IF I SAY garden maintenance, you probably think of work—of getting out the pruners and hedge trimmers and such, and subduing any overenthusiastic plants, getting them back into bounds.
But what if we thought of maintenance as an expression of creativity, instead of merely restraint—as part of the art of garden-making? What if we figured it into our design decisions right from the start? Particularly as our gardens shift in a more ecological direction and become more naturalistic, that adjustment and approach seems especially important.
Annie Guilfoyle is an award-winning garden designer and longtime teacher of design. Noel Kingsbury, with an astonishing 25 books to his credit, is a noted garden writer, teacher and consultant. Together, they have created gardenmasterclass.org, hosting both in-person workshops in the UK and online horticultural webinars for gardeners worldwide. (Above, from one of Annie’s design projects, a row of pleached Callery pears backs a perennial planting.)
Read along as you listen to the Dec. 5, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
creative maintenance, with noel and annie
Margaret Roach: Welcome to both of you. It’s so great to connect this way.
Noel Kingsbury: Well, thank you for having us.
Annie Guilfoyle: Yes, it’s really lovely to be here.
Margaret: Yes. I was so glad when we corresponded recently, the three of us, and you, two, suggested that we talk about rethinking maintenance as part of sort of the design and evolution of gardening, because I’ve long bristled at plants that on their labels boast claims of “low maintenance” and the idea of “no-work gardens” and all this kind of nonsense. Now I hear you giggling.
Annie: Yeah, definitely.
Margaret: In the U.S. for certain, those have long been among the dominant selling points and I don’t know, a garden lives and breathes, doesn’t it? So set the tone for us.
Noel: Well, I think the whole drive to low maintenance is, essentially, it’s sort of lowest common denominator. It’s almost in denial that a lot of people enjoy gardening, and actually it’s the maintenance that they enjoy doing. And, yeah, it’s an appeal not just to the lazy, but almost to an anti-gardening aesthetic. I think that’s why I get so annoyed about the no-maintenance or low-maintenance label.
Annie: I think also, Noel, it’s driven by a fear of not knowing. It’s going into the unknown. So I think often, when people say low maintenance, it’s because they’re scared of the techniques or the work that, not only the volume of work, but also just, “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to look after this. You’re going to create a monster. How am I going to care for it?” And I think fear, this irrational fear, it drives people as well.
Margaret: Yeah. Annie, you said in an email the other day something about, as a designer, one of the first questions you ask prospective clients is who’s going to maintain this and how [laughter]?
Annie: Absolutely. That’s my very first question. It has to be the first question, because you need to establish from the start, I was going to say, “What is the bandwidth?” What is the scope of the garden? What’s the scope of the works and who is going to be maintaining it?
The sort of clients that I have do not have teams of gardeners. Very often it’s them looking after it, or they need to get some help with it and so you’ve just got to… That’s the first thing. Then that box has to be ticked, and then you move on to the next one. [Above, perennial borders and pleached Callery pears in the background at one of Annie’s projects in the U.K.]
Margaret: Yep. So Noel, you’ve been such a leader in communicating and participating in the sort of naturalistic garden movement. It has so many different names [laughter], depending on who you ask, but you know what I mean. And now it’s finally reached a mass understanding, or at least people are really adopting it at all levels. So how does this figure in there, then? It’s especially important, isn’t it?
Noel: Yeah. I mean, traditional gardening is very much about keeping everything more or less the same, and so traditionally maintenance has been kind of seen quite negatively and quite low skill.
But as we move from horticulture through to what I would call horticultural ecology, or indeed ecological horticulture, plants are closer together, they’re at higher density, there’s self-seeding going on, there’s natural processes. Plants are interacting. We know a lot about how to grow plants well, we know much less about what happens when ecology takes over from horticulture and we start to have this interaction.
