Cut it or keep it? Maintaining a new naturalistic garden | PITH + VIGOR by Rochelle Greayer

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Cut it or keep it? Maintaining a new naturalistic garden


It’s that time of year when smart garden makers are winding down and turning their efforts towards “cleaning up” and “putting things to bed”.  

The party is apparently about to be over. 

But, I screwed that up when I went to the nursery a couple days ago for some of those little plastic trays that go under your houseplants and I came home with a trunk load of plants.

white cone flower coneflower - Cut it or keep it? Maintaining a new naturalistic garden

Of course I did – I’m human and not immune to the lure of an end of season 50% off sale… (I mean, I know I espouse never doing this in my planting design course… but sheesh…I’m not a monster!  And I reallllly did neeeed more of those annabelle hydrangeas….)

Fall is hanging on and so am I. I’m going to ride out this growing season until mother nature takes my keys and calls me a cab. New plants are going in, I’m sowing seeds, and still spreading mulch and prepping beds to make spring a little easier.   

Normally by this time of year, I’ve had quite enough and I tend towards ritual sacrifice and rationalization of half hardy plants that I promised myself I’d dig up and bring inside or store for the winter.  I justify this by saying that I am “experimenting” to see if maybe they are actually hardier than they say (they never are).  Bottom line, I get tired, and I let things go and worry about it next year. 

But this year is different. We don’t need to go into all the reasons why – but I think it mostly has to do with fear of the unknown – I’m having a good time right now, so I’m savoring it while I can.  Gardening, fixing things up, distracting myself with beautiful things and things that need my care are what is keeping me sane and keeping me in the moment. 

I read recently in one of my many Piet Oudolf books that he defines a spectral range of garden maintenance standards. 

On one end of the spectrum you have ‘intensive’ gardening – that is, you garden and maintain plants in a way that most of us are used to.  We treat each plant uniquely and individually and we care for its particular needs. We also take a heavy hand in managing the planting areas (i.e. weeding, controlling seedlings, deadheading, keeping things where we think they should go, etc.).  

On the other end you have what he refers to as ‘extensive’ maintenance (which is a word choice I am struggling to agree with… but, ok). ‘Extensive’ maintenance is apparently the opposite of intensive, and it implies that you treat all the plants in a planting scheme the same. Which also implies that you give up a lot of the control that we normally assume. In an extensive system, things go to seed, and you let them, plants move and migrate as nature would have it, and maintenance might only consist of mowing it down all at once at the end of the season.   

I surely do like the idea of ‘extensive’ maintenance – so easy! 

But, of course, I also want the “perfect” drifts to look perfectly wild.  

So where does that leave me?  

The naturalistic style means you have to be comfortable with a level of garden maintenance that is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum between intensive and extensive and that is where I am trying to find footing with my new naturalistic front garden. 

purple Asters in a naturalistic garden for autumn interest
Asters covered in excessive pine needles.

I’d love for it to be just as I imagined with billows of wildish blooms that are perfectly composed by only running it over with a mower once a year. But reality strikes. So here is my actual plan for taking care of my naturalistic style beds (which is still a work in progress). 

Since many of the plants were chosen for their winter interest and interesting seed heads, it makes no sense to cut anything down that is coming into the prime of its winter beauty.  So my first rule is chop in stages.  

Cut it or keep it - Maintaining a new naturalistic garden
Using the Stihl FSA57 string trimmer to strategically cut back perennials in the fall naturalistic garden.

For this, my new battery powered Stihl string trimmer  (the FSA 57 by Stihl) is coming in handy.  I’ve also been experimenting with my technique to see if I can consistently string trim in a top down motion (rather than a side to side sweep).  The reason is that I am interested in chopping anything that I am chopping into small pieces.  If I start at the bottom, I get long pieces that I can’t easily cut into something that is more mulch-like.  If I start at the top, it is a bit more work, but I get the small pieces that I want – and I get more of a self mulching result.  This is a work in progress too. 

So, the rule is, nothing goes down unless and until it is really ugly.  If it lasts through the winter, (which I doubt anything will…) I’ll take it down in March – before the bulbs start to poke through. 

