A Minimalist Tackles the Garden
We'll Take of Ourselves, Thank You Very Much
“Simple living” often includes having a garden. Now, a garden can mean many things, from a substantial vegetable plot to a small sitting area with a few shrubs and a birdbath. No matter what kind or how large, gardens all too often go from simple to overwhelming, and what started as a pastoral dream can turn into a money and time pit. All joking aside, however, a minimalist approach doesn’t have to mean turning your yard over to asphalt or concrete.
I once had a landscape design company for about fifteen years, parlaying an art degree, remodeling experience, farmgirl knowledge, a bit of traveling and a whole lot of necessity into a way of earning a living. My typical client was upper middle class and totally besotted with the pictures of beautiful gardens in decorating and style magazines, and wondered if they, too could have the lush and airbrushed masses of perennials and flowering shrubs to give them “year-round interest” in an “easy-care” way.
It was the 1990’s and the economy was endlessly good, so they were going to have what they wanted to have, and they were going to have it now. Stratified rock gardens, courtyards with pea gravel and slate, formal “French” boxwood-framed herb gardens, topiary, statuary, arbors, trellises, fountains, and of course the lush “English Cottage Style” perennials sprouted where there was once sod and maybe a concrete pad. The transformations were amazing, and made a nice portfolio.
I designed gardens for a clientele that didn’t actually garden. Some of the retirees and over-achievers among them did get into the weeding, pruning, watering, deadheading, and other nurturing and maintenance elements, but for the most part they hired help, lacking the time or inclination to keep up even a ready-made garden. This does not necessarily reflect badly on them: it really was at least a part-time job to maintain those large picturesque tableaus, especially in the decidedly non-English, non-French climate of Northwest Indiana.
There were also many clients who wanted to put in the garden themselves, even the hardscape elements, but wanted the layout, the proportions, the specifications, and plant list in order to save a lot of the trial-and-error that costs time and money. They, too, were often sold on the idea that the romantic gardens they wanted were also low-maintenance, and I spent a lot of consultation time gently coaxing them back to reality.
When I think back to those days, I recall that a lot of the principles of real low-maintenance gardens are more valid than ever in these days of tighter budgets and more realistic priorities. Nonetheless, they weren’t always the most ecologically sound elements. Take water, for instance: profuse gardens are the ones that get plenty of water, and that means irrigation systems in just about every climate other than the Pacific Northwest.
Native species plantings are good up to a point, as they need less water, but they are often prone to spreading like wildfire, which is not exactly low-maintenance. I shudder when I think back to the grasses and groundcovers that I’ve had to dig up, the ones with root balls as hard as concrete and which were threatening to break up concrete patios, as well. Worse than trees, some of them.
Other low-maintenance ideas, however, are still good. I’m a great advocate of creating patios, walkways, and sitting areas of pea gravel with borders and inserts of pavers. Done right, the gravel stays put, drainage is no problem, and any weeds that show up are easily popped out. The right kinds of shrubs and trees can provide a lot of impact as well as habitats for birds, bees, and butterflies. Careful selection of perennials will do the same and naturally provide more plants for you and for sharing.
These days I would recommend that a new gardener start with a priority list BEFORE browsing magazines and books for style ideas. You want to be certain your garden is going to fill your true needs, and not what a marketer seduces you into wanting. The first thing to list is why do you want a garden in the first place? Is it someplace to sit? Is it for food? Is it an important element for your psyche? Is it intended to raise the value of your home?
Next would be understanding your climate, sunlight, and soil. The most dedicated gardener in the world cannot grow most vegetables if there aren’t enough hours of direct sunlight or decent, well-drained soil. Is there enough rain for the kinds of plants you want to grow? If watering will be needed, are there restrictions in your area?
Next would be to list the elements that will achieve your garden’s purpose. If the garden is for entertaining, is there enough level ground or patio area for furnishings, and are insects at a tolerable level? Will you need privacy screens, lighting, or some kind of shade or windbreak? Does the intended garden have good drainage or is it a mud puddle when it rains? Will you have to bring in decent top soil in order for anything to grow?
All of these elements will involve time, effort, and/or money, so they are important to consider. Decide what is the bare-bones minimum you can tolerate or afford for the garden to serve its intended purpose, and go with that. Only add to it after you’ve proven to yourself it is a cinch to take care of what you already have. And never, ever believe the photos in the magazines. Just don’t, okay?
I transplanted a lot of perennials from my old garden to save money, and it is a classic demonstration of the difference between part-sun and full sun: the perennials which grew and bloomed in a controllable way at our old place went berserk in the new place; even dwarf varieties threatened to become trees in a single season, and threatened to destroy the patio my husband built. Minimalist it wasn’t. On the other hand, many of the plants did better than before, particularly the alliums, daisies, and coral bells, and there were even surprise tagalong seedlings of wiegela and a blue juniper that are flourishing, so it is almost like having a free plant nursery
Over time, though, I was as ruthless with the garden as I was with the basement and closets: if it didn’t fit the program, out it went. We planted trees which would be the right size when full-grown, and pulled out shrubs that blocked windows and were too hard to maintain. Mowing lines were simplified. Naturalized plants like black-eyed susans and daylilies are simply dug up and given away or tossed when they grow beyond a certain boundary. Bee-friendly plants are given free reign, but not where we sit. If a plant needs more water than nature normally provides, tough luck. All of this was done on a pittance.
There’s still a spot that gets a bit out of control, but I’ve got plans for it (quickly hiding the concrete guy’s phone number). Even with a minimalist approach, however, the garden is still our very own green and pleasant land.