How to: Garden without Fuss

Mahonia with their late winter, wonderful scent;and a bit later small birds like Tits will nibble the flowers and catch little insects in there.
It’s end of February and I just came in from my first real gardening session of the year. Oh it was just wonderful to be in the garden again: fresh air, sunshine and all sorts of smells. I just love it! Only hiccup: I only love it when I have the time. It’s a nuisance if not and it’s done only because I have to.

Whether you like gardening or not, there is at least one thing that makes it appealing: It burns calories.

Due to the fresh air and all the moving about it however makes me peckish to a similar amount.  So I prepare what I will have to eat before I go out.

The ability to visualise my food to come will stop my mind from floating to pancakes and muffins.

Thus prepared, the scene was perfectly set this lovely Saturday afternoon. The sun was shining and it stayed that way – usually I can predict that as soon as I leave the door I will have another 30 minutes until the first black clouds appear and this time BBC did even support my theory.

Bang 4PM it was supposed to rain – and it didn’t. Then I had an incentive: The pond needed to be cleaned.

More leaves than usual had been fallen into the pond last autumn, but I didn’t get them out in time before the cold set in. The poor fishies hanging in there almost stiff wouldn’t have appreciated my intervention at that stage. But since a few days I could see them swimming from my study window so time was due.

First Bluebell

It was only frost free for a week or so and nature was kick-starting the new cycle so quickly. Crocus and Snowdrops everywhere and the first buds on the trees.

The week before I at least had managed to prune some of the hawthorns which mark the border to the park behind our house. That needs to be done when still cold and while the trees are asleep.

As usual I was a bit too late, and as I said before: I don’t particularly like gardening when I ‘have to’, so this didn’t count as a real lovely gardening session.

If you don’t like gardening
but you have one
and you need to do something with it,

all I can suggest is:

Create yourself a wildlife garden!

Whoever feels obliged to criticise the state of your garden will lose the argument against the trump card ‘Wildlife’

Whatever is not done in my garden is ‘left for wildlife’. And you know what: It is!

There is always some creature appreciating what you are not doing. Just to give you an example:

Traditionally in late autumn the garden gets cleaned up for winter, all the old branches and old leaves get removed – hence the loads of garden fires in autumn when it is foggy anyway, that stuff only produces smoke and the stink hangs over the area for days. It’s a lot of work and hassle.

The wildlife version doesn’t do anything. The garden looks a mess, but in winter one isn’t in there anyway.

Skimmia hosting an ants nest in summer - thus it never gets planted. They are just too angry when disturbed.

The birds are frolicking through the dry branches and browsing through the leafy matter for spiders and other creepies. There are a lot of perennials which die down in winter and grow back from the roots the next year. In autumn the old stems give all their energy back to the root, protect against frost, provide hiding places for insects and eventually give a bit of shelter for the first early sprouts.

I have  a wildlife patch in the middle of my lawn adjacent to the pond. In there everything is toppling over and building a layer half a meter thick in which all sorts of creatures build pathways on their search for seeds that have fallen to the ground. It’s a little Alice in Wonderland world in there.

Who am I to disrupt?

The only thing that I try to get done is the pond cleaning after the leaves have fallen – but as this year showed, even given a really hard winter that doesn’t seem to be a problem if it's not happening and the pond is deep enough.

So during autumn and winter I so far had a garden for which I didn’t have to do a thing really, but enjoy.

Now that everything is shooting I have to get the rubbish out, though. These first sessions however, are always fun. I’m lacking fresh air and as soon as there is a lick of sunshine it draws me into the outdoors.

But I’m a moody person at times. If for example I would do a bike tour I would be on this damn thing so and so many miles from home - and what if I have to go to the loo, or get peckish, or tired, or the weather changes, or my mood? No problem if my outdoors is my garden.

As long as I am enjoying it, it burns as many calories, and if I want to stop it, I throw everything into the shed and go inside; I am having a wildlife garden after all, over grooming - no good!

This time I got lucky, though, and I just went on and on. The garden looks twice as big now and the pond together with the south side is done. Don’t get me wrong: It is not weeded down to the last bit of whatever it is to be considered a weed – I am rather generous in my definition of valuable plants – only all the dry stalks are removed. And having said that: They are almost removed. I only break them at a height just above the freshly growing greeneries. So it still looks a bit odd.