Before fall cleanup of the naturalistic garden in year #1. Excessive pine needles need to be cleared so that they do not damage small plants. I can’t wait until all the those babies start to grow together into grand gorgeous drifts!

My second rule is to allow myself to at least try to control the self seeding stuff – a little. But the thing is, I mostly want those things to seed and spread (at least for now, when I am anxiously awaiting the fullness of more mature plants). With these plants, I am cutting them low to allow me to quickly gather up the seed heads and carry them around to spread them to all the places I want them.  

And lastly – since the grasses are one of the main elements of this design, I am working on a grass specific set of guidelines.  

Cut it or keep it - Maintaining a new naturalistic garden
After Fall Clean up: Flopping perennials have been removed and pine needles blown off. As perennials are spent they will be cut back and cleared or mulched into the bed.

Some grasses are getting cut immediately and some are staying (for now). The Deschampsia cespitosa was a favorite of the bunny and at this point, they are just ragged. A quick swipe with the Stihl will make them beautiful clumps again. 

The rest of the grasses I’ll wait on. They are still blooming out and should be pretty at least until the first snow or the next huge wind gust. After that, I’ll give them a chop.  I’ll probably do this from the bottom and then clear away most of the debris to the compost heap.  There will be so much of it, that I don’t think I have the patience to chop it from the top into all those tiny bits (without a shredder). 

The perennials with nice seed heads will be left – again – for now. Cone flowers, black eyed susan, echinops and daisies all fall into this category. 

The idea of using power tools in place of fine gardening standard tools like hand pruners is somewhat liberating. Not as liberating as a once-and-done mow job – but I’d still call it cathartic and much faster. 

I waited as long as I could stand it because the bees where still enjoying the last bits of flower – but the giant agastache has been cleared allowing for other fall plants to shine. (BTW, the bees kept right on visiting these flowers even days after I cut them back)

The giant agastache that has flopped was a joy to be rid of.  It was starting to feel like a friend that had one too many at the party and was relying a little too much on its friends to keep it upright. It has been put to bed. The rest of us can relax now.  <see before and after pics>

I’m also using the Stihl BGA 57 battery-powered blower to dislodge this season’s mountain of pine needles that fell last week (in the same storm that took a tree across the driveway and left us powerless for 3.69 days – yes, I count the minutes and seconds when the power is out).  Less pine needles will help some of the plants that shine right now really show off (sedum, asters, the late blooming irises). I often leave some of the deciduous tree leaves on the grass but the pine needles are plant killing party crashers – and I always feel like I need to show as many of them as I can to the door. 

Pine needles do make a great mulch, but they also contribute to soil acidity and they are so thick this year (probably due to the drought), that I am sure they will choke out my favorite plants if I don’t clean them up.  

And about some of those late season plant purchases – they are actually experiments ( I swear!)  – and I am not trying to justifying a bunch of impulse buys from the garden center  *(ok, maybe I am, a little).  

But I have some tweaks to make to this whole naturalistic scheme that I designed – things that I am not 100% happy with.  (hence the purchase of onesie-twosies of random grasses and perennials that I might use to sub out and fix some of my design issues – but I’ve got to test them out first…) – I’m thinking I’ll have to write a whole post about that –  “The things I did wrong, or didn’t like and wouldn’t do again in a naturalistic planting scheme”.  Would that be interesting?  I’ve learned a few things…  Let me know…. 



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  1. Kristin S. says:

    The thing about Intensive vs. Extensive maintenance comes from agricultural jargon. It does seem odd out of that context to me, but Intensive means with the most management and labor, and Extensive means with minimal labor.

    I recently listened to a podcast that mentioned how vital the first two feet from the ground of plants are for bee habitat over winter, so I am doing only very minimal cutting down until spring. Diseased things are going, but everything else is staying.

    Also I haven’t needed to deadhead any coneflowers because the squirrels are doing it for me! I may have tons of volunteer coneflowers pop up in the lawn next year, but that’s okay.

    • Midway through this gardens first winter and I think next year it will just need to be mown down (and left for winter mulch) next year. It is a hot mess – no pretty hoar frosted plants… just a snow mashed mess (right by my front door)… the winter interest dream for this patch is a bust here in rugged New England.

  2. MARTT047 says:

    Thank you!!1

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