Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Extensive gardening: making the best of necessity

Gardening a large area of over an acre, only on weekends, and on unpropitious heavy wet clay, allows no time for intensive gardening, for achieving perfect edgings, astonishingly designed set pieces, carefully manicured, intensively maintained lawns and perennial borders. My gardening is of the extensive kind, much more like farming, and the limited time I have available, what with the exigencies of variable weather, often means moving from one problem to the next, and learning to live with some roughness around the edges. Who said naturalistic gardening is not labor intensive? Here are some photos showing what's happened in the past week, along with visible signs of necessary extensive maintenance.

Never having attended to planting at the top of the stone wall, I needed to kill bindweed and poison ivy that had become entwined with the existing plants. No getting around general destruction. Roundup (used very judiciously, in targeted areas, shown below) killed all growth at the edge, though I did manage to save one large Sanguisorba tenuifolia. Now to wait and see if it killed the roots of these two pestilential plants.

Selective cutting of the meadow grasses has begun (below). I do this after the wildflowers have gone to seed, and to reduce competition with preferred grasses and perennials--panicums, Filipendula ulmaria, Japanese and Siberian irises, Silphium perfoliatum. When time permits and materials are available, I want to add a small, one-person path wandering through this area, giving access to the pond side off to the left, and keeping the feet above the ever present wet from fall through early summer. Here is another example of extensive maintenance: the cuttings are left on the ground, to decompose in place, and over time, to increase the organic content of my mostly mineral clay. No time for nasty neat.

View across the garden. A 30-foot-long planting of Filipendula rubra 'Venusta' is in bloom on the right; the pink color looks rather faded in the bright afternoon light, but I grow this plant mostly for the sharply angular, almost chartreuse foliage, and for its vigor in my difficult soil. Sanguisorbas, Joe Pye Weed, Iris virginica in the foreground, further back Rudbeckia maxima, Lysimachia ciliata 'Firecracker', more irises. Most of this will be burned in late winter--another labor saving practice, and it's good for the grasses.

Looking across the pond, obscured by plant growth, toward the miscanthus bank, with the strip of intentional devastation caused by glyphosate. In the foreground is Panicum 'Heavy Metal' and 'Cloud Nine', more Silphium perfoliatum, Ligularia Japonica about to bloom at the front. The miscanthus makes a very good, though quite large, ground cover, helping keep undesirable plants under control.

More views of the filipendula, since it's the floral "star" of the moment. I'll like it much better when the pink fades to more subtle copper tones.

We've had increasing heat, without much rain, which is sending these Silphium laciniatum rocketing skyward (these are about eight feet tall now). They must have put on three feet of growth in the past week. These plants always flop when they get too tall. I'm hoping the lack of water will make them strong enough to stand on their own this year. We'll see; thunderstorms are predicted for today.

The silphium with more Rudbeckia maxima and Vernonia fasiculata. The ground surface shows where I've cut a path for walking through the plants (wide enough for one lone person). Yet another project is to add a gravel surface to make the path permanent.

Close-up of the silphium ...


No time for raking gravel back into place after storms or other disasters, thus the borders of rock (native, of course) to keep all in place. Eventually there may be ground covering plants bordering the path, but only as time permits, and only if nature cooperates. I don't mind the grasses.


Another vigorous plant that helps with spotty maintenance. Eupatorium cannibinum, a European eupatorium, seeds itself around, eventually making large masses if left to itself, but easily pulled out if not wanted. It obscures a multitude of sins. Here it's just coming into bloom.


Another useful plant, for the water's edge, that makes a lovely mass of color, shape and texture--Pontadera cordata. It's vigorous enough to outcompete the weeds.


Much of my approach to extensive maintenance, in case you haven't noticed, is to use large, rather highly competitive plants, which just happen to be well suited to my conditions. Here the plants appear to be eating the house.


Miscanthus, willows, river birch - they cover a lot of ground.



  1. To you, the gardener, it looks out of control and in need of maintenance. To the reader, seeing the photos, it looks wonderfully composed and clean. The gravel paths are the perfect visual to tame the wild abandon... it all looks so harmonious even though you see so much work to do!

  2. Laurrie,
    I agree, the gravel paths, and the stone walls too, anchor the "wild abandon." Thanks for your kind comments.

  3. I want to know which plants cover what sins. And I don't mean literal, gardening sins, either. What plants are speaking from your subconscious?

  4. Seeing your wonderful spot of heaven makes me wish I could start over with a blank slate in my own garden. You have done such a masterful job in plant selection. My local nursery has the Rudbeckia maxima. It is a little scary, but looks fabulous in your garden. Maybe there is a spot here for it. I so admire that height! And your winding paths. :-)

  5. Ah, I'm being taunted for using trite phrases! Okay, since it's my subconscious, how would I know what plants are speaking? Taking a lesson from my many years of psychotherapy, however, I'd guess the sin is sloth. That sounds very bad, doesn't it? I have a certain tendency toward laziness, so I developed this affinity for big, broad, rapidly spreading plants that cover up mess, keep smaller weeds down, shade out interlopers, allowing me to take it easy inside, in air conditioned comfort, posting on my blog.

  6. Frances,
    Scary? Rudbeckia maxima is a beautiful plant. I love the foliage shapes, the waxy surface, the glaucous blue color. But I know what you mean. Some people seem to be frightened in my garden. They don't like plants larger than they are. Thanks for the kind compliments.

  7. Ah James you have arrived at the perfect solution to garden a large area with little time to mess with it. I have practised this method for years and methinks it is a perfect way to be able to have an extensive garden without having too much of a rod for our backs!! Also it allows for a more relaxed and less contrived it 'pseudo ecological' if you like!!

  8. Doesn't seem very slothful to me!
    Thanks for this account.
    The how and the why on a large scale is of interest to me. Because I look after five acres with minimal help. But it is 5 more manicured acres than your naturalistic space which I really rather envy.
    Look forward to hearing and seeing more when you have the time!
    Best Wishes

  9. Billy (Ding Bat),
    Thanks for advice from the master of pseudo-ecological. What different worlds we live in, but using similar techniques. By the way, my mother in Mississippi used the phrase "ding bat" all the time. I had thought it a southern American expression. I see it must have a much broader and older provenance.

  10. Robert,
    I can't even imagine facing the demands of five acres, especially five manicured acres. I do have a tendency to be a little lazy, though perhaps I'm too hard on myself. When I retire (soon) I intend to have a more frequent hand in the works. Emjoy your daily posts. I don't seem how you keep that up either. Lots of energy I suppose.

  11. James,
    The garden looks great. My garden is less than half an acre and in town. I used to wish I had more land but I am starting to think that is a good size for this gardener. Looking forward to watching the season progress in your garden.

  12. Michael,
    We seem to be in a drought. No rain for weeks, and the temperatures this week will be in the upper 90s, with near 100 today and tomorrow. I'm doing some spot watering, which I really don't want to do, but recently planted things are highly vulnerable in these conditions. Yes, overall it's thriving, but for how long? A smaller space would be easier to manage. If only I could be here all week to get things done.



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