Sunday Opinion: Maintenance

It is my opinion that great design really comes to nothing, without great maintenance.  A landscape designer I worked for in the 80’s did no landscaping in the spring until his clients had pruning, fertilizing, and the replacement of plants that did not survive the winter.  After this work was done, he would commence with new work.   He would give seminars in pruning and fertilizing techniques in the spring for clients who liked to do their own work.  Every year I would come in on a Saturday, and Sunday both on a given weekend,   to talk about the maintenance of perennial gardens, roses and the like.  We would bring plants in the greenhouse, and do demonstrations. This weekend was the only in-house event he ever sponsored.  At the time, it seemed like nuisance duty, but now I realize he was dead to right about the importance of maintenance.

Not everything I design gets installed.  I worked on a project with Buck this winter-designing gardens purely from my imagination, that will probably never be built.  What huge  fun that was.  Only because he is building models of those gardens of basswood, infilled with mosses-that are meant to be hung on a wall – they will be built, but in a different way.  Getting projects built is important to me.   He has three of these models  in process now. These will not depend on a client deciding to build them.  I don’t think I ever could have been an architect.  It takes so much time, and so much money to build a building-how many of any given architects designs get built?  I would guess not a big percentage.    My point here is that if I do have a client willing to build a landscape I have designed, or if you decide to install a landscape of your own design, the installation is by no means the end.  Au contraire, it is only the beginning.  I would suggest that keeping up with what you have invested your time, money and heart in is a good idea.

The inspiration for this essay came to me this afternoon-as I was out deadheading my roses.  The roses share a bed with my asparagus, which is better than 8 feet tall, Japanes anemone “Honorine Jobert”, some giant hot pink hibiscus, and boltonia.  I love the big breezy mess.  But what bloody hell it is to walk in there and not crush anything.  My legs and arms are all scratched from the roses, and the asparagus are threatening to go over as its been very windy all day.  Exasperating, to say the least.  But should I throw over the maintenance of these plants, the fresh, wild balance would soon be lost.  This garden looks loose and cottage like-but that by no means indicates that it is not maintained. I have limited areas like this to only 2 in my garden-and what I cannot maintain myself, I hire someone to maintain.  No kidding,   one of the reasons I work is to to be able to afford my garden. 

Early on I posted about the essays of Henry Mitchell. I reread The Essential Earthman every so often.  He remarked that there is no such thing as a beautiful old garden – all beautiful gardens are a result of the intensive care of the present.  I try to hold that thought as I am wading through the roses. Many clients I go to see do not have design issues, nor do they need a new planting.  They need the trees and or shrubs trimmed, the dead cut out of this and that, the perennials divided, a topdressing of compost, a thorough weeding, mulching-or perhaps treatment for borers.  Perhaps a sprinkler head needs additional riser to accomodate plants that have grown since the irrigation was first installed. Perhaps a poorly draining area needs some drainage work.  Maybe a sick tree needs treatment.  A beautifully designed area that is not growing robustly is sometimes the fault of the designer.  Siting plants properly is art and science both; any landscape designer needs an extensive knowledge of plants.  When I take my car to be repaired, I expect that person has extensive knowledge of what it takes to make a vehicle go. My clients rely on me to design for them in a way that moves their garden forward.    But sometimes a poor show is poor maintenance,  plain and simple.  

Maintenance is not always a particularly exciting activity.  But the results can be very exciting.  I can spot from a block away a property that has been lovingly looked after.  I can likewise spot a landscape that has gone to rack and ruin.  Its not the easiest thing to convince a client that they need to invest some time, or some money, or both, to the maintenance of the landscape of which they are a steward.  I do try.

Some physicist whose name I cannot remember  came to the conclusion that everything in the universe tends to dissolution.  Is this concept not obvious to anyone who has a boat, a house, and /or a landscape?

At a Glance: After a Storm


Love the Limelights

lime6Hydrangea Paniculata “Limelight” is a favorite shrub of mine,, as well it should be.  It is extremely hardy (some say zone 3), and not particularly fussy about soil, or water. It is a robust, vigorous and willing grower.  Add to this a long and spectacular season of bloom-this plant earns its keep.

lime1The lime-white flowers emerge late in July for me.  They look crisp and fresh at a time of the gardening year that in fact can be blazing hot and miserable. They have great dignity and presence in a formal garden, or they  make a graceful backdrop for more delicate and  late blooming perennials such as Russian Sage, bee balms, and hyssop, in more informal gardens.  

lime2When first coming into bloom, the plant and flowers are many shades of green, and white.  Few shrubs provide so much interest.  The flowers mature white, and bloom for an incredibly long time. Towards the end of their blooming period, they go pink-green, and rose pink; this stage is beautiful too.  They make great cut flowers, and they dry beautifully. They clearly are at home in this formal landscape spilling onto the gravel as they are in a cottage style garden.

