Low maintenance, or is it?


On second thought, after sleeping on it, and with considerable deliberation, I must fess up that more maintenance is accomplished in this garden than I might imply. After all, the property is an acre and a quarter, so after subtracting for the house, driveway, and small amount of lawn, what remains that is garden is much too large to be managed as any more than a weed patch by any definition of low maintenance.

Though I am pained to admit it, the likelihood is that I spend more hours laboring in this garden than you do in yours. My point in mentioning this is that there is much more that could be done if I were a fastidious gardener, which most certainly  I am not, and so I must make choices, or too many hours would be spent performing tasks that I find to be the least enjoyable.

Hellebore in mid February - after leaves have been removed.
Hellebore in mid February – after leaves have been removed.

I have decided in recent weeks that the piles of leaves in the garden will not be shredded this winter. I have cleared leaves and debris from the paths and patios (mostly), so all that remains are deep piles in the garden’s beds. These will remain, except for scattered areas where hellebores (above) are buried, and of course these must be cleared or flowers will not properly develop through the next several weeks.

The hellebores are the subject of another matter that is accomplished in some years, but probably not in most. Once the low growing hellebores are dug out from piles of sycamore leaves that have blown in from neighboring properties, there is the question of whether the foliage should be removed to better display the late winter blooms. And if so, when?

In most years the leathery leaves are cut off, though rarely in late December when this is more easily accomplished with less prominent flower buds that have not swelled to be so much in the way. Today, bunches of stems can be grabbed, and with one cut, with little attention to be certain that flower buds are not also being chopped off, the process is completed.

Hellebore in February
Hellebore in February

There is no question that the blooms are much more prominent once the old foliage has been cut away, so this is very much worthwhile. After flowering, new foliage grows back quickly, so there is no downside to this chore except it is another thing that must be done, and often it must be accomplished in temperatures that are less than ideal.

Today, weather is suitable for this chore. The afternoon is cool and cloudy, certainly not a day when the gardener would be inclined to lounge on the patio by the koi pond, basking in the winter sun, but appropriate for working outdoors without being concerned about dressing to avoid frostbite. Colder days are forecast ahead, so there will be convenient excuses why the cutting of hellebore foliage is not done, and then the buds will be fat and in the way, so why bother?

And so, if I cannot drag myself outdoors in another hour or two, the foliage is not likely to be cut until the last moment, or at all. Which is not such a tragedy, since the task takes only a bit longer if it is delayed, and even if the leaves are not chopped off at all the flowers are still visible, and still quite marvelous.

The first snowdrop in late December - barely standing above deeply piled leaves.
The first snowdrop in late December – barely standing above deeply piled leaves.

Mounds of leaves in most of the garden can remain with few consequences. A few low perennials might suffer if they are not removed, and I must identify those areas before spring growth begins, but most leaves will decay without any effort on my part. The appearance of wet and matted leaves is perhaps unsightly to some compared to fresh mulch or shredded leaves, but shredded or not, all will decay before summer.

Of course, there are other tasks that must be accomplished some time before spring. Many perennials and grasses must be cut to the ground, and for most this can be done immediately,  or delayed until the last moment when other chores are piled high and not a moment can be wasted. These are best done earlier, but better late than never, and this is in large part how this garden is maintained. Low maintenance, unfortunately not, but this is as little maintenance as I can get away with.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. mamadeyoung2012 says:

    Great way to garden….look at all the habitat you’ve created for bene. insects, wintering caterpillars…not to mention providing a higher insect count for foraging birds…or native, organic leaf mold with which to feed your soil

    1. Dave says:

      Yes. While this garden has never been tidy, as I’ve continued to plant and to expand the garden past the point where it can reasonably be managed, I’ve discovered value in my lack of maintenance. This conveniently excuses my occasional laziness.

  2. bittster says:

    There’s a lot to be said for a nice mulch of fallen leaves, and I’ve always preferred the wild look over the curb-appeal obsessed look.
    My lawnmower keeps becoming a better friend. Raise the deck and run over the hellebores now and your trimming back dilemma will be over in about 10 minutes 🙂 Just stay away from the snowdrops!

  3. Being a rabid biologist (I got my rabies shot, that makes me rabid, right?) I like to leave last year’s growth as long as possible over the winter and leaves that fall in the garden get left there to form compost. It doesn’t hurt that I’m a Florida born hot house flower currently living in New England and if it’s cold enough for socks I don’t want to go outside.

    But come summer I have to work to find enough things to do outside in the garden so it doesn’t look to the neighbors like I’m just sitting in the garden watching the bees (which is why I try to keep a bucket next to me and move occasionally so it looks like I’m “weeding”).

    1. Dave says:

      Since I rarely accomplish much of anything through the winter, my wife knows that four weekends beginning sometime in March are reserved for working in the garden. No visitors are allowed unless they stay inside and away from me, and no matter the occasion, I’m not going anywhere but into the garden to catch up before spring growth begins. By mid April and occasionally a week later if I’ve gotten off to a late start, I’ve finished with all the chores that are going to get done, and for most of the rest of the year I’m allowed to putter more leisurely about the garden.

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