I enjoy maintaining my garden and often long to be in it. The gardener's high, or sustained exuberance I derive, is in the daily and weekly delight of discovery. Yearly assurances that at least some things are right with the world are harvested when those same discoveries are made year to year. I want to be in my garden to see the first crocus tucked in a corner behind a rock blooming on a clear, crisp February afternoon. I relish the first daffodil siting, the first buds exploding into leaves, the frantic springtime nest building, and the emergence of my neighbors to give their lawns their first mow.
Acts of maintenance bring out the nurturing instinct. This is especially a necessary activity for gardeners like myself without young children, puppies, kitties or grandchildren (there's still hope). All gardens require maintenance. The maintenance phase is continual and ongoing, an act of aiding and supporting the life process. All living things need maintenance. Once maintenance stops, the garden begins to die.
Some plants and gardens require higher maintenance than others. Garden theory, design and style choices dictate the amount of maintenance required, as does the soil preparation and plant selection. Some gardeners may want to perform more maintenance than other gardeners want to provide. We make choices in our landscape without realizing the amount of maintenance they require, or maybe we know maintenance time and costs are high, yet we do it anyway.
Two examples of higher maintenance spring to mind. Most landscapes have a great deal of space devoted to lawns that require weekly mowing, trimming and watering and periodic feeding and weeding. Are we enthusiastically facing our mowers every 4 or 5 days, happily dragging the hose and sprinkler around the turf each week? Do lawn gardeners plan trips to Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago or New England in search of a new turf type to try out? Or would these gardeners be happier devoting their time to other plants and pursuits?
Now picture a gardener of orchids. The orchid gardener probably spends as much time in maintenance of his orchids as one would do to a lawn. Fanciers of orchids love their plants and lust for more. They build greenhouses, regulate humidity and install special lighting. They search the catalogs, Internet and nurseries for new genus, species and varieties of orchids - even planning vacations around orchid shows, exhibits or conventions. Would these orchid growers hire an "orchid service" to come in and perform maintenance each week? Most likely not, but they'd consider "plant sitters" during extended absences.
Less Have To, More Want To
Gardening should be enjoyable, otherwise why do it. If you are a gardener, and do not enjoy your gardening, then change the garden to one you enjoy working in.
The result of gardening using basic gardening principles is lower maintenance. Maintenance tasks are tasks that one has to do to sustain the garden. If these tasks are fewer, it leaves more time for the tasks we want to do. If you are a nurturer type or hands-on gardener who needs to be on hand from seed to sprout, to stem and beyond, you will always find something to do in the garden. Again, the type of landscape, the style and design, is all about making personal choices to achieve desires and needs from the landscape.
Gardens in harmony with nature require the least amount of maintenance. This doesn't require chants or incantations, but you can chant if you want to. This merely means matching plants to climate, soil and location for desired use and delight.
Our Texas Panhandle region is within the Great Plains. Gardening with the least amount of maintenance should mimic, at least in a small way, our ecosystem. The more our ecosystem is mimicked in the garden, the easier the upkeep will be.
The Great Plains is composed of three distinct areas: the tallgrass, midgrass and shortgrass prairies. These areas are delineated on maps and given boundaries. In actuality, they are living, moving boundaries. As weather events occur, specific vegetation recedes and advances because of temperature shifts, severe hail, prairie fires, ample rainfall, snow cover or drought. The boundaries travel much like the ebb and flow of the tides and waves upon the shore, only in much slower motion.
In drier years, the shortgrass prairie expands into the midgrass region, and the midgrasses in to the tallgrass prairies. Mesic forbs (medium water-use broadleaf, non-grass, non-shrub plant) die or lie dormant in these extremes, their seeds waiting wetter times. Within their individual prairie areas, the grasses and forbs themselves will mature to a shorter height. Flowering is much reduced. Drought in the natural prairies doesn't cause extinction; their seeds or deep roots remain, waiting for better conditions.
We can forgo maintenance and wait for nature to recover (to what we think should be there), or we can garden. The term "natural garden" is an oxymoron. Any garden is a changed, and often managed, environment. We could settle for what nature provides, unaided, when plants are left to cope with every weather extreme. Often these extremes cause wounds, that if left untreated, lead to diseases and death of the plant. Sometimes the weather or climate extreme is so severe as to kill the plant outright no matter how seemingly adapted to the conditions it is. Similar to the ebb and flow of the Plains, our gardens will experience setback and surges in growth and brilliance. Nature doesn't give up when faced with set backs, it regroups to come back another day, just maybe different.
Successful High Plains gardeners go with the flow, not seeking control but cooperating with nature, and aiding the health of the plant to weather extreme occurrences.
Your Choices Dictate Maintenance
One of the considerations in making choices about what kind of garden to implement is whether it will fall under the control oriented theory or cooperative theory of gardening. Your decision may be based in part on the amount of maintenance time, effort and expense you intend to expend on a monthly and yearly basis, whether you, as the gardener, or someone else performs maintenance.
Control or Cooperative Theory of Gardening
To review these two theories:
In control oriented gardening, the gardener wishes to subject the plant to the gardener's will. Control oriented gardens require higher maintenance.
Control oriented gardening styles are formal styles (lines, geometric patterns), symmetrical (mirror images) and asymmetrical where controlling the size and shape of the plant by clipping, pruning and shearing are repetitive maintenance tasks. Examples of these garden types are knot gardens, topiaries, bonsai, gardens composed of bedding plants and themed gardens using plants not conducive to our climate and conditions. Any garden composed of just one plant species is control oriented. Lawns are control-oriented landscapes.
Cooperative gardening seeks to garden within the scope of the environment, climate and soil conditions. Cooperative oriented gardening requires a good deal less maintenance, often very low maintenance.
Cooperative gardening styles include the naturalistic style, and organic design style. Instead of the gardener forcing his will upon the plant, the gardener either gardens within his present environmental conditions (naturalistic style) or provides conditions conducive to the plant's natural growth (organic design style). Cooperative gardening frequently employs curves and sweeps and is more often informal than formal.
One of the key features of low maintenance gardening is about making choices in design, amending the soil for the type of plants you choose, and siting them in the most advantageous micro-niche. Problems in conditions and location for your desires, needs and purposes are identified in the planning stage. Problem solving is rarely a maintenance practice if properly identified and headed off in the planning and implementation phases of installing a landscape.
The basic maintenance practices are observation, watering, mulching, feeding, composting, mowing, weeding, grooming (pruning, dead heading, shearing and pinching) and analysis. Several of these maintenance tasks are covered throughout my website. Observation (IPM), watering, feeding, and mulch, have whole sections or parts of sections devoted to them. I've provided links to their locations.