Maintenance is more important than the design of a space. When done correctly, everything grows in as planned. When maintenance is ignored the altered environment will run amok. I can’t emphasize it enough; maintenance is everything. It doesn’t matter how much effort you put into planning and building your space. If it isn’t maintained properly, it’s all for not.
You won’t always be a servant to your landscape, but those first 2-3 years you must be attentive. The first few years of maintenance are where you get to observe it ‘becoming’. Below I share a success story and a failure to contrast what becomes of the spaces.
When I first moved into my house the entire front yard consisted of weed fabric, crushed pink rock and a one-sided golden rain tree. It was pepto bismal at best, and utterly dismal at worst. I vowed to cut as many holes in the weed fabric as possible in order to green (and cool) the space. The first thing to go in was a dwarf sweet cherry. My kids and I planted it, the family ‘flag’ in the pink landscape. Over the next couple years the plant quantity grew until I finally had the time to pull up all the fabric and rock. Lying dormant under the weed fabric was an entangled mess of white roots just waiting for their opportunity to take off. Bindweed. Lots and lots of bindweed. It was coming from the yard next door, and there was no way that the neighbors were going to eradicate it.
I didn’t let the weedy setback break me. That first year I went out a few mornings a week, coffee in hand, and pulled all that I could find. Collectively I probably spent 30 minutes a week just pulling bindweed in an area about 20’ x 20’. The second year I spent about 15 minutes a week, and by the third year I reliably pulled from 3 different spots about once a week for a total of maybe 2 minutes a week. I never viewed that time as a chore. It was always a chance to go outside and ‘read’ my garden. There were two reasons that it worked so well. The first war that over time I exhausted the network of roots. They pulled nutrients from the roots to put into new growth, and I plucked up and discarded the fruits of their labor. The second reason was that all of the no-till amendments that I made to the soil were working to improve it. The weeds were being outperformed by more preferable plants.
Now I love looking for weeds in my garden because it is a great barometer of what’s going on. I’m almost sad that I don’t have to do it as often because I’m not forced to spend time in the space. That time revealed many things. A plant that ladybugs overwinter in, ground nesting bees, stem nesting bees, tiny mushrooms, weeds, dry spots, etc. I love weeding my garden. It tells me everything I need to know about the health of the space.
That was proper maintenance leading to success. Now for a horror story. The medium-sized front yard of a client had the standard 50’s style junipers up against the foundation, turf in the middle, and roses along the sidewalk. The goal was to build a low-water garden that harvested rainwater, attracted pollinators and housed perennial food crops. We set to work dividing the space into three zones. The upper zone was for xeric perennials and pollinator plants, the middle for an alternative lawn, and the lower for fruit trees and blackberries. The three tiers were graded so that water would collect, then overflow into the next area.
It worked like a charm. The first year plants put on some healthy growth. The second year it all exploded! Everything looked incredible! Throughout the first and second year my crew and I would weed here and there to knock the weeds back. The space had gotten pretty weedy a few times, so we volunteered to knock it back. We weren’t hired for maintenance, but I didn’t want to lose the all the headway that the space was making. The third summer proved to be a busy one. The homeowner was busy with work, and I was not in the area to drive by and monitor the space.
The weeds took over. By the time fall came, the space was overrun by thistles, bindweed and waist high prickly lettuce chock full of seeds. The once lush alternative lawn was practically a loss, and the rest of the areas were pretty close behind. The question in my mind became “Gain control or start over?” Without using a chemical control, the perennial thistle and bindweed would take constant diligence to exhaust the root networks, and the prickly lettuce built a solid seedbed throughout the entire space. Had the space been regularly weeded the first couple of seasons, things never would have gotten so out of control. This story would have ended much like the story above. They share the same timeline. The recovery of this space will take some serious diligence and effort. And a few years. It could be thriving and practically maintenance free by now.
Maintenance is your feedback loop. That’s where you learn about accidental failures and/or successes. Watch where the weeds are coming up more, or plants are more stressed or water is puddling. Now you have the tools to fine-tune those fixes and make them work. And you know the skeleton of the whole system. Maybe there is an unintentional low spot that collects water. Your quick options are to level it out with soil so that the water keeps moving, add organic material to the soil so that it drains a bit better, or plant something that will love the extra water. Some of the other posts will offer suggestions and solutions to problems you may discover.