Tag Archives: wild gardens

Lowest, lower, lowish and high maintenance gardening

“What do you think is the lowest maintenance form of gardening?” I asked Mark.

His response was immediate: “Plant shrubs and spray the ground beneath with RoundUp.”

He is right. All outdoor space needs some maintenance just as we routinely maintain indoors. Even if you concrete or deck most of your area, it still needs some attention. The concrete will need sweeping and probably some attention to moss growth with weeds finding purchase in any cracks or natural build-up of litter. Using pavers or cobbles requires quite a bit more attention as there are many more opportunities for weeds to get established. And lawns – or mown grass if that better describes your green sward – needs regular mowing even if you ignore all the other interventions and care that many lavish on their lawn.

Probably the most memorable wild garden I have seen but it was in harsh conditions which would restrict growth, on a big scale, created with skill and while lower in maintenance requirements, it was not free of any need for some gardening interventions.

How about wild gardens? Yes, that is a lower maintenance style of garden but it also takes a much higher level of skill to find the right balance. There is a fine line between a wild garden and an unkempt wilderness. The same goes for cottage gardening. It is a fine line and quite a bit of skill that differentiates a cottage garden from a wild garden. The wild look will not appeal to many (most?) people who just want a tidy back yard. Wild gardens are an acquired and thoughtful taste.

I don’t take many photos of Mark’s vegetable garden because it leans to the wild side but he can tell you after growing vegetables all our married life that it is anything but low maintenance.

Vegetable gardening is anything but low maintenance. Don’t believe any of the trite commentary that you can have a productive vegetable garden with very little effort. You can’t. Getting a decent crop and some continuity in supply takes a whole lot more work on an ongoing basis. What about trendy food forests?  It takes an even higher level of skill to manage a productive food forest. You actually need to know what you are doing if you want regular harvests. In less skilled hands, a food forest will soon morph into a wild garden on track to becoming a wilderness with very little food produced for humans, although the birds, insects, rats, mice and rabbits may thank you.

By our standards, our shade gardens are on the much lower maintenance side

Shade gardens tend to be lower maintenance because plant growth is much slower in areas without sun and the soil is not cultivated to the same extent. The shade and woodland areas here are the lowest maintenance areas we have and I can say that confidently with decades of experience. They are less demanding even, than the sunny meadow. But they are not no-maintenance, just lower maintenance and that is all dependent on tree cover. New Zealanders are not known for a love of trees in domestic gardens – maybe because our housing stock is not generally of high quality and we want all the solar warmth and light we can get.

No, truly, this lovely summer scene of Scadoxus katherinae really is very low maintenance in the shade

The risk with trees is greater if you get the selection wrong in the first place, or the placement wrong and then fail to carry out maintenance as required to ensure that it is a good shape and in good health. The cost of remedial work or removal of an established tree is a whole lot higher than a shrub. That is why Mark recommends keeping to shrubs if you want low maintenance.

If money is no object, you can have what you want. You can pay a good designer and then pay a skilled maintenance crew to come in and do the work but it will be an ongoing commitment. Just as houses need cleaning, attractive outdoor spaces and gardens need attention too.

This particular formal garden was not low budget but I lack photos of the DIY low budget/low maintenance option that I consider is much less demanding of both skill and maintenance.

If you are operating on a lower budget, my advice given in earlier posts stands: plant a formal garden with a very limited range of plants. It is all about the look, the photograph. In practical terms, it takes regular attention to maintain the pristine level of care a formal garden requires but there is no great skill in carrying that out. You don’t need a competent gardener to maintain that, just somebody with a penchant for tidiness.

Apartment living avoids the expectation to maintain the outdoors area

If you can’t afford to pay somebody to come in and do your outside maintenance that you don’t wish to do yourself, and you live in a city, then buy an upper floor apartment. The body corporate will take responsibility for all the shared outdoor space. If you buy an apartment that looks out over green space and trees, the view may be all you need.

Or plant shrubs and buy a sprayer and a good supply of glyphosate. Not that I am recommending this as desirable, but it is a lower maintenance option. Shun detail and shun underplanting.

Our Wild North Garden will remain wild but not a wilderness

This train of thought came about because I am much absorbed by our perennial gardens – the new summer gardens, the semi-wild Iolanthe cottage garden and the Wild North Garden. We have a new part-time gardener. This is very exciting for us – a strong, young person with some skills is like a breath of fresh air in our ageing establishment. His first project is working in the Wild North Garden to get it to a standard that we think necessary before we open it to garden visitors.  Meantime, I am taking apart and completely replanting the perennials in a little-noticed shrub and perennial border that edges the sunken garden area. It was anonymous because it wasn’t working very well and I want more visual oomph.

