whisper, but you're not spending hours and dollars fertilizing, rolling, raking, cutting and weed-killing your lawn.

The other thing  the 'experts' got onto at about the same time is the idea that native plants require less maintenance.  Reluctant gardeners thought, 'Oh, I'll just plant some wildflowers and I won't have to do any work'. Seed companies, knowing a marketing opportunity when they saw one, got into the act right away. They advertised various 'mixes', supposedly designed for various conditions, like, for example,'Sunny Meadow Mix' which was supposed to work in sunny conditions, or 'Shady Corner Mix' for, right, shady corners.  Every 'mix' was illustrated with large pictures of glorious flowers of all colours waving in the sun. Probably you remember this. Of course this didn't work. What came up and eventually flowered were annuals such as Cornflower or Cosmos. Nice enough plants, but whether in the sunny corner of the yard or the shady one, they were scrawny and soon overpowered by weeds. Gardeners  began to see another marketing boondoggle.

Since I've been talking up native plants every chance I get for years, I caught heck from quite a few disgruntled gardeners who, now not having to do so much garden maintenance, had time to come and yell at me about how native plants were no good. One older fellow, wearing the white belt and shoes of the officially retired, came to the Home Show once where I was fronting a large display of photos of beautiful native plants, and gave me a good blasting, and then demanded his money back! He had purchased a tin of 'mixed wildflowers seeds for the sunny border' from a seed company who shall remain nameless so I don't get sued, and he felt that he deserved his $12.95 back. Had he carefully prepared a weed-free, well-dug spot for his seeds? Of course not. Had he painstakingly removed all the grass and Creeping Charlie that came up? Naturally not. Had he watered in late May after it hadn't rained for three weeks? Nope. Why should he? Wasn't this was supposed to be low-maintenance?

I tried to reason with him, politely explaining the facts about weeds, water and wildflowers, but once he saw that he wasn't getting any $12.95 from me he lost interest and wandered over to listen to a slightly brain-scrambled Person lecturing about how to achieve Serenity and Happiness by growing roses.

The problem is, that when it comes to native plants and low-maintenance, almost everybody misunderstands.

Any plant is low-maintenance if it is happy and you allow it to do it's thing.

The wild Sweet-scented Waterlily, Nymphaea odorata, is low maintenance. Provided, that is, that you have a large enough body of clean water of the right depth, beavers to eat some of the tubers to stop it from crowding itself out of the water, and you are prepared to let it grow where it wants.

Peonies are low-maintenance, if you put them in a good spot and don't hack them down with the lawn mower too often.

Delphiniums are low-maintenance if you don't mind them falling over in June.

On the other hand, Sweet-scented Waterlily will be very high maintenance if you are determined to grow it in that dry sunny spot beside your garage.

Native plants are exactly the same. Put them in the right situation, give them whatever care is critical to their survival, accept them for what they are, and they will be low-maintenance. Put them in the wrong situation, ignore their survival needs, expect them to act like British society matrons, and they will be high maintenance.

Now, go back to the top of this post and re-read my definitions. If you manage your plants, they will be low-maintenance, if you supervise them, they will be high-maintenance.

Same as people.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Garden Renovations

Leaves are starting to show red here and there, especially some of the show-off Sumachs, there is a nip of frost in the air, and the season of garden renovations is in full swing.

There's something about August that exposes all your gardening weaknesses. You see them, but it is too hot to do anything about them. You maybe make an entry in some notebook: must move that daylily...... or you brush by some overgrown thing and give it the 'just wait until I get my secateurs' glare, but you don't actually do anything. It's too hot, the garden is too dry, and that glass of chilled white wine is calling.

But September, ah September. It is cooler. The border revives. Asters bloom. A tomato finally ripens. Birds check out the feeders, notebooks in hand, with an eye to winter patronage. Out come the secateurs, the garden fork, the spade, and, in my garden, the crowbar. To work!

