Garden in autumn

My Dirty, Little Garden Secret

Yes, I have a secret.  You may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything about my own gardens this year.  That’s because I have a dirty, little secret about them.

Here it is.  For the past year I have done nothing in the garden besides cutting back my neighbor’s wisteria before it overtook my studio windows and pull one giant weed.  I really mean nothing.  No supplemental water, no mulch, no deadheading or cutting back, no planting, no weeding, no deer spray, no nothing other than what I mentioned above.

Garden in autumn
My front garden in the fog a few days ago

Why?  I wanted to see just how little maintenance the various gardens could takebefore they looked truly awful.  Why?  This is what happens to my installed gardens more often than not with unskilled labor taking care of them.  That and all of the shrubs are pruned within an inch of their lives.

Here’s what happened.  The two gardens that were largely perennials and grasses look like hell.  The two that are mixed-shrubs, trees, and perennials look fine–a little blowsy but fine.  I do (honking my own horn) attribute the success of these two gardens to good design.

I will have hell to pay later on and the Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and the wild onions will need a hard taskmaster next year.  My gardener friends are appalled, but my neighbors still stop when I’m outside and tell me how beautiful the gardens are.  So now my secret is out.

10 thoughts on “My Dirty, Little Garden Secret

  1. Love this!!!!!!! I am such a fair weather gardener, but my primary focus for the last several years has been on designing for lower maintenance (shrubs, groundcovers, small trees instead of lawn, perennials, etc). And if you REALLY want to see a mess, come look at the experimental “potager” I tried this year, thinking it would cover a big swatch of grass. But I too am battling the horrible knotweed – so many people seem not to even know what it is. I have even seen large stands of it in fancy gardens on charity tours.

  2. Pru–I’m delighted at how many are reaching out about this. I guess there are a few more with similar secrets. Don’t they say ‘you’re only as sick as your secrets’?? -s

  3. Great post! I would love to know what shrubs and trees you recommend to go in a mixed bed with perennials. I love perennials and grasses, but struggle to find the right shrubs and trees to accompany them…

  4. Julie–It’s a matter of space, zone and aspect along with soil. In my two gardens that look good, I have a dwarf crabapple, a red bud, and a Rhus as trees. Some shrubs – several varieties of boxwood left unsheared, Fothergilla, a huge (read too big for where it’s planted) viburnum, Spirea ‘Mt. Fuji’, hydrangeas (several varieties) and a red-twigged dogwood. These a mixed with a bunch of rag tag perennials that are mostly transplants from other places.–s

  5. What a smart and realistic experiment! I often hear myself saying, “Low-maintenance doesn’t mean NO maintenance,” but sometimes I just consider myself blessed if no hedge trimmers touch the shrubs. One of my most successful designs had been for my congregation, where dense mixed beds have thrived for years with a good coat of mulch and a twice-annual tidying from my company’s maintenance crews. A bit wild for some, but most people like it, to say nothing of the birds and bugs.

  6. I hear the same thing. I also hear the opposite from those who think they know what to do. Wild yes, but still beautiful too.–s

  7. What a fantastic idea. It has to give you ideas of how to design for clients that are, well, not the least bit interested in gardening, but love the idea of having a garden. I have to commend your fortitude. I would never last past the first wilted plant when the heat start and the rain did come. Thanks for sharing your “secret”.

  8. Apparently, my ability to edit has completely died (or I have been drinking…or both). What I meant to say in my previous comment was that I would never last past the first wilted plant when the summer heat starts and the rain never falls. Thanks for sharing your “secret”.

    I apologize for the incoherent comment above…ha ha.

  9. Glad I read back on some posts I missed!

    This is great material, along with loads of photos I already have, for a future presentation. (a presentation sure to get me screamed at by some) The old-guard style of “xeriscape” still plaguing parts of the west is “perennials and grasses = low maintenance, water use”, when it isn’t really true. Those promoting that are more *against* design principles, neatness than they are *for* wild, weedy…maintenance and water conservation are simply terms they misapply to make their cases.

  10. Iliked very much your post. I’am a chilean designer that love gardens specially those in the country, where I live and work as a landscape designer.

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