Managing garden maintenance

Close in by the house is under constant maintenance

Close in by the house is under constant maintenance

Garden maintenance. Oh yes, it is often like housework outdoors. No matter how much you do, it always needs to be done again. Vaccuming, tidying, dusting, spring cleaning – there are garden equivalents for the lot.

I admit I am not the world’s most dedicated housekeeper. I do it because I have to. If I found a gem of a reliable cleaner, I would find the money to pay this person to do it for me. But the times of my life when I have paid regular cleaners have also been somewhat irritating because they do not do it to my standards. Gems are hard to find.

Good garden help is equally difficult to find, I believe. Fortunately, because I don’t mind the garden maintenance side, I don’t feel the need to pay someone to do it for me. I have a wonderful book from 1984, vintage Alan Titchmarsh who is now a doyen of English garden television but who was a lesser known, bright young wit 30 years ago. It is called “Avant-Gardening, A Guide to One-Upmanship in the Garden.” In it he has a chapter entitled: “Having a Man In” and his opening line is: “Or a woman; but most likely a man.” He divides gardening help into Treasures and Tolerables. The Treasures, he declares, are rarer than blue roses.

I would love to quote the lot about The Tolerables, but it is too long. Edited highlights include: “They resent change. Their favourite flowers are …scarlet salvias, orange French marigolds, standard fuchsias and lobelia and alyssum. They love ‘dot’ plants. They have difficulty in recognising your treasures and pull them up as weeds…. The vegetables they grow will be their favourites, not yours. ….They dig beds where you don’t want them and act on ‘initiative’ without asking if you actually wanted the orchard felling…. They don’t let you know when they are not coming in (it pays to keep you guessing).” There is more in that vein.

Judging by the number of enquiries I have had over the years, good garden help is just as scarce nowadays as it has ever been. But, as with anything else, if you are only willing to pay the equivalent of minimum wages, you are unlikely to find a Treasure who knows what he or she is doing in your garden. A Treasure whom you can trust is even rarer and will need to be cherished.

The bottom line is that most of us end up doing it ourselves and gardening as a DIY ethos is deeply ingrained in this country to the point that it is often worn as a badge of pride.

The outer areas are on a once a year maintenance cycle

The outer areas are on a once a year maintenance cycle

I credit the potted wisdom on garden maintenance I received years ago to senior NZ gardener, Gordon Collier. Think of the garden as radiating circles, he told me. The circle closest in to the house is where you carry out the most garden maintenance to keep it well presented. Essentially, you stay on top of it by keeping at it all the time. The next circle out should be on a seasonal cycle so you get around it four times a year. Then there is the outer circle which you do once a year.

This of course is big garden advice. A smaller urban garden probably does not take you beyond the second circle. I have always remembered his words because it gave a sensible and manageable framework for a large garden, and we are large gardeners here. It is worth thinking about if you are extending your garden. The further out you go, the less you will do in terms of regular maintenance. Plan from the start to keep it on an infrequent cycle and you won’t be making a yet bigger rod for your own back.

He Who Does the Majority of the Weed Control here (aka my Mark) would like it pointed out that this does not apply to weeding. Depending on the time of the year, he will start a weeding circuit as often as every three weeks. If you leave the weeding circuit to three monthly, or annually, you will never keep invasive weeds under control. The convolvulus will have smothered its host, the seedling cherries grown too large to hand pull and there will be a permanent carpet of bitter cress. Most weeds will have viable seed on them by six weeks – hence the three weekly cycle to catch the weeds missed on the last round.

That outer round of maintenance is the pruning, cutting out dead wood from shrubs, the removal of large debris, seasonal dead heading where necessary, cutting bank rank grass and a general tidy up. It is what I am doing right now.

The middle circle is hedge trimming, digging and dividing perennials, cutting back, staking, pruning, shaping, clipping and mulching.

The close in circle is… well… like vaccuming the living areas and washing the kitchen floor really. Frequent and ongoing. I just prefer to work outdoors and, in my case, without power tools.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.