My Approach to Gardening

Every spring I go through a period of low anxiety. At some point, usually in April, the heat of the day begins to override the freezing at night and the snow begins to withdraw from our world. What’s left behind is the dried-out remnants of last year’s garden, a mesh of tan and brown twigs, stems, seed heads, grassy plumes and contorted leaves. Before the last snow has melted, before the last frost in the ground has thawed, I feel the societal pressure to get out there and cleanup the whole shambles.

Sometimes the dissatisfaction is blatant.  The grizzled walker and his equally grizzled dog who snorts (the man, not the dog) at my cheery greeting. The elderly neighbor, walking by, who has not yet learned the Canadian talent of hiding what she really feels, saying outright, that I should cleanup my garden. Even my wife, who will frantically start cutting back dried stems before the soil has had a chance to dry. Of course, the pressure is more imagined than real.  Most people walking by with their earphones in place, or staring at their cell phone screen, or racing past in their car, SUV or pickup truck just don’t care. They don’t hear the house finches singing, or the rustle of the leaves as the Juncos work through the litter in search of seeds, or the klee klee klee of the Merlin’s, who are starting a nest in an old spruce tree nearby.

This annual spring anxiety event has gone on for over 25 years. The reason I started this garden was to bring more nature, in all its forms, into our urban lives. I knew that going lawn-free had the potential to be considered disruptive, or even an eyesore by some, but with my usual impulsiveness, I proceeded anyhow. There were enough who appreciated what I was doing to keep me going (all, I have no doubt, the best, wisest and noblest of humanity) However, after all these years, even with repeated Front Yard in Bloom nominations (and an occasional win), I still feel the apprehension.

The ominous front garden, after partial cleanup. 25 April, 2023

Why do I leave my plants to die a natural death every fall? Why do I delay cutting back the dead and dying plants? Because I try, as much as possible, to guide our garden space in a natural way. Years ago (2005), I wrote this blog post on my take on, and my justification for, naturalistic gardening:

An early emergence. Milbert’s Tortoiseshell.

A Naturalistic Garden is primarily a method for the urban or sub-urbanite to feel closer to the natural world. It is a garden to relax in rather than to fuss over. It is a garden that invites visitors of all types, from bugs to birds to like-minded humans. It is a garden that allows us, for at least a short while, to escape the pressures and tensions of modern life and to actively connect with our biophilic needs. In this, it can be considered as part of a remedy for lives and lifestyles that have become separated from the natural world which formed our being.

Naturalistic gardening is not, in essence, a style of gardening. The first requirement for this approach is more about attitude than design. You will need to be able to live with some chaos, and perhaps irritate some of your more persnickety neighbours. If there is a traditional style that is related to naturalistic gardening, I can think of none better than that of the cottage garden. While the cottage garden is a rambling collection of blooming plants, in the naturalistic garden, flowers are appreciated, and great for attracting pollinating insects, but they are not the sole reason for the garden’s existence.

My philosophy of gardening encompasses ideas that don’t quite fit between the covers of your typical glossy gardening magazine. Naturalistic gardening is not about perfection, regimented order or tidiness. Not that we are friends of litter (except, of course, leaf litter) or invasive weeds – we just recognise that nature was never meant to be constrained by rigid boundaries and that, while cleanliness may be next to Godliness, it is also hand-in-hand with sterility and monotony.

The greatest crime against convention was the elimination of the front lawn. I have replaced that monoculture with a variety of trees, shrubs and perennials. Some are native, but many are not; the plants are selected for their suitability for the varied environments that exist even on this small plot of land. The blooms of many non-native species also provide pollen and nectar for a variety of insects.

The front garden from the front door. Spring.

What do I do in my garden that would send shivers up the spine of the meticulous? Let’s start with leaf litter. Throughout my garden, autumn leaf litter is left lying. I rake only the small areas of lawn that remain and, in some corners, I will spread out the litter where winds have caused it to accumulate too deeply.  And no, I don’t have to wade through years of accumulated leaves in my garden. Natural processes break down the litter every year and enrich my soil in the process. The difference in soil quality between the front and back is striking, because the front garden, wind swept and sunny as it is, rarely accumulates enough leaf litter, even though I leave plant stems standing to trap them well into spring. Hence my reluctance to cut down the old dried stems too quickly. An added bonus is that, throughout the winter, those leaves also protect a host of hibernators. and the eggs and larval forms of a variety of invertebrates, some of which, in turn, help feed the new year’s latest crop of avian nestlings.

