How to simplify your garden so it flourishes without suffocating

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Originally published Nov. 24, 2013
By Valerie Easton, former Natural Gardener writer

RAY BRADBURY ADVISED, “The art is in the edit.” He was talking about writing, but his wisdom strikes at the heart of a near-universal gardening dilemma.

“Highly curated” is the current shelter-magazine cliché to describe almost every garden published. I think it means that the owners haven’t yet had time to overplant the austere space left behind by their landscape architect. In truth, gardeners end up being more referee than curator, trying to restrain plants from rampaging about and burying each other alive.

Which brings me to the blueberry hedge I planted last March, when my garden still sported some bare dirt. When I cut back the dried stems of long-ago toppled-over Lobelia tupa this fall, I found the light-deprived, near-dead blueberries beneath them. I’d forgotten all about them. I guess overlayering is the opposite of highly curated.

So how do we reconcile plant lust, the compelling desire to grow more and more new and exciting flora, with a concern for the environment? How do we create satisfying, productive gardens that don’t consume too much of our time and energy, as well as Earth’s resources? Is it possible to be an eager yet responsible gardener?

I’ve worked toward simplifying my garden for years now, but I don’t have the answers. So, for tips, I turned to a trio of people for whom gardening is both passion and livelihood:

Janet Endsley, seminar manager for the Northwest Flower & Garden Show, deals with her tendency to overplant by deleting plants that clamor for attention. “I’ve gotten rid of beloved hostas, daylilies, clematis and peonies,” Endsley says with a tinge of sadness. “I thought about what each plant truly needed and pared down the maintenance hogs.”

She’s accepted the realities of gardening a shady woodland, and now grows ferns, hydrangeas, Japanese maples, epimedium and hellebores that suit its conditions. “Don’t try to have a garden that nature really doesn’t give you,” she says. “You can’t change lighting unless you’re willing to part with trees, and I wasn’t.”

Although he admits he’s not too good at sticking to it, plant explorer Dan Hinkley, creator of a bluffside paradise of a garden near Indianola, shares his maintenance mantra:
• Limit the number of herbaceous plants and grasses to a level of sanity.
• Plant evergreen ground covers dense enough to suppress weeds but not so vigorous as to need controlling. His picks for this starring role? Cotoneaster salicifolius ‘Gnome,’ Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Golf Ball’ and the dwarf conifer Thujopsis dolobrata ‘Nana’.
• While shorter, narrow plants lack the drama of their billowy cousins, to cut down on biomass cleanup, it’s smart to choose ones with keyword descriptors such as compact, dwarf, mounded, fastigiate and slow-growing.

“Leave experimental gardening to the deranged, like me,” says Hinkley. “If you’ve always wanted to grow it and can’t find it in our local nurseries, there’s probably a good reason.”

Maurice Horn, co-proprietor of Joy Creek Nursery in Scappoose, Ore., tends both his home garden and nursery display beds. This hardworking horticulturist recently removed overgrown viburnum and neglected perennials from a border, and he felt like he had lifted a window blind and let in the light. “I love transparency in the garden, plants pruned so you can see through them to what is beyond,” says Horn. “We sometimes forget our art in the act of protecting our collections of plants. Nothing flourishes when this happens,” he says.

As Bradbury would say: the art of the edit.

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