The Well-Dressed Garden: Let nature surprise you
The best gardens aren't pictures of perfection; they're pleasantly imperfect places where nature, design, resourcefulness and the unexpected all come felicitously together. When you stop trying to control everything in your garden, good things happen.
To cultivate an imperfect garden, put away your leaf blower and take a break from using herbicides and pesticides. Right away, you're saving time, energy and resources and turning your backyard into a healthier environment. When you stop using herbicides, you may soon notice pretty violets spreading like a soft blue carpet in shade -- where grass never really flourished, anyway. Clover may appear in the lawn, another sign of environmental diversity. Don't fight it: Clover acts as a natural fertilizer, tolerates drought, and attracts butterflies, bees and other pollinators.
In an imperfect garden, plants have a way of finding their own places. Larkspur, poppies, cosmos, columbine, coneflowers and other flowers that are allowed to go to seed in the garden in autumn naturally spread in the wind, or with the help of birds, to nooks and crannies where they flourish. Few flowers look as charming as those that find their way home in this way, but you can always help them along by moving a few seedlings to other spots that look promising.
Cultivating imperfection simply recognizes that a garden is a process, not a product. It doesn't imply that a garden isn't thoughtfully designed or well maintained. A small tree that seemed just right when you planted it doesn't have to stay there forever if it grows too fast -- or too slowly -- or if it gets in the way of plans for a new porch or potting shed. When you decide to put in a pond, or take one out, it doesn't mean you made the wrong decision the first time, but that your interests are developing.
Gardeners who move plants around frequently, digging up and dividing a clump of day lilies, for example, and distributing them around the garden, understand the beauty and inevitability of incremental improvement and the satisfaction that comes from trying something new, even though it might not work out in the long run. When plants die -- it happens to everyone, everywhere -- it's not a sign of defeat, but an opportunity to experiment further, just as nature does ceaselessly.
Many of nature's signals are not subtle. A tree limb that falls on the birdbath is a reminder to have an arborist check the strength and structure of the magnificent specimen you may have taken for granted for too long. Mature trees show their age in many wonderful ways, developing ever greater character and distinction, and sensitive professional pruning can help you continue to enjoy a venerable tree that may have taken root long before you were born. Natural cavities aren't necessarily bad -- they attract woodpeckers, owls and other birds. To have the pleasure of listening to them and seeing them come and go, you have to accept imperfections in your trees.
When you're pruning trees and shrubs yourself, take it slowly. Make a few cuts, then remind yourself to step back to study the result. Instead of dealing summarily with wayward limbs, try to bring out the plant's natural shape and structure. A branch that seems to lean too close to a garden path may not be at all out of place if it allows you to enjoy the flowers of a blooming shrub up close and to appreciate its fragrance.
Insect hotels, which give shelter to pollinators and other beneficial bugs, draw your eye to the often incidental but beautiful details and detritus of a garden -- pinecones, seed pods, acorn caps, bits of moss, tubular stems. These small structures are, in their nature, imperfect, accidental and fun. A simple wooden frame a couple of inches deep, open except for a facing of half-inch wire mesh on one or both sides and divided into little rooms any way you fancy, filled with comfortable and reassuring natural furnishings, will be an attractive oasis for insects wandering through life in your garden.
Finding a use for leftover materials is another charming hallmark of an imperfect garden. Shards of broken flowerpots can be used to make a crevice garden for rock-garden plants. Chunks of cement from a broken-up patio can be reused as the foundation of a rock garden. Broken bricks make first-rate paving material when they're set in sand. Irregular assemblages of stones or shells or water-worn glass make interesting mosaic designs when there is no need for a more perfect pattern.
Let the ramblers ramble; let your imperfect garden go to seed. Don't fret about last fall's leaf litter under the shrubs: It's good for the soil and for foraging birds. Don't worry about a few dandelions in the lawn: They sparkle on a late-winter day and are an important source of nectar for bees. If you see these as signs of neglect and ask yourself where you went wrong, the answer may be easy: You didn't. Collaborating with nature makes a more perfect garden than any leaf blower ever could.