The big pic­ture

Man­ag­ing a gar­den for max­i­mum har­mony and per­for­mance is a lit­tle like man­ag­ing sta in a work­place,

Gardening Australia - - DECEMBER - says MICHAEL McCOY

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

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