There comes a time in every gardener’s life when she realizes she can’t grow it all. Gardeners by their very nature fall in love with most plants, especially new ones, and cottage gardeners like me? We have no self-control.
That’s probably how cottage gardening started. The lady of the manor had more than enough plants, and her gardener took home some cuttings to grow in his own vegetable patch. I like to think so anyway.
With all the bountiful goodness out there, how does one balance their love of all things green and growing with the physical limitations of time and space? Further, how does the gardener make editing decisions in a garden that’s matured into middle age? These questions buzzed about my mind yesterday as I cut back ornamental grasses and perennials for the first time this year. Oklahoma’s weather is unseasonably warm this week–in the 60s and 70s–so I thought I’d start early on some chores instead of killing myself in March, April and May.
Who am I kidding? I will still kill myself in March, April and May. As I played under the gentle January sun though, I mused about what I want from the garden now. I’ve finally realized growing one of everything just creates a jumble. Repetition of form, color and texture unify a garden space.
I still want one of everything though.
Balancing the desire to grow it all with the realization about space, climate and time is one of the great challenges for any gardener. Even with room to expand on a rural acreage, my aching left shoulder, knees and back let me know I can’t make the garden ever larger. I need to work smarter, not harder.
As I stood in the garden with my clippers at hand, it came back to me how unprepared I am physically for garden work each spring. Running and walking on the treadmill keeps me from gaining weight, but it isn’t strength training. I should add in weights next winter because gardening is the very definition of strength training.
I have several ornamental grasses that need dividing starting with Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ because it fell into the path. It took me thirty minutes, but I dug it up and used my DEWALT Cordless reciprocating saw to divide it into four pieces. I then replanted these at the end of each long garden bed. ‘Northwind’s’ height and color should entice visitors to look down the length of the garden. There’s that repetition factor again. It also rustles when the wind blows. There’s hardly any other plant that charms our ears as much as ornamental grasses. As I struggled with the beast, I began thinking about swathes of plantings to simplify my garden. I also thought about how much I was going to hurt last night, and hurt I did.
You see, the gardener is not only limited by physical space. She is also limited by time, and what time does to her body. I am fifty-three, and I work very hard outside. I find aching muscles a pleasure, but I am careful with my joints. Surgery is difficult to recover from, and I’m postponing it as long as possible. Digging up large ornamental grasses is hard work.
Something else that’s hard? Pruning roses in spring if you have a lot of them. As I walked around yesterday, I spied two Rainbow Knockouts® in the lowest tier of the borders next to the deck. I will dig and replace them this spring. Digging up roses is hard work, but I’m getting good at it. I haven’t decided on their replacements yet because my attitude toward roses has changed. Where they once were the shrubby backbone of the garden, they are now its spring stars here and there. I once thought the answer to our changeable weather and climate was to own more disease resistant shrub roses. While that wasn’t a bad idea, Rose Rosette Virus plays no favorites, and disease resistance doesn’t matter. I and the garden grew older, and now I’m not so willing to scratch my skin from head to toe pruning over 100 bushes. I find that pruning the few roses I have left is much more pleasurable. Once again, it’s all about balance.
Not trying to grow every new rose cultivar freed me to think about where I wanted to take the garden now and in the future. One conclusion is that if I buy a new rose, I’m still going to look for disease resistance, but blooms and scent are also paramount. The Rainbow Knockouts® bore me to tears. I’d much rather have an heirloom like ‘Madame Hardy’ with her green button eye, or newer David Austin English roses ‘The Lady Gardener‘ or ‘Olivia Rose Austin.’ That’s if I go the rose route again. I’m just as likely to pick a smaller native shrub to replace the Rainbow Knockouts®. It’s all about deciding what works with the space, sun exposure and soil moisture I have. When I remove these roses, I’ll only have the White Meidiland® left in the lowest tier and ‘Heritage’ in the middle tier. The top tier of the border still has my mystery climber, ‘Abraham Darby’ and one other heirloom rose.
I remember hearing older friends at garden clubs discuss putting in more shrubs to reduce work. My thirty-something self thought that was sad. I now see the wisdom of replacing some high maintenance plants with shrubs and small trees, especially evergreen ones. Faced with two vegetable gardens and twenty-seven herbaceous borders I am doing the same. Although it’s not a shrub or tree, one of the best choices from last year was planting Nassella tenuissima, Mexican feather grass, along the edge of the concrete borders in the lower garden. This perennial grass softens the concrete edge, and by using so many plants I got the feathery look I wanted. Mexican feather grass is a great dwarf grass for Oklahoma gardens. It’s not invasive here, and is so pretty. Mine is even still green after a mostly mild winter.
Another plant group we should grow more often are the hypericums, St. John’s worts. There are several varieties available from shrubby St. John’s wort, H. prolificum, to prostrate forms. I have mostly the shrub type. What wonderful natives these are. They don’t attack you like roses, and the bees gorge themselves in summer. In a mild winter they sometimes stay evergreen, and Oklahoma has sore need of evergreen plants other than the Eastern redcedar menace. Because they’re native wildflowers, I’m linking to Gail at Clay and Limestone for Wildflower Wednesday this month. You should hop over to her blog to see more native plants people grow.
I think the best way to balance our craving for new plants and bigger gardens is to realize our limitations and work within them. I’m speaking in Seattle at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show next month, and I’ll probably bring home a couple of hellebores to add to my collection. However, I’ll also likely dig up a few non-performers. Instead of being diverted by a pretty face, I now plant more of the same plant. For example, I dug up my ‘Alaska’ shasta daisies this morning, and I’ll replace them with the cultivar Chrysanthemum x superbum ‘Becky.’ ‘Alaska’ has always flopped, and I’m tired of this weakness.
I’ll listen to other gardeners about plant performance before I shell out more money on something new. I’ll be brave and rip out plants that die, or don’t perform as expected tossing them on the compost pile unless they are diseased.
I’ll also work diligently, but not try to do everything in one day. I’ll spread good performers like Phlox divaricata and P. paniculata about the garden like fairy dust. This will make the garden ever more simple and beautiful. I promise to work with what works and limit my plant purchases. Really! I am out of room.
That reminds me. I have another grass to dig and divide. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Little Zebra’ is falling into a path. After dividing it, I’m going to place each half at each end of the tiered border like bookends.
Those are my ideas about finding balance with my garden desires. What are yours?