Publications (Paul's Blog)

December 18, 2009

PADDLING UPSTREAM

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 8:00 pm

I am always looking for witty and useful analogies I can use in my writing, seminars, and sales pitches. That being the case, and life being what it is, one of the best analogies I ever heard came from my wife, Nila. By chance I overheard her say this to a customer: “Working against Nature is like paddling upstream. You can do it,” she said, “but it is hard to make progress. Working with Nature, on the other hand, is like turning your boat downstream. All you really have to do is steer.” As you might expect, I was mighty proud. Soon I was using this analogy and still to this day find it perfect to explain many of the situations we gardeners find ourselves faced with.
For example, one of the most common examples of paddling upstream is installing a plant in a spot that is too small for the mature size. We then find ourselves having to constantly prune or dig that plant out. We are all guilty, even those (like yours truly) who are experienced professionals and should know better. Some of us never really get the hang of it. It is hard to visualize a full grown specimen where that tiny transplant you bought now resides.
Beware of the landscape that looks finished the day after planting. Keep in mind that the height and width you read on the plant tag or in your reference material is merely an average. As a mature male of mainly Anglo-Saxon descent I should average about 6’ tall and weigh around 185 pounds…………………yeah, right!! Also bear in mind that in the plant world, tall guys always shade out the shorter guys and fast growers will overrun the slow ones.
Pruning in general is paddling upstream. If we follow Nature and choose a plant that will fit the area at maturity then we need only prune occasionally instead of constantly. In other words, if you have a window that is three feet off the ground and you want to enjoy the view, then find a plant that will average three feet tall to plant beneath it. Don’t put an eight to ten footer in there and spend the rest of your life cutting it back or paying someone else to do so.
While we are on the subject, the whole traditional suburban landscape culture is pretty much paddling upstream. Next time you are in the local Mega mart just take a look at all the power equipment, fertilizers, weed killers, and watering devices that are aimed at lawn culture. Americans dedicate far too much of their precious time and hard earned money because they feel obliged to own a lawn. If you are one of those people who actually look forward to the weekly ritual of mowing or you get the warm fuzzies looking at new power tools and gadgets, you may not want to keep reading this.
I suppose somewhere in this information driven world we could find hard data on how many people are seriously injured, poisoned, or killed outright while doing lawn chores. What about hearing loss? Ever wonder why you see so many professional lawn maintenance people wearing headsets. How about eye protection? Not to mention some of the chemical application guys are suited up looking for all the world like they just stepped off some spacecraft. Ever wonder about that? None of these high tech gadgets and chemical processes are the least bit natural. Most are downright dangerous. Read the warnings.
Now let’s turn the boat around and head downstream. Nature is about diversity. NOT about a monocrop of grass. Think along those lines. Nature has several ways to supply nutrients to plants. The process of decay has worked remarkably well for millions of years. The moisture and elements combined by natural rainfall plus the microbial activity that results from the combination of these things is what Nature provides. What more do we need? True, some judicious pruning and occasional mowing will be necessary for human habitation. That is where the steering part comes in. Nature, left unchecked will often grow so thick a man can’t see let alone walk through it. That being true, it is still the best idea to let Nature have the lead when it comes to your outdoor environs.
Perhaps beginning with the invention of shelter and the ability to control fire, we humans have been intent on controlling Nature. It is only natural that we attempt to extend this control into the landscape. Our success or failure plus the maintenance requirements all hinge largely on the degree of control we find as acceptable. If you insist on manicured lawns and shrubbery or a tropical paradise around your swimming pool then you will certainly have to pay accordingly.
Look around at the natural areas closest to where you live. Notice the diversity. Notice especially the plants that are appealing to you. These are the plants that will be basically care-free in your landscape. Forget about what others might say. Forget about the same tired old landscaping that your neighbors invested in. Be a leader instead of a follower. Don’t fret over weeds; some of them may be wildflowers. Learn and apply your knowledge. Then share with others.
Being one who is inclined to be a naturalist, I have sought to head downstream and steer around the snags, rocks, and rapids. I find that as time goes by I get better at it. Truthfully, Nila and I spend very little time on our home landscape. Most years I can get by with two or three well timed mowing. My lawn tractor is still in good condition after over a decade of use since I do not start and run it very often. I do spend a fair amount of time in our vegetable garden. I think growing food is a justifiable use of my meager time and resources. By the way, I do have plenty of ornamental gardens and continue to plant more every year. However, these plants are mostly natives or exotics that are well enough adapted to fend for themselves. Whether it be trees, grasses, or flowering plants, my criteria for ornamental landscaping is to use plants capable of survival on rainfall alone. My plants are weaned off extra water usually by the second summer. If they don’t make it, then I try something else.
Working against Nature is like paddling upstream. I am certain Nila would be happy for you to use this analogy. There are so many applications. However it would be nice to consider my wife if you plan on doing tee shirts, hats, and bumper stickers…………………Eh??

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