An anonymous sort of border that I felt needed some major tarting up but only of the underplanted perennials

I came to the conclusion that the highest maintenance form of gardening that I can think of is in fact gardening with sunny perennials. It is taking a lot more work than I thought it would. Fortunately, we are of the Christopher Lloyd (he of Great Dixter) school of thought. To paraphrase him in a comment we once saw on TV, “I think you will find that the higher maintenance your garden is, the more interesting it is.” In high maintenance gardening, you notice the detail and the changes, not just the single snap-shot big picture. That is what keeps us absorbed here, even if as it keeps us busy.

Gardening with sunny perennials here has the highest maintenance requirements but we find the rewards outweigh the efforts required. Less enthusiastic gardeners may not.

I just issue the general warning that if you want a low maintenance garden, don’t go down the track of gardening with sunny perennials. At least not in our climate with its benign growing conditions and rampant growth.

When is a wild garden too wild to be comfortable?

I have never written about Waltham Place in Berkshire that we visited in 2014. To a large extent that is because there was a total ban on taking photos there – I have no idea why. But also, we weren’t at all sure when we walked out of the garden if we had just seen something cutting-edge as claimed by some or whether it was a case of the emperor’s new clothes. The fact that we are still talking about six years later suggests the former – that it was indeed sufficiently cutting-edge to challenge our preconceived notions.

Resorting to photographing photos in a book….

I couldn’t find photographs on line that were available for reuse though you may wish to google the name and see more for yourself. I had to resort to photographing pages from ‘The New English Garden’ by Tim Richardson. These images are a fine example of how structure photographs well and gives form and solid shape to a scene that may not look quite the same to the naked eye. Make that ‘does not look the same to the naked eye’. This garden pushed the concept of naturalism further than we were comfortable with and it was considerably wilder, or rougher, than it appears in photos.

Thinking about it again recently, I figure it took the conventions of what I call the pictorial English manor style of garden design and turned them on their head. Most, if not all of the structure pre-dated the current garden and that suited the style of Dutch designer, Henk Gerritsen. He was heavily influenced by the famous Dutch landscape designer from the preceding generation, Mien Ruys with the philosophy of ‘a wild planting in a strong design’. Gerritsen was attracted to wild plants and his approach was to utilise many wild plants – what are often referred to as weeds. Memorably, his willingness to use plants like burdock, docks, teasels and bindweed (common convolvulus) in decorative situations is disconcerting. He was good friends with Piet Oudolf – these days crowned the undisputed king of the New Perennials movement – and drew on at least of the garden plants that Oudolf had picked out as excellent options but pushed his gardens right to the wild, most naturalistic end of the spectrum. Oudolf is far more controlled and painterly in his use of plants.

From ‘The New English Garden’ by Tim Richardson

The twin borders also use strong design which looks far more effective viewed from above than at ground level – and indeed the main upstairs rooms in the house look down at them. At ground level, I remember them being very brown. This was not a pretty garden.

Although Gerritsen’s interest in plants started with looking at wild flowers in their natural habitats all over Europe over a period of quite a few years, his palette of plants had far more to do with wild plants naturalised at Waltham Place. I can not say that we recall much botanical depth in terms of drawing on many of the remarkable wild flowers especially bulbs, that occur in those parts of the world. It was more of an intellectual exercise looking at the plants used within that garden situation where it becomes survival of the fittest with a very light hand indeed on garden maintenance. So, as a garden, it lacked two of the elements we value highly – botanical curiosity and some level of prettiness and beauty in plant combinations. It is a garden that needs to be viewed through a different set of glasses altogether and we only partially succeeded at that. We did at least leave with an open mind.

Sunset Garden near New Plymouth

As New Zealanders, these wild plants are introduced and often invasive weeds in our country. It is a bit different when they are in fact native to your land. Maybe we would feel more comfortable with this style of gardening were the emphasis on our indigenous plants. In fact, I have seen it done locally in Sunset Garden, I think it was called, on a chilly site set with some elevation on the flanks of our local mountain. I believe the site was once the home of the local naturist club before they moved to a warmer location down by the sea. That garden certainly had a charm of its own, albeit with zero hard landscaping and a light hand on maintenance but some may struggle to view it as a garden in the usual understanding of the word.

Sunset Garden again

It is all food for thought when we consider how our garden practices fit in to the wider environment, what we value visually and our relationship with nature.

Finally two quotes from Henk Gerritsen which, I think, come from his renowned Essay on Gardening, published just before his premature death in 2008. I haven’t bought it yet (it is a book length essay) because I haven’t psyched myself up to spend $120 on a book with black and white photos:

‘What is straight, should be curved, what is curved, should be straight. Meaning: in a garden where everything is straight, the walls or hedges around it and the path through it, the secondary landscaping should be curved: sloping or freakish paths, hedges, lawns or borders and the other way around: in a freakish or shapeless garden the secondary landscaping should be straight, in order to obtain a harmonious image.’

‘Plants that can’t live without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides don’t belong in my garden.’

Sunset Garden may not be sufficiently gardenesque for some tastes