Personally, I find that interaction absolutely fascinating. But it does mean that the role of whoever is doing the maintenance is moving from keeping it the same to having to predict more about what will happen. So it’s more about managing, editing, fine-tuning, nuancing. We’re looking at a whole range of other verbs, in fact, to describe the process and a lot of them are actually about creativeness. It’s about seeing a planting as something that is alive, has its own dynamic, perhaps its own agenda and there’s that sense of… The unpredictability adds to the little bit of danger perhaps, but hugely, I think, to the interest.
Margaret: Yeah. I mean, I will confess, and I totally understand why people want to sort of subdue their gardens and get them back to the way… “Why won’t it just behave and stay in bounds?” That kind of thing. Because I mean, I’ve been in the same place maybe 35 years, so it doesn’t look the same as it used to [laughter], needless to say. Sometimes I look at old pictures and I think, “Oh, I liked that shape when that was that way.” But it’s alive, right?
Annie: Mm-hmm. And I think following on from what Noel was saying about the word maintenance, this autumn, I went to the Beth Chatto symposium. And it was mooted there that we shouldn’t be using the term maintenance, because that is implying that something is staying the same and, as Noel has just explained, nothing stays the same. Things move and change and die or grow or whatever. So that very word maintenance perhaps is giving people an impression that it’s like an interior, that wherever you put the furniture, it will stay there. Well, of course, it won’t [laughter].
Margaret: Yeah. If we want to think about this as part of our creative process, the maintenance plan, and for those of us who aren’t starting fresh, designing a new garden, I mean, how do you help people in your teaching and with clients, etc., how do you help them to sort of see this differently? What are some of the maintenance tasks that you help evolve for them or develop into this new-world way of thinking of them?
Noel: Well, I do a workshop, which I’ve done many times over the last 10 years, which I call rather whimsically “The Rabbit’s Eye View,” because it’s about getting down on hands and knees, looking at what is going on at the base of the plant and that, for me, is fundamental. It’s about understanding the plant and understanding what the plant is capable of doing, or indeed not capable of doing.
Once you’ve got that sort of begin to develop, and it’s quite an intuitive feeling about plants, you’re then in a much better position to be able to predict and plan those maintenance tasks, particularly about things like understanding fairly soon if something’s going to be self-seeding, if it’s going to be rapidly spreading, if it’s going to stay in one place. Those kind of things.
Margaret: Yes. And- Sorry, go ahead.
Annie: Following on from that, sorry to butt in, is that I think it’s also about teaching people to stop and look and observe before you decide which route to take and I’ve noticed this.
I teach at Great Dixter and I’ve noticed that the students, some of the students there, when we’re talking about propagation, they just want to be told, “How do you do it? How do you do it?” Well, it’s encouraging people to look at a plant, just as Noel was saying, try and read what the plant’s telling you.
Because if there’s nobody standing behind you always saying, “This is where you cut it,” you’re learning to look at the signs of where do you prune, or where do you cut something back, or how do you propagate. I think we in general have lost that willingness to stand and observe, and just take some time to sort of study, rather than, “I need to know where’s the app someone can tell me.”
Margaret: Right. And the pruning is a great example because as a garden writer for many years, probably the most frequently asked question that I get is, “When do I prune my fill in the blank? And usually it’s a hydrangea, it’s a species of hydrangea [laughter]. So sometimes if I’m in an irritable mood or something, I’m feeling short- or ill-tempered or whatever, I’d love to say, “Go out and look at the stems and see what it wants to tell you, to see how the plant grows.” Does it bloom on new world wood and what does that inform for you? How does that inform you? What can you infer from that?
So let’s talk a little bit more about that, with pruning. If we’re talking about maintenance, we have to understand the way a plant grows in order to prune it, yeah?
Noel: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Noel: Yes, yes.
Annie: Yeah. I think people are nervous generally about gardening. They think it’s a sort of magical… Well, it is magical. We know it’s magical, but they think there’s this some sort of dark power, and they’re not party to this information.
