Sunday, March 30, 2014

Book Review: "The New Low-Maintenance Garden" by Valerie Easton

Since it's been too cold to do much gardening outside over the past week, I read one of the books I checked out of the library. Here are my thoughts about it:

Published in 2009 Timber Press.
284 pages.
"The New Low-Maintenance Garden" was written by Valerie Easton, a longtime garden columnist who downsized from her large garden to "a very small house with a very small garden": a geometrical backyard entertaining area surrounded by raised beds, pots, and a few very small areas of easy-care foliage plants, with no turf to mow.

Some concerns about this book:

1) Ms. Easton gardens only in Seattle and usually writes for a Seattle readership, and this book is more than usually tailored for a specifically Northwest audience. The majority of the plants she recommends in the book are not ones that will thrive in the rest of the country, and her recommendation for planting everything in pots is certainly not "low-maintenance" here in the hot, windy Midwest, where pots often need to be watered twice a day in the dog days of summer. I prefer weeding once a month over watering daily (and isn’t that wasteful of water?).

The author's new small garden. Perhaps the most floriferous residential
garden pictured in the book.
2) Many of the areas pictured in the book are not what I consider to be "gardens." The British term the area around a house to be "the garden," but here in the United States, a "garden" implies a place where plants are the focus. A number of the "gardens" in this book are just attractive paved areas with modern-design screens for privacy and a few foliage plants in tiny beds. The few beautiful, plant-filled exceptions didn’t look particularly low-maintenance to me.

Highly modernistic plastic screens are not exactly to my taste in a garden.

3) This book was published in 2009 at the height of the eco-guilt movement, and the author does not let an opportunity for lecturing about the evils of lawns pass by. But in her zeal to rid us of them entirely, she doesn't mention reducing the work of maintaining a lawn, with mowing strips, etc. If someone doesn’t want to maintain a lawn, he should replace his with something else. But enough already with trying to guilt people who enjoy a traditional lawn into getting rid of it!

4) The author’s preference for foliage gardens is not particularly appealing to those of us who garden specifically because we love flowers. None of the gardens in the book were joyous, flower-filled spaces; no examples of small cottage gardens that can still be relatively easily maintained. I’m just not convinced that we need to give up flowers when we grow old.

This is pretty beautiful, for a largely foliage garden.
But is this really "low-maintenance"?

But the book did have some good suggestions, and I'm glad I read it. And it has caused me to think more deeply about the issue that all gardeners must confront: their physical and time limitations (and resource limits too, of course).

These limitations are not static; they change throughout our lives, as they did for the author. As young people, we often lack a settled place for gardening and money to spend on plants. When our lives become more settled, perhaps after buying a house, we enter a nesting phase in which we often wish to make our surroundings more beautiful. We still have energy and physical strength enough to handle the physical work that accompanies gardening, and may begin to desire to grow all the lovely plants that we read about. As we age, however, we are less able to handle hard physical work and may have sated our plant curiosity. Our children (if we had them) are likely grown, so this is a time we may consider downsizing.

Again, hauntingly beautiful -- but how can a pond be low-maintenance?
Her pond was one of the things the author specifically mentioned as a
source of laborious maintenance in her old garden.... 

But plant-loving older gardeners don't need to choose all or nothing. Ageing doesn't have to mean that we can no longer grow a garden full of beautiful flowers. However, the author does include some good, traditional suggestions for designing a lowER-maintenance garden:
  1. Obviously, a smaller garden will take less time to maintain, all other features being the same.
  2. Some plants require less attention than others. This doesn't mean that gardeners shouldn't ever grow delphiniums (which require staking) or iris (which must be divided every few years); just that they should grow mostly lower-maintenance plants and choose only a few more labor-intensive favorites. And the author is right that we should avoid aggressively spreading plants, which can be a lot of work, but then she includes in her list of recommended plants creeping lily turf (liriope spicata), which she must not be aware (Seattle-focused again) is invasive in a number of states. However, she does have a good word for modestly self-seeding plants such as borage, poppies, nigella and tall verbena, which are delightful even though you may have to pull a few out.
  3. Having fewer different kinds of plants makes for easier maintenance. Older gardeners should already know which plants give them the most joy each year, and narrowing the list down does make for less work.
  4. Having good, well-amended soil reduces growing problems that can require work. Likewise, mulching can reduce watering frequency.
  5. Reducing (not necessarily entirely eliminating) lawn area can cut down on work -- as can mowing strips, etc. 
Ms. Easton is right that each of us needs to honestly confront our ability and willingness to do garden work before planning our gardens. But I believe that her own exhaustion has led her to overreact by advocating that gardeners eliminate many of the plants and garden features that bring them joy.

A large kitchen garden and ornamental pond, viewed from beneath
a grape- and kiwi-draped arbor under which guests "need merely to
reach up to pick dessert." Really? Low maintenance?

Unlike the author, I have not yet reached the point of wanting to reduce my garden areas. (In fact, I am thinking about making a whole new garden area this year -- albeit a relatively low-maintenance area -- despite my vow not to make any new garden areas this year. More about this in my next post.) There are still so many plants I want to grow. Of course, as a naturally lazy person, I do want to minimize the work I have to do, and the author's suggestions are for the most part good ones, but that doesn't mean I can't have my flowers.

"The New Low-Maintenance Garden" is a good book to read to stimulate thought about how to reduce the work of gardening in our own gardens. But it will ultimately be most useful for gardeners who live in the Pacific Northwest and have the same taste for modern foliage gardens as the author.

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