lime3Their habit makes them easy to use in a formal garden, as well as an informal one.  They stand up on their own; this habit of growth I really appreciate, as I am not fond of staking plants. Their habit has a lot to do  with their genes; hydrangea paniculata has a naturally upright habit.  I prune to top branches in early spring shorter that the side branches-ala a shag haircut.  This permits light to reach the lower branches, and promotes blooms from top to bottom.  Sometimes I prune very hard, if I am interested in keeping them smaller than their natural inclination to grow 6′-8′ tall.  I have on occasion pruned them as short as 14″ off the ground, without any loss of bloom.  I have read about a new paniculata variety called “White Diamonds”, which is reputed to only grow to 4 feet tall, but I have not seen it.   

lime4They make a magnificent hedge when left to their own devices.  This client was interested in screening close to the house; this is a very showy solution.  

lime5They are willing bloomers with this eastern exposure, but I have planted them in full sun with just as good results.  I do try to plant them in soil with a good percentage of organic material, as they do like even moisture.  I do not always site plants perfectly-that’s a normal thing, to have to move things around until they have exactly what they want.  But I have seen very few limelights performing poorly, even though I see them in lots of different situations. 

lime7Luscious, aren’t they??

Friends in My Garden

animals1Gardeners seem to welcome every kind of life into their own. Well, ok, maybe not snails, Japanese beetles, deer,  aphids and woodchucks-who loves these creatures?    A gardener”s distaste for certain pests doesn’t necessarily result in weapons;  many gardeners  tolerate the wildlife, as we have to share our planet.  But some creatures live in our gardens, and our lives, by invitation. We do a good job, looking after them, and they reward us with their unconditional love and friendship.  My Jojo (formally known as George) so enriched my life.  He appeared at my front door one day from a home across the street that he apparently did not like, and never left.  He suffered children, carrying him around in his favorite brown paper bag. He bossed around any dog that came to visit.  He lived to be 22;  I lost him too soon.

He loved the outdoors.  Most days he was in the garden; he would protest if I didn’t let him out to prowl the night. He never, ever, had a bath, by the way.animals2

Some wildlife comes to me, inexplicably.  This toad made himself known one day in 2004, and lived in my greenhouse until 2008-at which time he walked out the front door one morning,  and moved on.  As I know that any environment that has healthy toads speaks to a  healthy environment, I had great affection for him.  Why did he decide to leave?  I prefer to think he went looking for a girlfriend.

animals4aVictor and Agnes were at home in the garden, but their favorite places were my drafting table, any open drawer, or anyplace I had the New York Times spread out. I inherited her along with the house and 5 acres I bought-she was the best part of the deal. Victor I did not have long, but my memory of him has been long.

animals5aCosmo was as fine a dog as ever was.  He lived to be 14, and was a fixture at the store for the last 7 years of his life.  Kids loved him; I watched a child lean over  into his face-and blink his eyes open and shut three times.   “Do this, if you love me”, he said;  he insisted to his Mom that Cosmo blinked at him.  This I choose to believe.  People still come in and ask for him.  The last few years he actually lived at the store.  Though he was deaf by then, he would start barking when my car would pull up in the morning-how did he know?

animals6aThese creatures have been much a part of my gardening life, each one of them, a part of my landscape. Each of them had strikingly different personalities, but they shared the space well with me, and with each other.


My orange Maine Coon cat was named Roscoe, but I always called him Babyhead. He was incredibly shy and reserved-but when he was old, he decided he liked people.  It was pretty charming, watching him say hello to strangers at 13.

animals7aJack and Libby belonged to Rob.  I thought to surprise Rob with a gift of a mini-schnauzer; no,  he wanted two schnauzers.  So fine, 2 schnauzers it was-brother and sister, the only two in the litter.  Those two dogs were never far from Rob for the better part of 15 years.   They  grew up in the back of my work truck, and graduated to retail store duty in 1996.  Until May of 2008;  Jack was almost 14.

animals8aLibby was the last of a  group that spanned some 24 years of my life.  I think the last year she spent without Jack was tough, but Rob loved her up plenty and she loved Rob fiercely in return. The last 6 months of her life she mostly slept on a bed  next to my chair in my office; I knew I did not have long with her. She was the last of a very fine group; her passing is the end of an era.   Libby Yedinak,  Sept 1994-June 2009.    No matter the grief, I was very lucky indeed to have each and all of them.   Any gardener knows that to everything there is a season, and the seasons turn sooner or later.  But knowing this does not make it much easier;  how I loved them all, and how I miss them.


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