My winter herbal garden with Oregano, Pimpinell, and Lemon Balm stalks. I always let them flower - they provide for insects into late autumn what is very much appreciated by the birds

Super-gardeners will tell you about fungi breeding in the old stuff and killing everything and so on.

I found that this is not a problem at all. They will rot away providing nutrition what saves me the hassle to fertilise. Additionally they work as fixing sticks for the young shoots to lean against until they are strong enough to support themselves. Well, and again: should there be late frosts there is a bit of protection as well.

So many reasons to not spend hours to neatly cut the old stuff out, just a few minutes for breaking them off. Everything wood-ish shrubberies, like sage, I prune back quite hard. It’ll grow back like mad anyway, so a good knock on the head to keep it at bay for the rest of the summer will do the trick.

This way a really messy garden can look nice and sort of tidy in a couple of hours. It might not compare to your neighbours English lawn, but one can never repeat often enough: Wildlife trumps everything.

Well, time wise one has to take the pond out of the equation. It’s a bit more time consuming, but I think this year I really got the timing right. The frogs had defrosted only just. I netted five of them out with the rest of the horribly stinking mud.

One really has to take a liking to them to fiddle the slippery buggers out of there and to pop them back.

The same patch half an hour later. Crocus sitting in a bit of grass, but leaves are to similar to weed around, and looks nice anyway. Then the Oregano showing the first shy leaves and loads of Garlic, some of which is from last years harvest which I missed to take out and some I digged in last November.

One lucky bastard was clinging to a rather stiff female and I could park them on the ground. Two other males had been out of luck so far, were rather agile and doing some mud deep diving before I eventually got hold of them.

But at least I know that the spawning season will have to wait for another few days so that my cropping of the marginal plants came right in time for them to later blob their huge balls of eggs in-between those. Since I have fish this is essential. The fishies are already looking forward to the feeding frenzy of accessible eggs and, later on, tadpoles – as does the newt.

And then of course one has to accommodate the spring visitors. Since two years we have a duck couple taking residence for a few weeks until they have established their breeding home some place else. A horrible thought of what would happen if they were to stir up all the mud, dragging long grasses and other stuff into this tiny wet love nest.

The summer gardening will consist of mainly mowing the lawn areas and crudely chopping everything back that is growing too vigorously. I used to free the lawn from dandelion, sorrel, clover and plantain every spring to give the lawn a good head start – as advised in garden books. Since I am strictly against poisons – we have cats, and I’m feeding garden birds from the ground, and anyway – I had a lot of work with that. Then the summer got dry and all the garden was brown and burnt.

Now that I gave up, just mowing everything down and only getting the most boisterous ones out, I always have a green lawn area – only that it is not really lawn, but all sorts of stuff. I don’t care as long as it is green. Who the h… was it anyway, proclaiming that the middle of a garden has to be grass?

In late summer there is one session though which is a bit of a stretch and takes as much time as the early spring work. All the early flowering trees and bushes like Forsyth and Ceanothus have been growing vigorously all summer and are in desperate need of a good trim. Oh, one knows when the time is due: It’s when paths are all of a sudden too small to get through, but one however is really rather sure that it’s not the weight put on during summer holidays.

So when the days are getting a bit cooler one will find me in the garden again, and that will be my last big effort until the next spring.

I have been in super gardeners country before and my garden had an ugly pristineness about it. My knees were rubbed down to the flesh and the back aching from weeding, and a week later everything was back to square one.

As a wildlife gardener I have two big sessions during which I am moving about like mad, and do a lot of huffing and puffing, but which is fun and a change to my usual work.

It is like a work-out or farming rather then gardening. The rest is a bit of maintenance here and there which is done during the odd half hour of sunshine.

And for the rest of it: I’m  enjoying the birds and the bees – which BTW already were out and about today sipping nectar from a winter flowering shrub – and observing the pond life with all the funny characters thriving in there.

Gardening becomes fun by basically not doing it while nevertheless enjoying the outdoors around the house – it’s all down to a certain frame of mind.

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Author: Rika