“‘Well, I must endure the presence of two or three caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.'”
— said by the flower in The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
This year it’s finally time to turn as much as you can of your lawn over to flowers. Go ahead and do it. If a homeowners’ association stands in the way, perhaps it’s time to reconsider being a member of such an uptight organization. Where zoning ordinances favor grassy lawns over flowers tall and short, crawling and upright, push to the limit and grow flowers right up to the curb. Your neighbors may grumble about your yard’s new look, or they may be pleased. You’ll never know unless you grow it the way you want.
The Moon Gate of the Chinese garden, in the Hidden Realm of Ming within Hortus Haren, one of the oldest botanical gardens in The Netherlands. Photo by Dominicus Johannes Bergsma. Not a blade of grass in sight!
If you live in the countryside, you may already be familiar with the joy of minimal mowing and maximal flowering plants because neighbors and public officials are less likely to impose on you their views of how you should care for your land. In the cities and suburbs the situation is different, as is well known by too many people forced to spend too much of their time with lawn mowers and weed whackers. Push back! Where there had been 75 percent lawn and 25 percent flower bed, flip that this year and blanket over half the yard in flowers.
Plant densely with flowers so that weeds have a difficult time taking over. Use walkways, stone edges, benches and other features to define the space so that it doesn’t appear to your neighbors and public officials to be an undifferentiated meadow which will spew weed seeds onto the rest of the neighborhood. Busy bodies have an easier time accepting flower borders than meadows. It’s just that your yard will be mostly flower borders, and very little lawn, maybe none if you can arrange it and it suits you. Go ahead and do it. Surround yourself this year in floriferousness.
Pruning trees and shrubs correctly is not as difficult as some careful people may think, though pruning incorrectly is as easy as some careless people make it look. First, leave those shears in the shed. Shears are effective at cutting back herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses, but are otherwise detrimental to the health of woody plants because they leave behind stubs. Don’t leave stubs!
Stubs are what is left of a woody twig or branch after the person pruning it has failed to cut it off at the proper place, which is close to a node where it joins the main plant, and instead has cut it haphazardly somewhere along its length. Shears by definition make cuts haphazardly on woody plants, even if at a distance the poor shrub looks neatly trimmed in shapes that some people find pleasing. Who hasn’t looked at a shrub minding its own business and thought, “That bush would be much more attractive shaped like a cube”? After several swipes of the shears, the bush appears neatly cubed from a distance, but upon closer inspection it will be evident it has suffered numerous wounds it will have trouble healing, if it can do so at all. Don’t leave stubs!
Hand pruners – or secateurs – in use. Photo by Pellencgroup. The cut being made in the photo is too far out along the branch to be a proper pruning cut. It could be a preliminary cut intended to take away most of the weight of the branch to reduce the possibility of bark tearing away from the trunk when the branch falls loose. In that case, the final pruning cut should be close to – but not flush with – the trunk, as shown with the cut a bit higher on the trunk.
There are three principle reasons for pruning trees and shrubs, in descending order of importance.
To preserve the safety and well-being of people, other animals, and property. Obviously, this applies primarily to trees, since shrubs are typically less capable of menace.
To preserve or improve the health of the plant being pruned, such as by removing dead wood and crossing branches.
Aesthetics, which of course is in the eye of the beholder, though the beholder should remain mindful of the precedence of reasons one and two, and of the vital importance of not leaving stubs.
Timingcan be another critical aspect of pruning, and it can be confusing in light of differing requirements from plant to plant, with some requirements relevant to plant health and others to aesthetics, as in promoting or preserving flowering. In areas of the country with winter freezes, however, there is one general rule applicable to avoiding injury or weakening of a woody plant, and that is to refrain from any major pruning in the weeks leading up to the first frost in late summer and early autumn. The reason is that pruning encourages new growth, and tender new growth is susceptible to cold injury. The results are not apt to be catastrophic for the plant, but it will have wasted valuable energy on damaged top growth at a time of year when it would be healthier for it to be storing energy in its roots. It’s like shaking a person who wants to go to sleep.
