Publications (Paul's Blog)

October 3, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 2:59 pm

Even though we call ourselves organic gardeners and we extol the virtues of following Nature’s plan, in truth we are seeking to control Nature in nearly every aspect of our gardening and landscaping endeavors. When we attempt to “naturalize” a stand of wildflowers or native grasses we are still choosing what we would like to see instead of what Mother Nature has already put in that particular place. As soon as we disrupt the existing plant communities the gauntlet is thrown and the battle begins. Nature will kick in with her recovery plan while we will insist that our chosen plants should dominate.

The act of digging or tilling the soil rarely if ever results in short term improvement as far as Nature is concerned. As soon as the disruption occurs it triggers an explosion of seed germination. These seeds may have been lying dormant in the existing soil for years just waiting for such an event to occur. Other seeds can be blown in by the wind or carried by runoff from rains. Where you and I have plans to sow a precious few seeds, Mother Nature will provide hundreds or thousands. Already the cards are stacked against us. In addition, most of these naturally existing “recovery” seeds are going to be fast growing broadleaf weeds and grasses.

One tactic that I have found advantageous in dealing with large projects is to go ahead and till the soil, wait for rain or apply irrigation to germinate weed seeds, then till shallow a second or third time to turn that first onslaught of vegetation under. This seems to help if you have the time and opportunity to do so.

Point is simply this; any time we make a change in the natural landscape we now must maintain that area until the new plants have become firmly established. In the case of ornamental perennials this could take only one or two growing seasons. In the case of woody shrubs or trees this could take three to five years. In the case of lawn grasses, vegetable gardens, or seasonal annual color, the task of maintaining never ends.

Pruning, fertilization, and irrigation are also forms of control. We improve soils to grow better quality plants for food, shade, and visual appeal. We irrigate to keep plants looking good during dry times and to maintain plants that require more moisture than our particular climate provides. We mow and prune constantly to keep the home landscape user friendly (to suit our particular needs) and also for what we feel is visually appealing. The amount of yearly maintenance you will be required to accomplish is directly related to the size of your lawn, vegetable garden, or annual flower beds, and etc., plus the variety of the plants you have chosen, and the level of control that you consider acceptable.

Because the level of control is linked to our sense of aesthetics we find that some folks will naturally be willing to do more mowing, pruning, watering, and fertilizing than others. For example, a landscape full of evergreen shrubs manicured into interesting geometric shapes may be highly appealing to some. A different person’s perspective might be huge drifts of flowering plants. A third person may find the tending of a large vegetable garden to be the best use of their outdoor space. Then there are those energetic gardeners who have the time, money, and inclination to do all this and more. To the average person and especially to the non-gardener, these represent a whole lot of work. Ironically, even though the average person is not motivated to do the work, they do generally admire the efforts of their more meticulous friends and neighbors. They would love to have a nice landscape without all that work. Hence the popularity of all those “miracle” fertilizers, sprays, and gadgets that promise a beautiful result with little or no effort.

In spite of all the myriad choices we find at the lawn and garden centers, the task of controlling Nature remains a tough battle. If you desire a nice lawn, garden, orchard, or whatever, you still have to do the work or be able to pay someone else to do it. Any new landscape will have weeds. Have faith that these will get fewer in number as your desirable plants begin to fill in. The key is to expect this to happen and be diligent in your control efforts. There is no chemical or fertilizer that can match wise gardening habits and routine maintenance.

There are a growing number of people who choose to use less control and allow Nature to be a partner in the landscape. In fact, I know of a few country homes where the builders used minimal disruption so the natural landscape could be left intact. I used this tactic when I bought my own property. After setting up a mobile home, I eventually cleared about ¾ acre out of 3 acres, leaving a few large mesquite for shade. Since then I have downsized the area I keep mowed to about 1/3 acre. I was quick to notice that the undisturbed areas of my lot cost me nothing to maintain. The native trees and existing vegetation have stayed pretty much the same all these years. Meanwhile the areas that I disturbed with my “improvements” are still very weedy even though I decided to let some parts of my property go back to Nature years ago. The lesson I learned was that if you remove the existing vegetation you must replace it. If you decide to quit mowing (or maintaining) then weeds and weedy grasses will take over. Furthermore, it may take decades for Nature to return that parcel to the pristine prairie or woodland it once was. Better to leave Nature do her thing until you have a definite use for the area.

Nearly all home owners today will vote for low maintenance landscapes given the choice. Yet many of these same people are not willing to let go of the look of traditional landscaping. You cannot have a manicured lawn or tightly pruned hedges without doing the work. You can switch to slower growing, less demanding lawn grass. You can also switch out those fast growing hedges for slower growing ones. Better yet, if you want shrubs to be only 3 or 4 feet tall then plant those that reach that average height at maturity. Replace water guzzling exotic plants with local native varieties. Improve soils with compost. Use all natural fertilizers and pest controls. Stop watering constantly and avoid over-fertilizing. This just causes faster growth and creates more work. Look to Nature for guidance. Don’t step in and change things unless it is absolutely necessary. Become proactive instead of reactive. Never assume something is wrong until you know for certain.

In the final analysis it is the amount of control you personally are willing to live with that either increases or decreases the work you must do. I suppose, in time, the high maintenance manicured look made popular by post WWII suburbanites will give way to a more relaxed home landscape. We are seeing alternative landscaping and even whole communities that are paving the way. Nature does have the upper hand. A measure of control is all we can hope for.

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