Know Maintanance

I have a new favorite gardening blog, Grounded Design by landscape architect Thomas Rainer. I especially enjoyed his provocative post, Why I Don’t Believe in Low Maintenance Landscapes:

The low maintenance dogma reveals something about our culture: we don’t know how to BE in our landscapes. When someone asks me for “low maintenance,” what I hear is: “I don’t want to deal with this landscape.” Maintenance is nothing more than gardening, a personal investment into the landscape. I’ve long said that gardening is a relationship with a piece of ground. That relationship is the single most rewarding aspect of gardening. If the act of gardening is a relationship, then low maintenance gardening is code for “let’s just be friends.” Or “I’m just not that into you.” Low maintenance is permission to disengage, pull away, and let go. When we do that, our landscapes suffer. And so do we.

Rainer on Gardening in Small Spaces
I found out about Rainer via Garden Rant, who interviewed Rainer on the topic of small garden ideas. As we struggle with some design mistakes we made last fall, Rainer’s advice really rang true:

Don’t bring a plant into that garden unless it has a striking form (spiky, billowing, vertical spire), strong foliage color (blues/golds/purples, etc), or a long season of blooms (2 month minimum).

We had to redo our yard after last year’s lead soil reports (more on that in another post), and the design of our own space is a frequent source of marital disagreements. After reading Rainer’s advice together we vowed, “plant drama, not couple drama.” Looking forward to reading more from this gifted designer and writer.

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  1. Wonder what Rainer would say about permaculture? In theory a food forest is low-maintenance, at least for what it provides. In practice it seems like permies are always fiddling with their systems to try new ideas & so on.

    • I can’t speak for Rainer. But I agree. What I would say is that one of the things I like about permaculture is that it assumes that people are part of the land, that we have a relationship and that we intervene periodically. I think some permies mistakenly think that they are creating a magical “natural” system that takes care of itself. That’s not what I understand from reading Holmgren and Mollison. In permaculture there will be fewer inputs in terms of fossil fuels, but still weeds to pull and paths to maintain. And, in an urban setting, we have certain aesthetic obligations–no escaping that fact.

  2. ummm….what if you’re really NOT that into it or you really just want to be friends?

    A forced arranged marriage with your landscape can’t be the new utopia, can it?

  3. How does he feel about edible landscapes (a fully edible landscape is my dream)? Or does everything have to be spiky or otherwise physically attractive? Because no matter how you frame it, daikons (among others) aren’t particularly attractive plants.

    • So far I haven’t read/found his thoughts on edible landscapes. We’re dealing with the same challenge, certainly. On one hand, I think you have to accept a certain amount of …disorder… when you’re growing food. It can’t look good all the time. But I suspect he’d encourage us to put “lovely bones’ in the landscape, like an espaliered apple tree, for instance, or nice hardscaping/beds/trellises to distract the eye.

  4. Erik & Kelly,

    I just came across this blog and am totally flattered! Thank you so much for this shout-out. It made my day.

    Your blog is exquisite! I’m a new subscriber. While I am a professional designer, I do “dabble” with edibles and homegrown gardening a good bit. I can’t claim any expertise in the realm of vegetable and edible gardening, I do feel a deep kinship with any gardener committed to an engaged relationship with their land. I’m a huge fan of what you do.

    So great to e-meet you! Wishing you the best for 2013!

    Thomas Rainer

    • Hi Thomas–Neither of us are very good when it comes to garden design. Your blog was immensely helpful when it came time to re-design our yard. Looking forward to reading more from you this year!

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