Later in the year, in winter and especially in late winter, it is alright to perform major pruning on many woody plants because they are dormant. The plant’s hormones will not awaken it to push out new growth at that inopportune time. The exception is a sappy plant such as a maple tree. As anyone knows who has ever tapped a sugar maple tree for maple syrup, a maple produces sap copiously in late winter and early spring, and drawing too much of it at one time, as occurs in cutting off a major limb, will weaken the tree. It’s better to leave pruning of sappy plants until summer, when they will only dribble, and not gush, from wounds.
These are all great bits from a first series episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but the portion relevant to this post begins at the 9:46 mark of the video.
If it seems this language of pruning is evocative of surgery on humans and other animals, the good reason for it is that the two procedures are more alike than different in their effects, and it is helpful to be aware when pruning that you are making cuts into a living organism. Too many people with shears, particularly the mechanical kind, appear to proceed blithely without any awareness that their hedges and foundation plantings are composed of living organisms that must expend energy recovering from an assault with carelessly wielded cutting implements.
As for appearance, while there are few people who can carry off the page boy haircut look successfully, there are for some bewildering reason an awful lot of people who think the plant equivalent of that haircut looks just dandy on their shrubs. If the shrubs themselves could speak, they might express a preference to be left alone to allow their natural beauty to shine through, with only an occasional light touch from a deft hand to help them look their best. Most of all, to keep trees and shrubs beauteous and robust, don’t leave stubs!
Americans have become spoiled by the year round availability of produce at the supermarket. The tomatoes available in the store most of the year are hardly worthwhile, but there they are nonetheless, waiting for shoppers who have no other option. Summer is the time for homegrown tomatoes, which definitely are worthwhile, however too many Americans appear to carry over the habits they’ve learned from grocery shopping and believe they should be able to harvest tomatoes from their small patch of a few plants nearly every day all summer long. It’s as if they thought someone might be hiding throughout the day near the tomato patch and coming out under cover of darkness to restock their plants with newly ripened fruit, and just enough to satisfy the consumer’s need for the day.
That would be a pleasant scenario, but unfortunately it’s a pipe dream. There are only two factors broadly setting the pace for when tomatoes ripen and in what quantity, and they are the genetics of a determinate versus indeterminate tomato plant, and the weather, particularly temperature. A determinate tomato plant grows to a point of maturity, sets fruit, generally earlier in the summer than other tomato plants, and then goes dormant. An indeterminate tomato plant continues growing, vine-like, throughout the summer until frost, and sets fruit sporadically from mid-summer on, although the fruits borne late in the season as cool weather approaches may not ripen on the vine.
Growing tomatoes in a greenhouse or cold frame is a way to extend the season by exerting more control over growing conditions than can be had by subjecting the plants to nature. Photo by Fredy.00.
Temperature as a determining factor for tomato plants setting fruits and ripening them is important across the board, no matter what type of plant, whether determinate or indeterminate, or whether the grower advertises a particular plant as an early, late, or mid season variety. Nighttime temperatures below 55 degrees are no good, as are daytime temperatures above 85 degrees. Everything else is meaningless if the temperature does not reside within that sweet spot, that Goldilocks zone. Growers of hothouse tomatoes know this better than anybody. Yet year after year home growers select their tomato plants at the garden center each spring with a plan of spreading out the harvest throughout the summer based on type of plant and promises made by the seller of when to expect the harvest to begin.
There will be some variation in growth early in the season when planting a patch of a few tomato plants, and staggering planting dates may be of limited utility early on as well. As summer progresses, though, and hot weather takes over day after day, all the plants will end up near the same stage of growth at the same time, and the poor gardener, whose best laid plans called for perhaps only a few ripe tomatoes each day from June through September, instead finds himself or herself with an avalanche of ripening tomatoes in July and August, or hardly any at all. These are the risks of subjecting our desires to nature’s control, rather than going to the supermarket to buy a lackluster but sturdily dependable tomato.
