On Changing Standards

If you are like me, you learned early in your gardening life that there is a “right” way to do everything.  You need to put down fertilizer and mulch every year, and it must be at a certain time.  All plants should be deadheaded to keep their best appearance. Plants need to be spaced far enough apart that they don’t interfere with each other’s growth and look their best from all angles.  Fall is the time for cutbacks and cleanups. You know the drill.

But the deeper I go into my native plant journey, the more I am realizing that these rules are by no means universal.  If your soil is good and fertile, there is no need for supplements and if you have ground cover plantings, you need little mulch.  Deadheading removes the seed pods, which add visual interest in fall and winter and help create new plants.  Plants actually prefer to be spaced closely as in a naturally occurring plant community, and a mass or drift of plants can be as visually interesting as a single specimen.

Many of the old rules for maintaining a garden, it turns out, are based on an aesthetic standard that values a garden for a certain kind of visual beauty – neat, manicured, under control – and downplays the role of the garden for nurturing a wider ecosystem.
The most formal part of the garden with a foundation of small trees and shrubs and a profusion of flowering perennials

Now, humans inherently love neatness and order. We feel more comfortable when we can see the structure, when the eye can flow smoothly and stop at interesting places.  We back away from chaos and confusion.  The traditional gardening aesthetic prizes that neatness, which has resulted in design formality, spaced-out regular plantings, mulch, and deadheading.

But these high-maintenance horticultural practices result in sub-optimal wildlife habitat.  No leaf litter serving as homes for bees, no standing flower stalks for winter homes for insects, no cover or protection for the insects at ground level. The result is less food for birds and small mammals, and so on up the food chain.  I have learned I want a garden that is as much for the critters as it is for me, and a highly manicured garden cannot deliver that.
A section of the woodland garden, with black cohosh, goatsbeard and some volunteers in a loosely-planted bed.

Along the way I have found that my standards of beauty have also been evolving.  I still admire orderliness and a good design with eye movement, color, and focal points.  Within the garden space, though, I love looking at a plant and seeing the shape that nature intended and looking at flowers to observe how they have designed themselves to attract insects.  I am gratified when there are little flies all over the goldenrod, or bees swarming the smooth hydrangea.  I feel good when I see seed pods and a messy winter garden bed, knowing that there will be lots of insects and new plants emerging in the spring.  To me, for a garden to be beautiful it must be full of life, not just lovely blooms.

This is a pretty big mind-shift that has occurred without my quite realizing it. I have gained deeper understanding about how aesthetic standards and horticultural practices go hand in hand, and I have learned that each gardener can make a conscious choice about where in the continuum of wild woodland to formal landscape they want their garden to be.
For me, that means having neither fully wild property, nor a formal landscape, but somewhere in between:
A wilder section abutting the neighbor’s lawn, with black cherry in bloom and goldenrod starting to emerge

• Benign Neglect, or Barely Managed.  I use this approach for the part of the property, closest to the conservation area, that is almost wild.  These areas have stands of trees and shrubs surrounded by wide paths of rough turf which are mowed several times a summer. I allow whatever grows there the freedom to compete, and it has been fun to see what has grown – tall-bush blueberry, pagoda dogwood, bayberry, goldenrod, oak trees, cedars, winged sumac, New England asters, wild strawberry and more.  I do monitor for invasive plants and regularly remove them.  I do not do cutbacks and only remove deadwood when it is in the paths. I might plant in those sections, always using species native to the area.

From the front: spotted bee balm, anise hyssop, little bluestem, Joe Pye weed, and rose of sharon.

• Natural, or Moderately Managed: These areas are clearly designed garden beds, including the long pollinator border, the cottage garden and the woodland garden.  The style is naturalistic and the plants are mostly native, chosen for both wildlife value and design value.  Maintenance is minimal, with cutbacks in the spring after the insects have emerged, addition of compost in some areas and removal of larger deadwood branches.  The plantings are dense and I try to include a groundcover layer so little mulch is needed after the beds are established. I still have to weed regularly, trying to control the more persistent weeds such as mugwort, red sorrel and plantain.  I don’t manage each plant, but I do monitor to make sure the community and the intended design is well-balanced, so I add, transplant, or remove plants each season.

Post-script: After writing and re-reading this post it occurred to me I have come full circle and landed on a new set of horticultural rules, that now define the “right” way to garden:

Right plant, right place.  Siting each plant properly leads to the ongoing health and viability of the plant, visual beauty within the design, and lower maintenance.   So I spend more time researching which plants are best for my conditions before heading to the garden center.

Minimize intervention. This means keeping the garden beds neat but doing little “primping” and letting plants mostly go through their natural life cycle. It also means avoiding soil amendments except for occasional compost and adding supplemental water only in drought conditions.

Manage for wildlife.  While continually learning more about what different kinds of wildlife need, I am adapting my horticultural practices to provide habitat and food sources.
Change is good, right?


  1. My perception of the garden has changed as well since reading your blog. I look for the insects, the natives, the wildflowers, the worms. I don’t mind the catipillar poop falling on me from the oak trees any more 🙂


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