The big picture
Managing a garden for maximum harmony and performance is a little like managing sta in a workplace,
Agarden should be rather small, or you will have no fun at all. So said the comic playwright Reginald Arkell, early last century. About the same time, the Australian botanist and writer Jean Galbraith wrote that a garden should always be bigger than you can quite manage.
One writer was aware of the terrifying tyranny of a large garden, the other of our equal and opposite tendency to dominate and micromanage a garden if we can, removing any hope of achieving spontaneous freedom, or of our plants surprising us.
In my acre-or-so of garden, I’m CEO. I’m in charge, but that doesn’t mean that I’m in full control, or even really want full control.
It’s a very intricate balancing act of managing hundreds of different plants and steering them towards a desired outcome, while keeping in mind that the bits I’m likely to love the most are those that occurred outside, or perhaps despite, my intent or planning.
Each area of the garden has a ‘team’ of plants that, in order to minimise staffing squabbles, needs to be made up of individuals selected carefully for their ability to work alongside one another. Each member will have its own interests in mind – there’s no escaping that – but I’ve got to make sure that in expressing these, no individual is going to dominate or drown out its surrounding team members. I’ve also got to have a clear sense of the role each plant is there to perform.
Some are there for purely decorative purposes, and some to perform background functions of space division or screening. In other locations, some will be selected for their fruit, and others for their leaves or roots. Clarity about individual roles is critical so I can truly assess performance, and also recognise how any plant might be assisting or detrimentally impacting the surrounding plants fulfilling theirs.
The balance requires constant finetuning. One team member will thrive to the point that it grows beyond its role and its allotted space, and might require some pruning or reducing. Or its position might need reassessing altogether, with the thought that it might need more space, or a bigger role, than I’ve allotted.
Meanwhile, some team member nearby is just as likely to need special attention, with a little more encouragement via extra feeding, or simply ensuring that it’s given the space and resources required to reach its full potential, so that it can provide its maximum contribution.
The fact is that over- or under-performance isn’t really a ‘fault’ of the plant in question. It’s a management issue – cause to consider how best to restore and then maintain balance with minimal ongoing intervention, or perhaps to rethink my initial decisions about placement.
Resources in terms of time, water, food and mulch are always limited, but I long ago found that it doesn’t make sense to distribute these evenly. There are areas from which I demand huge performance and productivity, and others that I’m happy to keep ticking along at a lower ebb. Resources are distributed accordingly.
Really, there should be some sort of award for how well I manage all of this. I guess there is. I’m sitting in it.
Michael blogs at thegardenist.com.au