What to do? If enough space is available, put in more than a half dozen plants, even if that means a potential glut of tomatoes in a bumper year. More plants is good insurance against a bad year and brings the dream of an evenly spaced harvest closer to reality. Put those plants in slightly different locations, varying the microclimate for each plant, rather than subjecting all of them to the exact same conditions, and potentially the exact same problems. Spread them out if there’s space available. Tomato plants should get at least six hours of sunlight each day, but the kind of sunlight matters a great deal. All tomato plants like to get early morning sun to dry the dew off their leaves. In the South, they appreciate shade from the hottest afternoon sun.
John Denver performed the Guy Clark song “Homegrown Tomatoes” for his 1988 album, Higher Ground, and the song then appeared on his 1991 compilation album, Take Me Home, Country Roads.
If not much space is available, put in as many plants as possible without crowding them, which leads to poor air circulation and consequent fungus and blight problems. Use deep containers with adequate drainage, and mount them on wheels to make it easier to take advantage of varying light as summer progresses. Above all, stop looking at the tomato patch as a supermarket produce section where the fruit appears only as required. Outside under the hot sun, through irregular rain showers and storms, and at the mercy of pests and competing weeds, the tomato plants are taking their own sweet time and are subject less to the gardener and more to nature. If it seems like having only two or three plants makes for a Goldilocks garden, where everything has to be just right to get a spread out harvest, or even any ripe tomatoes at all, then diversify and put in more plants in more spaces. What ripe fruits you get will always be better than supermarket tomatoes and well worth the effort, and you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding takers for the surplus in good years.
There are many respectable plants bearing the word “weed” in their common name, such as Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp.), and Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). Some are easily available at garden centers, some are available only by mail order, while still others will show up in the garden on their own. All demonstrate a propensity for spreading easily if conditions are right, and that is perhaps the reason for the designation “weed” in their common names. Latin names typically are not prejudiced against these less formal plants that straddle both the garden and the wilds.
Monarch butterfly on a Butterfly Weed at Cape May National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. Photo by Laura Perlick for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Some gardeners do not look beyond the word “weed” in a name before they reach for their hoe or a chemical plant killer. Such gardeners are not independent thinkers, but ones who are locked into a binary view of the natural world, viewing everything as either good or bad. Try to explain to them that the inclusion of “weed” in a plant’s name can be merely a case of poor public relations. It’s worthwhile to get overly judgmental gardeners to stay their hand regarding these plants because they are often beneficial to butterflies, birds, and other wildlife, more so than a hybrid rose bush.
Other weeds, of course, do not have the word included in their name but have acquired it as a general type by reputation. For those weeds, gardeners and farmers have less tolerance and are apt to destroy them whenever encountered, though even those exist on a sliding scale. People are divided into several camps about Dandelions (Taraxacum spp.), for example, while they nearly universally abhor Palmer’s Pigweed (Amaranthus palmeri) and Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium berlandieri). Even those last two plants offer the feature of edibility, making them attractive on however limited a basis to at least some people and animals.
One important group of plants has acquired the name “weed”, and they are in the genus Cannabis, also known as Marijuana. Growers and users of the plant have called it “weed” and many other names besides for reasons of its outlaw, rebel status, as well as its diverse nature in checking off boxes from good to bad. Marijuana plants can spread readily on their own; mismanaged large scale cultivation, as opposed to the former practice of clandestinely maintaining relatively small plots, can have a negative impact on the environment; and for people the plant can range in usefulness from good to bad depending on the inclinations and prejudices of the person beholding it.
Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman performs “Surfin’ Bird”, a hit song for The Trashmen in 1963, in the 1987 movieBack to the Beach, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.
