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.

1 comment:

  1. So, so true in many respects, but I find that plant pests/diseases are what make plants more "high maintenance" than not. And some of that is weather. With the drought we had last year, a brand new garden we planted in May was definitely "high maintenance". With all of the rain we've had this summer (is there no making me happy!), we have experienced a bloom of mildew that is affecting plants and trees that have never been bothered by this before (at least, not in our garden).

    But I do think that things that are often considered "difficult" and "high maintenance" like roses have gotten a bad rap... as you said, if they are happy and their needs are met, they are really spectacular with a minimal amount of work. Point well taken!