Easy on the Gardener

Forget-me-nots and tiraella grow in the shade

A simple mix of spring flowers returns each spring

If our gardens are to endure, they must be beautiful and satisfying, AND they must  be inexpensive and easy for us to maintain. Otherwise we will simply stop gardening!

The sustainable garden is beautiful but not burdensome.

And the enduring garden has longevity, evolving gracefully over time.

The sustainable garden is a legacy for future generations .

Make a plan: get it right the first time:

If you want to take a long-term view of anything, be it for your life or for your garden, it really helps to have a plan.

A garden plan is bit like a blueprint: it shows you how things fit together on the ground, and it acts as a guide for future projects.

Start by making a drawing of your garden, to scale if possible, showing how you want things to be this year, and then in five or ten years. This will help you visualize, size and prioritize your new projects.

And a good garden plan will also help you choose the best plants for each location. Knowing the mature size of plants you are contemplating, you can compare this with the space available on your plan.  There is nothing worse than being confronted with a huge full-grown evergreen that blocks all light from the windows of your house.

You can also use this information to space your shrubs properly, so that, as they grow in, they will not require an annual shearing to stop them overwhelming either your house or their neighbors.

So, in a nutshell, a garden plan is an excellent way to avoid costly, and often really depressing, rework.

Rework is the antithesis of sustainability, something to be avoided if at all possible!

Sustainable plant communities

How can we make our garden low maintenance without being low interest?

To a large extent the answer is to choose the right plants for the location, whether sun or shade, wet or dry. The plants will thrive and, by grouping them together, they will shade soil and crowd out the weeds.

Over time, this becomes a sustainable plant community which is at the very heart of creating an enduring garden. I will delve into this seemingly simple idea in more detail on a future page.

Natives are naturals

Plants that are native to your area usually make an excellent choice for your garden. They are a critical part of the food web that is will support wildlife such as birds and butterflies.

Wild raisin fruit

Our native Viburnum cassinoides has resisted the Viburnun leaf beetle, and soon its fruit will be enjoyed by the birds

They should be well adapted to the local climate, and they are less likely to succumb to pests and diseases.

However to every rule there is an exception. Up here in New England for some years now we have been struggling with the dreaded Viburnum Leaf Beetle. Unfortunately it has a taste for  both native and imported species of Viburnum, although Cornell University has found that some species are less susceptible than others.  These therefore are the ones I have planted in recent years.

But, bucking the trend, a stand of the native Wild Raisin Viburnum cassinoides has thrived in my garden for many years now; it has white flowers in springtime and each year its late-summer berries provide a meal for the birds.  And it has thrived despite being listed as 'Moderately Susceptible' to the leaf beetle' by Cornell, and the presence of a severely infected viburnum, the Highly Susceptible Viburnum trilobum,  just a few feet away!

Land-stewards not land-owners

We  know we will not be the last to occupy our spot of land; others will come after us.  Rather than landowners, it is more appropriate to think of ourselves as land-stewards, where we strive to improve our land, not only for ourselves, but also for those who come afterward.

Healthy soil and beautiful trees are among the greatest gifts we can leave for future generations of gardeners.

The gift of healthy soil

Healthy soil, enriched with organic matter and micro-organisms, is not created in a single season; rather it is something built up gradually over time. First the gardener removes the rocks and then gently folds in an annual dose of compost. After a few years of this regime our soil takes on a fine tilth which, barring abuse, will support a garden for years to come.

For over half a century, starting before 1900, our land was farmed. Then, for about twenty-five years, the seasonal residents had little time for gardening. But, even after this fallow time, the soil that Dick and I inherited in the latter part of the century was nothing short of wonderful. After I dug out the inevitable rocks, deposited eons ago by the glacier, I discovered we were blessed with perfect garden soil. I like to think this soil is the legacy of myriad cows, feeding in the farmyard, more than fifty years ago, in the space that is now our garden.

A healthy soil with plenty of organic matter rarely needs fertilizing or irrigating. I almost never find a need to fertilize or water my flower beds.

And as for the vegetable garden, I apply a single dose of organic fertilizer around the young plants at the start of the growing season. It releases slowly and lasts till harvest.  Everything is mulched with newspaper (today the black ink is soy-based and can safely go into the vegetable garden) and hay which keeps the weeds at bay and minimized my work. Over the season it gradually breaks down and adds more organic matter to the soil, thereby also minimizing the need for much watering.