The word “weed” embraces many meanings, and means different things to different people depending on their tolerance level. To hear “weed” in a plant’s name and automatically seek to eradicate it from the garden is arbitrary and foolish. Better to take a more nuanced approach regarding the plants that don’t threaten to choke out every other plant in a garden plot. Some can be seen as friendlier than others regardless of being handicapped with a bad name. As for that other kind of “weed”, the kind some folks like to smoke, legally it’s gaining more widespread favor despite its outlaw name.
Legal judgments in lawsuits against the makers of Roundup herbicide continue accumulating in the plaintiffs’ favor, with the latest one entailing an award of $2.05 billion to a married couple who alleged that they each contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) from years of using the herbicide in their home garden. As in many lawsuits, high dollar amounts are likely to come down a great deal in the final settlement, and most of the money will end up in the hands of lawyers, not the plaintiffs.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and similar generic herbicides, and it is glyphosate which the plaintiffs in thousands of lawsuits around the country are alleging is linked to their cancer. Meanwhile, glyphosate continues to be readily available without label warnings to home gardeners as well as professional landscapers and farmers since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not ruled it is a carcinogen. European environmental and health organizations have ruled glyphosate is a probable carcinogen, differing from their American counterparts because they reviewed independent scientific studies instead of regulatory studies, many of them funded by agribusiness.
Welted thistle (Carduus crispus) possesses some fine qualities, including pretty flowers as seen here, but most people consider it a weed. Photo by dae jeung kim.
While United States government agencies continue to tilt the scales in favor of agribusiness, the courts appear to have no such bias. Consumers in that case have little recourse other than to seek compensation through the courts for their pain and suffering, which they allege were caused by the makers of Roundup (first Monsanto, and currently Bayer) and other purveyors of glyphosate herbicides. Consumers who are still healthy and use herbicides might want to exercise caution by looking for other options, though the only way they would know that is through their own research or by word of mouth, since there continue to be no cautionary statements about the risk of cancer on the label of glyphosate products the way there are for instance on cigarette packs.
Bottles of vinegar at a supermarket. Safer to use than horticultural vinegar, this more easily available common household vinegar may be a better option for casual users who do not require a heavy duty herbicide. Photo by Ms angie gray.
A safer herbicide option is vinegar. Ancient cultures derived vinegar from soured grape wine, but since it can be made from anything that produces ethanol, today most of it is sourced from corn, a cheap source. Unlike glyphosate, which migrates to the roots of affected plants, vinegar only burns the tops, meaning gardeners will have to reapply it when the weed sprouts new growth. Also unlike glyphosate, vinegar does not damage soil fertility with long term use. Damage to soil fertility is another effect of glyphosate that the manufacturers dispute even though some scientific researchers have upheld the observations of the effect by attentive farmers and gardeners.
Gardeners will be disappointed in the weak effect of using the vinegar commonly sold in grocery or home improvement stores, and that is because it is only a 5 to 7 percent solution of acetic acid in water meant for pickling food or cleaning surfaces, not killing weeds. For home gardeners, the most effective vinegar for killing weeds that is appropriately labeled as such, with accompanying safety warnings, is 20 to 30 percent acetic acid. Probably by reason of the low popularity of strong vinegar and the danger for casual users in believing it is relatively harmless, it appears to be available online only, not in stores. Vinegar that strong, while still mostly water, is potently acrid stuff which can burn a user’s mucous membranes, eyes, and skin, and may corrode hard surfaces and harm any small animals, such as toads, living in a garden. Test a small area first if there’s a chance overspray could affect something like bricks in a walkway. The best that can be said is it’s a good thing weeds are outside in the open air. Spraying strong vinegar in the garden may be unpleasant for the applicator and those in the vicinity and should be done with caution, but unlike using glyphosate, there’s less risk of serious damage to the gardener and the garden.