Other areas that may raise an eyebrow are the various mounds of twigs, and a variety of rotting logs and stumps that are scattered around the boundaries of the back garden. Even though they are barely visible once the garden is fully in leaf, at this time of year they stand out like sore thumbs. The accumulation of branches and the decaying logs are a haven for beast and bugs and a source of food for various fungi, and a platform for lichen and mosses.

The pond in the back garden .

Then there is the pond. I have seen the gardens of people who scrub out their pond regularly, ponds that were so clean and the water so polished, that sunglasses could not protect my eyes from the glare. Some pond owners are even using UV generators in their filter systems to further add to the sterility of their water feature. our pond is surrounded by trees, shrubs and perennials. I occasionally skim off floating leaves, but I am never there to catch them all, and nor do I intend to. A layer of leaf mulm on the bottom is a fine source of micro-life that feeds the macro-life that in turn can feed the other denizens that flit about in and above the water. Yes, the organic layer on the bottom does build up and every two or three years I remove some of the sludge, but that goes directly to enrich the soil in the perennial beds or the vegetable garden. The pond is also a major attractor of birds, who come here to drink and who love to bathe along the edges.

My other garden travesties?  I like perennials and biennials that are mobile. You can curse a plant for promiscuous seeding, but the plant is finding its place in the garden, and if it likes the spot it will thrive. I don’t rush to pull out any incidental that seems to be establishing itself merely because it is not staying-put in its original designated spot. Nature abhors a vacuum, it is said, and uncovered soil is a particular anomaly. While the effectiveness of mulches has been shown to prevent seeding, in the garden your mulch will cycle through various degrees of depth and decay that will still allow seeds to occasionally take. The plants that result are in themselves a groundcover, and they create a natural blending effect.  I have Dicentras along my picket fence, violets in the cracks of the sidewalk, alpine ladies’ mantle between the paving stones. As long as the ‘bones’ of the garden are strong, a bit of natural blending among your perennials and in the hardscape can save you work, soften the hardness of garden edges and help pull your design together.

Pasque Flowers, self-seeded.

I once had a neighbour who, at the first sign of a bug of any sort would dash for her tin of pesticide and give her plants a good powdering. Any weed that dared show its head is likewise assaulted with a dose of 2,4D or glyphosate. The lawn must also get its attention to keep its artificial lushness and it is fertilized with a passion, so a simple pause or tight turn with the fertilizer spreader leaves chemical burns on the grass.  These attitudes towards gardening are the antithesis of what I am trying to achieve, indeed, these attitudes are part of what has driven to produce the garden which I have.

In fact, the result of all my gardening faux pas has resulted in a wealth of diversity not only in terms of plant species but in terms of the other life this garden can attract and maintain. Any day in the garden, if I walk with open eyes, I can find something that delights. There is always activity somewhere, whether it be the insects’ visiting flowers, or the spiders waiting there to catch them. If I am willing to go down on my hands and knees and peer inside and under, I cannot fail to find something, often new or unexpected.

So, my garden is in no way perfect. It is not orderly or overly manicured. Frankly, it does not in any way conform to any standard of tickety-boo-ness. It has its own natural aesthetic. It is diverse in species; and ever-changing in time and complexity, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Evening in the front garden, from the front door. Summer.

“I have argued…that we are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms. They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted, and they offer the challenge and freedom innately sought. To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammelled world will be regained. I offer this as a formula of re-enchantment to invigorate poetry and myth: mysterious and little-known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit. Splendour awaits in minute proportions.”

Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia, 1984, p. 139

Please Note: all the photos selected for this article are from our garden, taken over the many years that have passed since it was first established in the mid 90s. Questions or concerns? Please let me know in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “My Approach to Gardening

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  1. A wonderful garden – hope it catches on and others get bored with their sterile lawns and regimented flower beds and follow your courageous example.


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