So far, I've done bits in a number of different areas. It would make more sense to do everything in one area and then move on, I know, but I can explain. I started in the Crabapple garden, where I removed a 100-sq-ft patch of Adenophora 'Elizabeth'. Nice flowers, nice leaves, too bad about the garden manners. It was taking over the whole area, and I was not, simply not, moving three large Peonies. I intend to reduce the Japanese anemones too, but will wait until they finish blooming. For some reason they all fell over this year, but then the ends turned up and now the flowers are all facing forward nicely at about the 2' level. Odd, but looks fine.

Then I putzed around in the Rock Garden several afternoons, planting the stuff I never got around to planting in the spring. Doesn't every gardener have pots that sit around for months waiting to be planted? Of course I couldn't just stick them in the ground, I had to dig new places for them, move some rocks, carry buckets of pea gravel over for mulch, you know the drill. It's fun to make new garden! A new plant is the best excuse to indulge! My tiny bog is doing fine and I had to sit on the rock above it and admire it. So far no weeds, and the moss is green. The steps down to the lower part of the rock garden were overgrown with Viola labradorica, the Dog Violet (what a name for a flower!) and I dug those out. Then I got sidetracked a bit and spent a couple of afternoons clearing more trail in the woods. I basically hacked a path through the patch of young maples and hornbeams behind the Rock Garden. Used my trusty secateurs to do it, too. Who needs an axe or a saw if she has secateurs? But I ran into a fallen spruce, spiky branches sticking straight up ready to scratch or poke anyone who tries to climb over it, so I had to back off on that project. October is for things that need axes and saws.

Then I cleared around my Goldenrod and Aster test beds, put down landscape fabric around them, and covered the fabric with pea gravel. Looks like a million bucks and took all of an hour to do. Where the fabric is now will be paths later; these little beds are the pioneers in the rough patch at the far end of the rock garden. I hadn't planned to extend the garden that far, but a certain bulldozer pushed a certain pile of crushed rock too far and .... never mind, it's a great spot for some of the 'wilder' plants.

In between, I've been attacking the Hillside Garden, which needs major work. It's become a difficult area. The soil is clay, and I haven't been able to mulch it the last couple of years. When it is dry, and this summer has been very dry, I can hardly get the fork in, let alone up-end any perennials. It rained a bit last night, and I got some Goldenrods dug out (too many of them) and got a start on removing the Geranium Sanguineum. (Some call it Bloody Cranebill, and that's not an adjective.) Now there's a thug for you. Spreads like the dickens, and roots to China. And always only has a few flowers. One plant, surrounded by rocks and gravel, is a fine thing, but a patch of it is a boring mess.

Of course, that's only one side of renovating. The other is new planting, and that will wait for Spring. I have some ideas......

Oh, and I promised some more pictures of Fringed Gentian, so here they are:

The flowers only open in the sun, but aren't they worth waiting for?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Hare-brained Scheme

Some are born to hare-brained schemes, and others have hare-brained schemes thrust upon 'em. I don't know if I fall into the first category, but I definitely suffer from the latter.

My latest one was born of necessity. The gravel walkway beside my Studio, actually between it and a short clay bank, has been impossible to keep weed-free. It is often damp, with runoff from the hill behind, and the clay is heavy and sticky. I've pulled.... I've hoed, I've even resorted to Nasty Chemicals. Nothing worked for very long.

During heavy rains water runs down the walkway on its way across the driveway and then down to the Marsh. I've made a shallow swale along the edge to channel this a bit. Still, I think the rain is washing tons of seeds down with it.

Now Horsetails, Equisetum arvense,  have come up in it.

Frustrated, I thought of landscape fabric. I had a bit, given to me by a friend who moved away, tucked in the shed. There wasn't nearly enough, but I also had a roll of house-wrap, left over from when the house was being built. It was some kind of synthetic, waterproof, sturdy, black.... well, why not, I thought.

Here's the result:

Take that, horsetails!

You can see there's still lots more work to be done: the path up the hill is a mess, the clay bank needs a complete overhaul, I need to put more gravel on the fabric.... but maybe now this area won't be quite so daunting.

And maybe this will be one of my more successful hare-brained schemes.