Gardeners may have heard it’s best to use odd numbers of similar plants in groupings and wondered why odd numbers are supposed to be more aesthetically pleasing than even numbers. Perhaps some authoritative figure in garden design plucked that rule out of the air and everyone has followed it blindly ever since. The rule doesn’t apply in situations where pairs work best, such as one columnar arbor vitae on each side of an entrance. A gardener would have to be daft to try to force another arbor vitae in there somewhere in order to obey the odd number rule, disrupting the natural harmony of pairs at entrances, gates, and arbors, where the architectural feature itself presents a third, central element.
Plumeria (frangipani) flowers in Don Tao, Si Phan Don, Laos. Photo by Basile Morin. Humans and other animals often present paired symmetries of even numbers, while plants more often than not have odd numbers of parts, as in the five petals of these frangipani flowers.
No one seems to know for sure why odd numbers in plant groupings are more pleasing, at least in an informal garden. Informality could be the key, since some people find the formality of even numbered groupings pleasing, but that appreciation doesn’t appear to come naturally to our brains, which look for a central focus in a grouping, something that presents itself naturally in odd numbered groupings. More than seven plants in a grouping starts to lose coherence and people can only vaguely get an idea of the center, rather than zeroing in on a central plant.
In a 2008 appearance on Sesame Street, Feist sings her song “1234” with help from groups of Muppets. Four is of course an even number, but you may note as you enjoy the music whether the presence of Feist herself changes the dynamic from even to odd groupings, dissimilar as she is to a Muppet. There’s certainly nothing stiff or formal about the presentation.
Experiment with different numbered groupings of similar shrubs, perennials, or annuals, and you will most likely find that without thinking about it you find odd numbers more pleasing and natural if you prefer a less formal garden, and even numbers naturally create a more formal feeling. These are arrangements nature appears to have adopted, like golden section proportions and Fibonacci spirals. The patterns most prevalent in nature seem to bypass our reason and appeal directly to our core because it’s what we are immersed in from birth, and that still begs the question of why nature prefers some patterns over others. Efficiency? Possibly that’s a part of it. Beyond that is a mystery, like the appeal of music. Many observable patterns are essentially visual representations of music, and we enjoy them because we typically enjoy harmony. When gardening, it helps to listen as well as look.
People who don’t do hard physical labor regularly are quite taken with tools that make it appear the person wielding them is really doing a lot, such as pickaxes and sledgehammers. Using those tools will indeed wear out even the fittest person over the course of a day, which is why the professional laborer who has to get up the next morning and work again all day uses those tools sparingly given the option, and will resort to other tools that may take longer to do a job but will save wear on tear on the user’s body.
A pickaxe works best at breaking up hard ground. Photo by cogdogblog.
A pickaxe is good for breaking up dry, rocky ground,but not as good for working on normal soil as a mattock. A pickaxe is a better tool overall for a miner than it is for a gardener. Swinging it certainly does make it look like the laborer is going at the job full bore, however, and ultimately that may be what it takes to satisfy the homeowner who is paying the laborer to make work look chain gang hard. Sledgehammers are more directly up that same alley, since they have limited uses in everyday gardening, but are great for breaking rocks in a sweaty, back-breaking setting. Maybe that’s what some people are paying to see.
Another tool amateurs feel compelled to use themselves and are gratified to see professionals use on their behalf are powered shears. About the only shrub that can tolerate shearing long term is privet; everything else will turn into stiffly twigged shells of foliage needing frequent shearing to look presentable, and that only at a passing glance. Any closer examination will reveal a shrub with nothing going on inside but the dead, moldering pile-up of sticks and leaves from past shearing.
It’s better to cut back shrubs with hand pruners, even though a hedgerow will take longer to do than with powered shears. The time will be made up in longer intervals between cuttings, and the shrubs will be healthier. It’s fussy work and it doesn’t make a lot of noise and commotion like the powered shears do, and that upsets some people who like the roar of machinery as much as the sweat of unnecessarily hard physical labor in order to convince themselves that work is being accomplished.
Farm workers shoulder their tools at the end of the day near Ripley, in the Palo Verde Valley of the lower Colorado River in California in May 1972. Environmental Protection Agency photo by Charles O’Rear.
