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The Lazy Gardener

By Doug Collicutt

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Gardening in the City

I like having a nice yard and garden, but I hate gardening. Well, perhaps I should qualify that by saying I hate traditional high-maintenance, high-input, high-cost, spare-time-eating gardening. If gardening is your main hobby in life, that’s fine, but if like me you’ve decided that there is life beyond gardening and you want to unchain yourself from your yard, then perhaps my story might interest you.

I live in an older part of Winnipeg and have a pretty small yard, but with 2 kids, a dog and a wife with a demanding career, I don’t have a lot of time to be poking around in dirt and carrying bags of grass clippings to the garbage stand. So I don’t do that, at least not anymore. I started out, some 25 years ago, doing what I thought I was supposed to do to make my yard look nice: annual planting beds around the base of the house and a crew cut lawn mown on the diagonal. That’s what everybody else did, and TV told me to do that, too!

Each spring I’d head off to the parking lot of some shopping centre where so-and-so’s greenhouses had set up temporary shop hawking flats full of annuals and “Starfire” tomato plants. My wife and I would spend a bundle on a trunk full of plants, rush home, get out the shovels and lay out our paint-by-number garden. I’d water, weed and fertilize the flower beds until they looked their best in late summer. Then autumn would fall upon us, frost would hit, and the garden would sag. Then, along with the fallen leaves, into the garbage bags went all that money spent on flowers.

Mind Alteration

My experiences with my lawn were no less trying. I did the “watering, weeding and feeding” thing. I spent hours picking weeds and even clover out of my lawn, in the belief that a pure, unsullied lawn was the hallmark of a good citizen. Back then I was “Joe Average” with an average looking yard. (Now, I’d say “boring-looking” yard.) Little did I realize how things were to change.

My descent into an altered gardening consciousness began as a result of my professional involvement with Manitoba’s tall grass prairie. In the late 1980’s and early 90’s I was working as a biologist on a number of prairie-related projects. I came to appreciate this ecosystem, with its tall, statuesque grasses and abundant wildflowers; a system that provided beauty, habitat for wildlife, built new soil and renewed itself each year, with no help from mankind. I began to wonder if this wasn’t a better model for my personal landscape and I started to question why I did things the way I did. I was tiring of the assembly line of annual bedding plants and the “fertilize and cut more often” demands of the lawn.

I began to replace my bedding plant plots with perennials, mainly native species, but I encouraged some hardy horticultural perennials that had been in our yard all along. Things that some of my neighbours had had growing in their yards for generations appealed to me, too, so I added a few of these. I wanted plants that could take care of themselves.

I set up some prairie plant plots right in my lawn, reducing the amount I had to mow. Some of these plants did better than I expected and even began to colonize out into my lawn. Black-eyed susans and various asters were popping up all over. So what did I do? Why, of course, I stopped cutting more of the lawn where the wildflowers grew. And so on. Nowadays I cut a small swath to act as a pathway through the front yard and let the rest go wild. With the mown areas helping to define the wild areas, I avoid the “rank, overgrown look”, but have way less to mow and more wildflowers to enjoy. And, you know, Kentucky bluegrass and even quack grass can look quite attractive grown out to their full heights of only 30 – 40 cm.

Gone to a Happier Place

What did the neighbours think? Well, no complaints so far, only compliments and a lot of people stopping to look at the ever changing array of prairie wildflowers that come into bloom throughout the growing season; from our provincial flower, the prairie crocus, in spring to smooth asters in the fall.

Nowadays my “gardening” consists of pulling out a few rogue plants in the spring, yanking the odd bit of quack grass that’s getting hold where I don’t want it, and dragging out the lawn mower once every 2 or 3 weeks. Oh, I do poke a few dandelions with my long-handled weed poker, beer in hand, and usually while in conversation with one or more of the neighbours, but that’s about it. My yard pretty much takes care of itself now, leaving me free to loaf around.

Besides using native plants and low maintenance perennials in my yard here’s some other quick tips for the lazy gardener.

Watering? Forget it, that’s why I grow native prairie plants; they make do with whatever water they get. Even my lawn gets on fine without extra water. In drought times it turns a little brown, then greens up when the rains come again.

Bag and remove grass clippings? Duh! Never cut your grass shorter than about 3 inches and let the clippings compost naturally in place.

Line trimmer? No way, I eliminated all the vertical surfaces next to the lawn, so the mower gets it all, no going back to trim edges.

Fertilizers? Forget it! Unless you want your lawn to grow faster so you have to cut it more often. Let the clover fix the nitrogen the grass needs.

Herbicides? Aack, way too expensive (Did I mention I was cheap as well as lazy?) A long handled weed poker to tackle dandelions is all you need (in a small yard, like mine); that’ the only weed worth worrying about anyway.

In Closing

In the end, what have I become? A lazy gardener? Some might think so, but I prefer to think that I am at peace with my yard. It costs me very little in time, water and money to have one of the nicest yards on the block. And to top it off, now it appears that I am a poster boy for environmentally friendly yard maintenance. Geez, I just didn’t want to spend all that time working. I prefer to while away my time and watch the butterflies flitting through the wildflowers, right in my own yard.

More on gardening with native plants in NatureNorth: Garden with Native Plants | Grow Your Own Wildflowers

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