I think it’s about unlocking, like you just said, Margaret, about teaching, saying, “Well, look at the stems. Where is the new growth? Where is the old growth?” And suddenly, if you just have to unlock those little methods and people lose the fear. And, of course, it’s like, what’s the worst that could happen? You’re going to cut it incorrectly; you probably won’t kill it. It’s going to look unhappy.
It’s taking away that fear and just giving people confidence. And I mean, all teaching is about confidence-giving. At the end of the day, it’s about communicating and giving people confidence to go and do what they want to do in their gardens.
Margaret: Yeah. I mean, Noel, you brought up sort of what I think of as like editing, where you have, say, self-sowers, things that are inclined to volunteer or spread or whatever, and that we need to learn to edit. So can we talk a little bit more maybe about that?
Noel: Yeah. I mean, it’s something that has to be very much learnt in your garden place, particularly with self-sowing, which is extremely difficult to predict. Some things will self-sow like crazy, and then halfway down the road, somebody will never have seeding [laughter].
There’s a sort of cycle you go through when first seedlings or something that you’ve got that you’ve planted begin to appear, there’s always that thrill, “Oh, it must be happy here,” and the ideal point is you get a certain number of them coming up. There are those occasions, though, when things just begin to come up absolutely everywhere and realize, yes, this is going to become a bit of a weed, or something that kind of gets to a particular point.
Well, actually, there was a Euphorbia I used to grow that was a really lovely plant, but it would get to a particular point and then always fall over, and that had to go.
So it’s very much about observing. I mean, I really stress that, this observing what is going on in your garden, particularly when you are down hands on knees, weeding, and looking and just seeing what is actually seeding and how far and i what kind of places. That’s always a good place to start.
Annie: And encouraging people to make notes, get a little garden notebook and keep notes through the season so that they can start to gain confidence in and overseeing their own garden, rather than feeling trepidatious about it.
Margaret: And it can even be, if they don’t keep up with the notes, everybody’s so addicted to their cell phones, we can take a before picture. It’s like there’s this thing that just like you said, the Euphorbia that flopped over whatever, and then what you did next. Do you know what I mean? And those are all dated in our electronic library of photos. So it’s kind of like we can remind ourselves also visually, if need be, I think. I like to write things down, but yeah.
Noel: And I think there’s a sort of trope of conventional gardening. There’s a plant that is strongly spreading is people are quite nervous of them. And this is sort of, oh, if it’s sending out runners, for example, it’s kind of set on world domination, or if not world domination, at least domination of your border.
But so often, these plants, it’s not about so much about world domination, it’s actually an insurance policy. And that a lot of them are actually just a more positive way of looking at them, kind of way of relabeling them in a way is to see them as gap-fillers, because they can’t penetrate existing clumps. They’re only going to grow in situations where they can grow. And, of course, conventional gardening leaves so many bare spaces between plants that in a more ecological style we’re planting densely. So there’s simply less room for these things, but they play an important role in that spontaneity, and that moving around is something that I think should be embraced, rather than make us nervous. [Above, a more naturalistic planting from Noel’s website.]
Annie: And also I think taking people to the next level. So also when people are considering a plant that they read is a thug or a rogue, or it will take over your life, it’s actually encouraging people to manipulate plants and put plants under stress. Some plants, in their ideal conditions, yes, they will seed everywhere or spread or do what they do. But if you are putting them into a slightly inhospitable, very dark shade or something like that, then maybe you can enjoy the fact that they’re romping away, but they’re doing a really good job.
So that’s sort of taking people to where they’re saying to them, “Look, yes, normally, it is the thug, but actually look, it can be just the right plant for you.”
Margaret: It’s funny you both talking about thugs, as we call them. It reminds me of many, many, many years ago, a mentor friend person, the person who started the gardens at Wave Hill in New York City called Marco Stufano-
Margaret: I would say, “Oh, Marco. Oh, this thug, this thug, this thug.” And he would say, “Margaret, who has the shovel, you or the plant?”
Annie: [Laughter.] That’s a good one, yeah.