A few good shovels, hand pruners and saws, maybe loppers, powered or manual shears for cutting back perennials only instead of cutting back shrubs, and various rakes as well as a strong digging bar are about all a gardener needs on a daily basis. It’s nice to have the other tools, mattocks and hoes especially, but a gardener interested in saving himself or herself for another day will seldom find use for a pickaxe or a sledgehammer. There are often other ways of accomplishing the tasks those tools might do, though they won’t look as dramatically labor intensive.
Take the Money and Run, a 1969 film directed by Woody Allen and in which he plays a hapless criminal, who in this scene has been sentenced to work on a chain gang.
The last thing a professional or amateur gardener might want to consider is rain gear, and that too ends up being a personal choice outside of what bossy people might think best for others. Ponchos are cooler to wear in summer than raincoats and permit greater freedom of movement, while raincoats are more effective at keeping the gardener dry. A raincoat would be the best choice in cool weather, and might even suit in summer if the gardener parts with several more dollars for a raincoat made with breathable fabric. Otherwise, a cheap raincoat will repel rain on the outside at the cost of getting wet on the inside from the wearer’s sweat, particularly in the case of someone who is active, like a gardener. Perhaps the most welcome option on a rainy day is a third one, which is the opportunity it affords to drop tools and go indoors to relax and muse about working some other day. — Izzy
Early autumn used to be the best time to sow seeds of cool weather grasses in most of the country, and early spring was the best time to sow seeds of warm weather grasses, primarily in the South. There were local variations on what kind of grass seed to sow where, and as always with gardening, rules of thumb were not carved in granite. Since the timing of early autumn and early spring vary around the country, it might be simpler to consider the Mid-Atlantic states as an example, where early autumn sowing was best between September 1 and October 15, and early spring sowing was best between March 1 and April 15.
In the twentieth century, much of the Mid-Atlantic region was in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) hardiness zones 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. The southern part of the region was also in the transition zone for cool weather and warm weather grasses. Gardeners and landscapers typically planted both types of grass and sowed grass seed of both types in spring or fall as they preferred, though most found the greatest success with cool weather grass seed sown in the fall. That has all changed noticeably over the past 30 years and it is well past time for prudent gardeners and landscapers to adjust to the new climate.
F.W. Bolgiano, a grass seed company based in Washington, D.C., in the heart of the Mid-Atlantic region, recommended in their 1899 brochure sowing a blend of seed types in spring and autumn, though without specific details on the seeds or the timing. Photo scan from the digitized illustrations collection of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).
The USDA adjusted its hardiness zone map in 2012, moving all of them north from where they were in the 1990 map. The Mid-Atlantic is now covered by zones 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. Gardeners being students of nature, they didn’t really need the USDA to tell them what was happening with their plants and how things had changed. Still, it can be hard to set aside old habits tied to the calendar, such as sowing and planting times. Adjusting to changes in the types of plants that will do well in a particular area is also difficult and can take some getting used to, but people must adjust or they will see their time and efforts wasted on planting the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than doing the opposite as good practices have always dictated.
Farmers know this because their livelihood depends on it. Professional landscapers are beginning to understand it as well, though in many cases they perform their work on behalf of well-to-do clients who don’t necessarily care about taking a loss on forcing a favored plant to survive. The landscapers themselves need to operate at a profit, but their clients may not mind throwing good money after bad in keeping a zone 5 plant alive in what has become a zone 6 environment. Home gardeners typically don’t have such resources, and often have better sense. For years they sowed seed of tall fescue, a cool weather grass well suited to Mid-Atlantic growing conditions, and they had success sowing it between September 1 and October 15.
Sign at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Wisley Garden in the county of Surrey, south of London, England. Photo by Si Griffiths.
