Compromise in the garden

Retaining wall blocks are cheap and easy to use

Sally Cunningham is a longtime garden writer and coauthor of Buffalo-Style Gardening.

The spring and summer of 2020 changed many lives, in ways from inconvenient to catastrophic. Most people’s health, work, travel, social lives, and economic realities changed. Even our gardening, already in transition for many people, had to adapt to a peculiar season and may never be the same. Let’s talk about adaptation, rethinking, and compromise.

Compromises can save marriages, resolve disputes in workplaces, and even end wars. In the garden, some compromises can save your back and knees, reduce costs, and improve the ecosystem of your yard and neighborhood.

A question of values: what is important?

Many are rethinking lifestyle choices as the pandemic upends the usual thoughts surrounding them. What is worth the time, money, and energy? Homeowners and gardeners tend to do what they’ve always done, or what their parents did. That’s the paradigm, the set of expectations. However, the paradigm may not suit you or the surrounding ecosystem anymore. It may be the time to think through some questions.

What do you get out of it?

In 2020, WNY’s garden walks and tours, headlined by Garden Walk Buffalo, couldn’t take place in the same way. In recent years, some gardeners prepared their gardens because people were coming. The tourism added pressure, but also joy and fun to their summers. Will they garden exactly the same if no Walk is scheduled and no motorcoach load is coming?

Other gardens were never on tours, but were maintained for summer entertaining. That, too, changed. Some homeowners kept up their yards, especially lawns, because the kids or grandkids would play there. If they aren’t playing, what’s the point?

Another consideration is point-of-view: does the view of the garden match your intention? Upon moving to the US, my British friend Mike Shadrack noticed a difference between the approaches of gardeners in England and America. He said, "In America, gardeners tend to make the yard for others to look at from the street, called curb appeal. In England, we make the garden to see for ourselves, from inside the house."

It might be a good time to ask whom your yard or garden is for, and whether that answer has changed.

What does your yard do for others or for the health of the planet?

This topic may be a serious battleground that requires negotiation or compromise. An increasing percentage or our population is—ecologists hope—beginning to grasp the ecological importance of our plants, landscape layout, and practices. A massive, "perfect" mowed front lawn with a few trimmed shrubs against the house still means responsible home ownership to many, especially in the suburbs. But, to others, that look says, "Your sterile, possibly chemically treated lawn, requiring hours of mowing and lots of water, is doing no good for a single species." Not everyone has read or will read Bringing Nature Home, or Nature’s Best Hope, by Douglas Tallamy, or earlier conservationists’ books about biodiversity and nature-friendly gardening. But the gist is that there is little natural habitat left. We have dirtied our nests; it is up to us in the cities and suburbs to provide habitat—especially key native plants—for ecosystem survival. We must use plants with larger purposes than looking neat and pretty.

Here’s the compromise: in the case of that stereotyped suburban front yard, the meaningful adaptation might be a small, healthy, organic lawn (healthy because it grows on compost-rich soil) surrounded by layered hedgerows or thickets of trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses—as many native as can be found. Or the sunny center of that front yard might feature an island of layered, flowering plants, surrounded or framed by mowed paths. In Buffalo, we proudly show hundreds of front yards that are entirely planted with vegetables, fruit trees, mini-woodlots, or other plants that provide valuable ecosystem services.

Some lawn gives pleasure, serves a purpose, and complements the surrounding plants and the house. Maintained in a healthy way, from the viewpoint of living things, it’s fine. It just needn’t be the default choice. Choose plants for a reason beyond prettiness. Choose for usefulness.

Practical, physical, money-saving changes

After decades of gardening, you’ll hear homeowners say, "I just can’t keep it up any more." With age, abilities and stamina can diminish. Growing families, increased job responsibilities, or economic setbacks can prompt rethinking of gardening practices.

How do you weed?

Many avoid all herbicides for good reasons. Gardeners pull or dig weeds; it’s a large part of ordinary gardening practice. If a certain weedy bully takes over, a gardener might lift the good plants and renovate an entire area—or hire a pro to do that. What’s easier and cheaper—the compromise—is smothering the bully and its extended underground family.  It is tedious, but not back breaking, to pile thick newspaper and cardboard over entire weedy areas. Always stuff leaves, grass, straw, or unfinished compost under the paper or cardboard to provide organic matter to the soil. Pine needles or chopped leaves can be piled on top of the sheets of cardboard. If the smothered, covered areas need to look attractive, put containers overflowing with colorful plants on the mulched area. Weed-killing and decomposition will take place underneath.

Compromise in the garden

Mulch makes beds looked "finished" and benefits tree roots, but our culture has gone to extremes with it.


Is mulching important?

Pros: Mulching has horticultural value because it keeps soil from drying out too fast, and it slows down some weeds. It’s also attractive, giving an impression of neatness; landscape beds and paths look finished. It is much better for trees to have mulch over the root areas, rather than grass right up to the trunk.

Cons: Our culture has gone to extremes with mulch. It is assumed, rather than chosen, as the final step in a garden or landscape bed. Some even put mulch around the tree trunk, volcano-style. (Bad, bad, bad.)  Another problem: instead of keeping moisture in the soil, thick mulch may keep water out. A gardener must ensure that water can get through mulch to plant roots.

We do not have to mulch garden beds or paths at all.  Scratching up the soil surface with a rake or hoe is adequate around plants. Repeat the step occasionally, and you’ll stay ahead of weed seedlings. Even better, spread compost periodically and the soil will continue to improve. For paths, a worn clay path, found flagstones, gravel, or straw (not hay) can function fine for walking through a garden. Or, a path can be a mowed green strip of clover—much easier on tired backs compared to dragging in and spreading bags of mulch. It may not look as tidy as garden paths prepared by professionals, but it’s a good compromise.

Use what you have

In Buffalo-Style Gardens (St. Lynn’s Press, 2019), Jim Charlier and I photographed and described the unforgettable garden of the Quartararo family, which is adorned with repurposed items from the basement and attic. Visitors see a painted wooden door, Victorian bed parts, a retired bicycle, windows, mirrors, and bits of an ancient furnace—all things that many ignore or cast out as refuse. Paint and ingenuity go a long way. Add taste and panache, and you have a winning garden.

For protecting small plants: Inverted dish drainers, stripped lampshades, bird feeder cages, cloth or metal coverings for picnic food (protectors against flies), old milk crates. A favorite caging technique to keep critters from eating your seedlings: pound stakes into the ground, put inverted plant pots over them, and drape the area with any kind of nets or screening. (The pots keep the stakes from poking through the net.) You can use anything that lets light in, keeps bunnies or crows out, or keeps humans from stepping there. If these things looks ugly when company is coming, or the plants are about to fruit or flower, remove the props.

For supporting or propping tall plants: Rather than rush to the big box store, try a basement or trash day search for what you can use to tie up the tomatoes, support the climbing beans, or keep tall plants from flopping. Broom handles, pipes, rusted tools, gates, fence posts, pallets, retired ladders, bed boards, window screens, and many other things can do the job. After a wooden deck fence came down in one garden, I saw the gardener use the fence posts to box in long rows of tomatoes, with rope woven around the posts at two levels; they were strong enough for the tomatoes and nobody had to buy tomato cages.

Providing shade: For a summer or fall crop of salad greens, which generally get bitter or bolt in hot weather, use what you can find to shade them on hot days. Never throw out screen windows and doors, as you can prop them or make a tepee with them to cover the lettuce. In a pinch, umbrellas are good for shade—a novel look if done with whimsy. In changing times, let our gardens reveal our values, sensibilities, and flexibility.

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