Every year, the last rite of fall is to dig all the decomposed compost out of my four big storage cubes and spread it on the soil in both the flower and the vegetable gardens.

From lawn into meadow

A grass path through our meadow

Our meadow behind the pond supports asters and other wildflowers among the grass

We know intuitively that lawn mowing takes time and that lawn mowers are gas guzzlers. So, unless your lawn is small enough to cut with a push mower, which counts as personal exercise, cutting down on lawn area means less work for you and a reduced carbon footprint.

When we first moved to Vermont, we mowed the expansive lawn on a weekly basis throughout the growing season.  Then one year we simply decided to stop mowing the lawn's outer reaches.  We gave up mowing around the far side of the pond and up behind the vegetable garden. We do, however, maintain the lawn closer to the house, and we also mow a meandering lawn path around the  pond.

The result was aesthetically appealing; in June and July the longer grass in our new meadow is interspersed with wild flowers like ox-eye daisies and black-eyed Susan's, followed in the fall with wild asters and golden rod.

So based on these results we invested in a sickle-bar mower. This type of mower is invaluable for a country property. It deals with the yearly mowing of our meadow with ease. We also use it in under the trees and along the cross-country ski trail on an annual basis to remove unwanted woody re-growth.

An organic lawn is not an oxymoron

Healthy soil will support a lawn without the automatic need for chemical fertilizers and weedkillers. For details go to the Safe Lawns website, but here are the basics:

Set your mower high

Longer grass will shade the soil and suppress weed germination. We find a 3-inch cut makes a pleasant lawn; on a windy day it will ripple gently.

Use a mulching mower.

The head of a mulching mower is designed to deflect grass clippings back on the lawn in an even layer where they quickly decompose, adding organic matter directly back to the soil.  Over time, the improved level of organic matter in the soil will reduce the need for irrigation.

Lawn not looking good? Get a soil test.

Only fertilize your lawn if the results indicate a serious deficiency in one of the main fertilizer elements. If on the other hand the test shows a deficiency in organic matter, apply a thin layer of compost across the surface of the lawn.

Turn a blind eye to the odd weed

Yes, even weeds are green!

This approach to lawn up-keep obviously reduces our work (no grass-clippings to bag and haul) as well as our expenditures (no annual fertilizing routine); both are important criteria for an enduring garden!

An endowment of trees and shrubs

A row of old sugar maples shades our house from the afternoon sun

These sugar maples are probably upwards of a hundred years old, and still shade the western side of our house

Some well-chosen and carefully sited trees will remain for generations to come. Though they take time to reach their full size, trees will provide functionality, especially shading the house, and of course beauty.  So consider planting some deciduous trees to the south and west of the house for summer cooling.  This excellent animation brings these concepts to life.

A stand of evergreen trees can make an effective break against winter winds. But, before you plant,  research how tall they will grow and be careful to position them so that they will not cast shade on the house, even in December when the angle of the winter sun is at its lowest. Our rooms need all the sunlight they can get during our long northern winters.



Blueberry bushes turn a beautiful red in the fall

Mrs Romilly planted these blueberry bushes in 1951. Sixty years on, and their summer fruit and fall color still delight.

Shrubs too will endure for many years to come. Each summer Dick and I enjoy a bounteous crop of blueberries straight from our bushes, and there is always excess to freeze as sauce for the coming winter.

And each summer I silently thank Mrs Romilly. Sixty years ago she planted a long string of blueberry bushes to make a meandering S shape in the grass. And a good number of these bushes survived a quarter century of complete neglect.

After coming to Vermont, I grouped the bushes into a single central bed for easier maintenance.  And now, after some careful pruning and gentle weeding, plus an annual addition of acidic compost (enriched with coffee grounds from our local coffee shop) Mrs Romilly's blueberries are again the centerpiece of the garden.

How will your garden endure?

I think about the many garden-making endeavors that Dick and I have undertaken over the past fifteen years here, and wonder how they will endure.  I know the soil is promising for years to come. And I like to think the shrubs and trees,  and maybe even the stands of perennials, will be around a good while too.

Here are a few questions to get you thinking about the long-term viability of your garden:

Is my garden truly satisfying me and my family?

Am I a slave to an excessive annual garden maintenance routine?

How will my plantings look as they grow and mature?

What will my garden be like in ten and twenty years time?

Will the garden I leave for the next steward of this property be an asset or a liability?