But not anymore. Now it is best to wait at least two weeks. Now the season lasts from September 15 to October 31. There may even be little harm in sowing grass seed right up to Thanksgiving in the southern portion of the Mid-Atlantic region. It could also be time to reconsider whether to keep up a cool weather grass lawn at all. Perhaps it’s better to plant Zoysia grass, or to let the bermuda grass take over, which it has been trying to do for decades now anyway, creeping into everything, especially in the heat of high summer, when the tall fescue faints in the hot weather without extra water to sustain it. Maybe now the favored time for sowing grass seed should be the early, early spring, from February 15 to March 31, and maybe that grass seed should be of warm weather grasses. Gardeners in the North who have friends and relatives in the South will have to ask those gardeners to pass along their rules of thumb for tending new plants in these new times.
For decades now when gardeners needed a windbreak or a privacy screen they have resorted to planting hedgerow monocultures of a few relatively fast growing evergreen species, among them the Leyland cypress. For some who prefer a more formal, planned look, that plan has sufficed, but others might look at such a hedgerow as boring and as a lost opportunity to bring more wildlife into their gardens. Planting with wildlife in mind takes a generous spirit, particularly for the gardener who is also trying to raise fruits and vegetables for their own consumption. There are trade offs and compromises involved.
One of the problems with a hedgerow monoculture occurs when one or more of the plants dies, creating a gap that must then be filled with the same kind of plant, sometimes at considerable expense if the new plant is not to be too conspicuous by its smaller size. The gardener can feel trapped, and the trap can get more enveloping and add even more expense if the reason for a plant’s death is a disease or pest, engaging the gardener in an endless battle. Sometimes it can be a blessing when a disease or pest spreads quickly from one plant in the monoculture to the next, ending the battle with its consequent frustrations and expenses and presenting the gardener with a blank slate after a tree removal company has carted away the battlefield fallen.
This colonnade of Leyland cypresses in England is presumably a windbreak for the greenhouses behind. Photo by Ben Gamble.
Instead of persisting in folly and boring landscaping, a gardener might decide it is wiser and more interesting to plant rows or clumps of a diverse assortment of trees and shrubs, more closely imitating nature. The gardener might look for evergreen trees for year round screening for the gardener and cover for wildlife; deciduous trees which with their tall, rounded crowns fill visual gaps between the conical forms of the evergreens, and add nuts and acorns for wildlife food; shrubs and small trees both evergreen and deciduous which give fruits and berries in different seasons; and finally a water source, preferably running rather than stagnant. That’s a privacy screen for the gardener and a home for wildlife, and it isn’t only for large properties, since there are almost always dwarf or semi-dwarf forms of trees available.
Inviting wildlife into the garden this way means being willing to compromise on the amount of produce left for the gardener, and also means protecting vulnerable young plants from the very same wildlife. This is a microcosm and an imitation of nature, after all, and not truly nature. In nature the loss of a few sapling trees here and there to deer browsing is not necessarily a catastrophe since there may be as many more that will survive to maturity. But for the gardener who may have space to plant only a few trees, the loss of even one young tree is important. An example would be the gardener who joins in the effort to restore the American chestnut to the landscape and helps the cause by buying and planting a few saplings at home. Unless that gardener cages the chestnut saplings for the first two or three years of their growth, deer will come along and browse its foliage and rub the velvet off their antlers on the trunks of the saplings, debarking them. Caging is the only truly effective way to get deer to leave the chestnut saplings alone until they are big and strong enough to withstand their attentions.
On a small lot in particular a gardener should not expect to get very many fruits and berries for their own consumption. Birds love eating the same things, and they are outside all day every day, watching for ripeness, and when it comes the birds get to the fruits and berries very soon. Netting is a nasty business that tangles up birds and other critters, killing them, and it has no place in a garden planted for wildlife. Either be content with gleaning a few fruits and berries here and there, or build a small greenhouse to grow a few protected plants. Gardeners with large plots of land have more options, both for the wildlife and for themselves. Plant native plants when possible, because they are better adapted to coexist with native wildlife. Once there are birds and frogs and other insect eaters living nearby, the gardener may actually find fewer pest and disease problems in the rest of the garden, and that alone makes it worth the trouble of devising a landscape scheme more varied and interesting than a soldier row of Leyland cypresses.