Margaret: And so we can also, again, do that editing thing a little bit. And clearly there are some plants that are, and you have them there and we have our own species here, horrible invasives that should not, beyond thugs, that should not be allowed in any habitat.
Annie: Exactly. Exactly.
Margaret: And we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about, there may be a Monarda that you really want that for the hummingbirds, but it’s a little bit thuggish in the mixed planting.
Annie: Yes. Yeah, yeah. And one thing that I’ve noticed, we’re talking about creative pruning is I come out every year and I teach a garden design course at Chanticleer, and it’s a four-day, well, five-day course. People come from all over the states to do it, so I’ve got a range of people from very different zones and different areas of the States.
But when we start to talk about multi-stem trees, or we start to talk about pleaching, there’s usually a deafening silence. [Laughter.] Because over here in the U.K. it’s like, “Oh, yeah, O.K., pleaching. O.K., multi-stem. Oh, everyone’s doing it.”
Yet when I use those terms, people go, “Well, actually no, not sure I know what that is.” And then I have to show them or draw a diagram.
That’s really interesting because in England, those two, I mean, they’re almost being overused, but they’re still really lovely ways of manipulating woody shrubs or trees into interesting shapes or providing screening which, of course, we live on a very, very congested island so everybody wants privacy. And I’m always slightly baffled by the fact that that hasn’t quite, to my knowledge anyway, taken off on your side of the pond. [Above, mulberries pruned to create an umbrella over an outdoor table at one of Annie’s projects.]
Margaret: What’s taken off here is a hundred new cultivars of dwarfer, dwarfer and dwarfer Hydrangea paniculata, little blobs that have names like ‘Little Bunny’ and I don’t even remember what else.
Margaret: Do you know what I mean? It’s just let’s just shrink it and make it so it doesn’t grow and again, that’s that no-maintenance, low-maintenance thing. Those plants are perfect for certain applications and I don’t mean to sound so disdainful. But on the other hand, they don’t have that exuberance and that life, like full-of-life feeling of-
Noel: I think there’s a particular problem in the United States with pruning in that so much of the pruning that’s done is so bad [laughter], just thinking of the famous the meatball pruning.
Annie: Oh, we’re guilty of that here, Noel, with the globe, the globe.
Noel: But, yeah, nothing like it. Nothing like the same level. And it is actually very difficult then to have an intelligent conversation with a lot of people because they’re in a sort of state of reaction.
I remember the late James van Sweden, who is my privilege to sort of spend quite a bit of time with in his elder years. If the subject of clipping or topiary came up, he would go into a kind of, he’d sort of visibly get really, he’d kind of wriggle as if this was something you simply could not talk about, which is a shame, because of the possibilities of creativity here are so great.
I mean some of the most interesting clipping I’ve seen has been in Holland, very straightforward, very graphic, very much within modernist aesthetic. It’s something that Piet Oudolf used to do quite a bit of and unfortunately, because of the sort of way everyone has fallen in love with his perennials, he’s rather dropped that part of his repertoire, which I think was a shame because it was a very sort of Bauhaus-y, modernist aesthetic that just was a nice contrast with grasses and perennials and natives.
Margaret: In an email the other day, Noel, you said something about that we can think about developing a creative tension between, you said, “human-imposed order and natural disorder.” So maybe we can just kind of go with that a minute, because that I think is one of the most visually exciting things about the garden.
Noel: Yes. Absolutely, yes. Yeah. Yes. Yeah, I mean, think there’s always a problem with, for more naturalistic planting, particularly where you’re using natives, that getting public acceptance can be an issue. One way of showing intention with meadow- or prairie-type planting is to contrast it with something that is very obviously maintained.
Another supreme example, which I’m sure so many of us will know, even if only from pictures is of Great Dixter in England, the great late Christopher Lloyd’s garden, where you had that wonderful wildflower meadow with the topiary peacocks or whatever they were.
Annie: Well, the topiary lawn, yeah [above, part of the topiary lawn at Dixter].
Margaret: Yeah, yeah.
