Without maintenance, the garden disappears

Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2001

The planted landscape is similar to wild places; if it is just let go. Trees will grow independently until they begin to enter each other's space, shrubs will spread into an understory, and groundcovers will get shaded out as the canopy closes over them.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com.

Research into growth dynamics indicates that the whole lower level of plants goes into slow motion as trees take over and light is reduced. Fire, wind-blow or timber cutting removes the dominant layer and the sudden influx of solar energy to the lower story is like a burst of food. Look at the clear-cut above Fred Meyers and see how rapidly the understory is rebounding.

The same is true of the planted landscape. I had the opportunity this week to revisit a landscape that had been uncared for during 20 years. The trees that had looked proportional when they were planted had grown into a wall of foliage, overhanging passersby and shading out lower limbs so that the eye-level effect was of dead needles and bare trunks. The smaller plants were either gone entirely or vestigial remains - scattered leaves on small stems indicating where the perennials had been planted. The effect was of oppression and neglect, totally opposite the desired result of the landscape designers.

We create landscapes for the satisfaction they give, to integrate the built environment into the larger landscape and to provide us with visual pleasure as we go about our daily lives. These landscapes require our conscious input to provide those results, if we just plant them and walk away we will be disappointed.

The managed landscape is a creation, a microcosm of idealized forms; we have trees, but not a forest, shrubs but not an understory. We schedule flowering times so that there will be a constant change in the composition of the planed spaces, and choose colors and textures of foliage for visual interest as well as to manage traffic and conceal or highlight other physical features.

These carefully arranged elements are drawn from a worldwide palette, each a single wild plant in some larger population. But in their natural state they would never see each other. Colorado blue spruce would never thrive where rhododendrons or Norway maples exist as native plants. White birch mixed with flowering crabapples? Not in any unplanted landscape on the planet. These plants are dominant species in their native ranges; they live in vast forests where they and their very closely related cousins are most of the population.

We mix and blend them for our pleasure. We set one against another for contrast or to emphasize shape or highlight seasonal color. But we have to maintain them as artistic creations. Maintenance will allow them to coexist or - just as in the wild world - the biggest and fastest growing one will overshadow and crowd out the slower.

We know what happens in the wild world: The cut over hillside regrows, the fastest growing species become dominant and shade out the slower, and then shade tolerant plants take over from the sun lovers.

Those shade tolerant types include the infants of the next generation of forest dominators. Look at the spruces growing among the alders at the edge of the Bethel Christian Center. They will soon outgrow their competitors and the spruce forest will return.

Without our intervention the same is true in the planted landscape. We place competitive individuals together in a supportive situation - good soil and plenty of water - and of course the fastest and biggest will take over from the slower or smaller. This is the situation encountered in many yards where the place has changed hands or the gardener who created and tended the place has passed on.

Margaret and I used to restore large landscapes. We worked in estate gardens where the century-old rhododendrons and topiary-trained holly had been covered with fast-growing Himalayan blackberry. There was barely any indication of the former views or carefully created spaces. Ash and maple trees growing four or six feet a year can soon wipe out hedged rose gardens. Waterfalls and fish ponds become tangled masses of colonizing weeds and inspirational vistas become blocked by rebounding foliage.

Old Juneau gardens that have been abandoned for fifty years, like the ones on Telephone Hill, can be traced by clambering through alder and cottonwood. Retaining walls and stairways of moss-covered stone can be glimpsed under goatsbeard and salmonberries.

Maintenance has been suspended. The gardens have been lost in the rush to succession.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com.

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