At mid-winter it’s still too soon to start preparing garden beds for spring planting, even in areas of the country that aren’t under permafrost. There are cleanup tasks, as always, and if the garden beds are in need of edging this would be a good time to do it as long as the soil isn’t too mucky and hard to work. For gardeners who will do the work themselves, the kind of edging to do, or whether or not edging is desirable, depends on tolerance for heavy labor. Those easy-to-install plastic edging strips are also quickly and easily heaved out of the ground by frost and soon become useless.
Garden vase, flower beds, and stone edgings in the Avenue Gardens, Regent’s Park, London, in July 2010. Photo by Rept0n1x.
Almost every heavy duty and reasonably attractive garden edging is going to take back breaking labor to install, though it’s true that installation may last a lifetime. There does appear to be one fair compromise between heavy labor, appearance, and durability and cost of the installation, which is to use a low profile nylon no-dig edging material that is staked down on the grass side of an edge made up of paver blocks laid on fast setting concrete. Dramatically decreasing the preparation work takes out much of the heavy labor, leaving only the lifting and setting of paver blocks, which can weigh up to 25 pounds apiece, and wrangling 50 pound bags of concrete mix.
Roger Cook of This Old House gives an overview of the easier ways to edge. The durability of such edging can be increased by resorting to some of the shovel work and use of drainage rock or sand that is the method for standard paver installation. Without a drainage base under the concrete, no-dig edging, and paver blocks, there will inevitably be some cracking of the concrete and consequent heaving of the materials. As mentioned earlier, however, this type of installation is a compromise between all of the elements of an edging job, and is particularly intended to cut down on back breaking shovel work and cost of additional materials. The best way to ensure the eventual frost heaving does not render the edging completely useless and unattractive is to deploy paver blocks that are as large and as heavy as possible without themselves being back breaking.
No-dig gardening is a method that has been gaining adherents for over a half century now, and it makes sense for gardeners interested in saving themselves some labor and possible injury to apply the same method elsewhere when possible, such as in edging garden beds. The simplest method of edging, and certainly the cheapest, requires digging an edge straight down three or four inches into the lawn, and then shaving that edge back in a slope toward the garden bed. This presents an attractive edge for a few months, but grass and weeds from the lawn inevitably infiltrate the bed, muddying the clean line of the edge, with the result that the gardener has to renew a cut edge at least once a year to keep it looking its best. That is obviously the opposite of no-dig gardening.
Mark Powers of This Old House demonstrates the full on labor and expense method of edging a garden bed. The editing makes the job look easier than it is, and while the edge looks great, this method is only for the most dedicated gardener. A gardener who is healthy and strong and unafraid of hard work can certainly install a beautiful and durable garden bed edge and stand back to admire it as a job well done when it’s finished. The extensive materials required for a really top notch installation may cost quite a lot, but since the goal is lifetime durability, then the cost is a one time expense. For the gardener who may not be entirely healthy, or very strong, or interested in expending enormous energy in the garden, there are easier and cheaper edging alternatives, but such a gardener should beware foolishly wasting money and time on some of them advertised as cheap and easy.
No-dig edging seems a reasonable compromise, though one thing to be aware of when installing an edge on top of the ground rather than level with it is to avoid grading soil down from the top of the paver blocks toward a building. To avoid improper drainage toward a building, soil should always grade away from it. It would appear to be a rather obvious error to avoid in theory, but it is an error too often made in practice, though usually gradually over a long time. That means there may still be some shovel work necessary to finesse a no-dig edging installation. It would be nearly impossible to do every job in the garden without wielding a shovel at all, though some can thankfully be made easier on the gardener’s back.
Pause from Work, a road sign diagram posted to Pixabay with the Portuguese caption Pausa no Trabalho.