Noel: Topiary. So clearly making that statement about creative tension. And I think there’s so much more scope for doing that. I think that brings out two very different skills, one of which is the ecological gardener, editing and managing over a long period of time, their prairie or whatever. And then the modern topiarist, and I’m very glad to say it was Annie actually who found a very sort of go-ahead young topiarist who we did an interview with a little while ago, who’s showing the way forward on this kind of thing [Garden Masterclass video above].
Margaret: I watched that. Yes, it was great.
Annie: Great. And Tom Stuart-Smith also is, he always will put in some structure and whether that be deciduous or evergreen, that gives the garden some height or some scale or seasonality. It never looks tired when he does it. I mean, you can see that he repeats this technique, but there’s something really enchanting about it. There’s a book, a wonderful book called “The Winter Garden,” Andrew Montgomery and Claire, what’s it? Claire-
Noel: Claire Foster.
Annie: Claire Foster, thank you, Noel, and they’re black and white photographs, I think most of it’s black and white and some of his gardens, Tom Stuart-Smith gardens in there just look remarkable in winter when you’ve got these wonderful ghostly shadows with maybe a column of horn beam or a column of beach or something. So I think Tom is a great user of that technique. [Below, a Tom Stuart-Smith planting at Trentham.]
Margaret: I wanted to ask about Garden Masterclass. I want to just encourage people to sign up on your homepage. You have a newsletter and that will alert people what’s coming next, but will you be posting like the New Year’s goings-on before long?
Annie: We certainly will. Well, we’re really busy at the moment trying to work on our live events for next year so always on our diary pages, which you can find very easily is there’s a rolling diary going month ahead and a lot of that is online. And in fact, just in the last two or three days, I’ve had people saying, “This is all online, when are the live events? When are the in-person events happening?” But we are literally at the moment sorting out the live events for next year and they go onto the diary page. So if people, obviously from Stateside, they’re going to be probably more interested in the online activities, but you never know. People might want to come over and join us for some of the live events, too.
Margaret: Yes, yes, yes. And I was interested to hear that you teach at Chanticleer. That’s great.
Annie: I do. I do.
Margaret: That’s a fantastic spot.
Annie: Oh, I love it. It’s my fifth year, I’ve just done my fifth year ,obviously with that interruption of two to three years, and I’ll be back in July for my sixth year, and it’s just a joy to teach there. It absolutely is.
Margaret: So any last thoughts about what you want to encourage us, each of you wants to encourage us about, about sort of rephrasing, rethinking the maintenance thing a little bit?
Annie: I think it’d be: Be daring. I mean, observe and sketch. I draw and sketch and write notes. I always encourage my students to. We’re so smartphone-orientated where we click, click, click and things get stored away. And I think if you stand and sketch something, you get a lot more understanding of it.
So my parting thought would be get a notebook, get a sketchbook, draw some sketches, draw what you’re looking at, and that will help you understand it a lot more.
Margaret: O.K. And Noel, do you have a last thought?
Noel: I think observe, and go out and walk in nature, and you look at how plants grow in nature. That is so important for getting a sense of how plants operate and how they interact. And think about how you can take those lessons back.
Since we are talking from somewhere in Upstate New York, go to Innisfree, if you haven’t been to Innisfree yet, remarkable garden with some truly wonderful areas that have had sort of benign neglect for many years. And I think that’s one of the some wonderful combinations of plants there hidden away that I think is just really, really special example of what I’ve been talking about.
Margaret: It’s in Millbrook, New York. Yes, it’s nearby to where I am and to where some of the local listeners are, for sure. Yes. But visiting gardens and visiting nature, those are two very, very good suggestions.
Well, I’m so glad that we made time to connect like this, and I hope we’ll do it again. Annie Guilfoyle and Noel Kingsbury, thank you so much. Thank you and I’ll talk to you again.
more from noel and annie
(Garden photos by Annie Guilfoyle, used with permission.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Dec. 5, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).