A Question of Maintenance


Guest Post by Landscape Designer Thomas Mickey

I see a garden where the owner has spent money on plants, but the garden needs maintenance – the only way to a healthy and pleasing garden.

may be important that people have a lawn and a garden. We know that and can
understand that. What we have a hard time with is when people plant something
and don’t take care of it. The question
of maintenance is more important than most people realize. I have heard it said
that 90% of gardening us weeding, I agree.

you are going to put in a lawn or garden, then arrange how you will maintain it, as
well. Will you mulch, fertilize, water, trim, prune?

are living plants that get bigger, and take up more space as they grow. Perhaps we don’t always realize that.

1. So
the first issue is how big will the plant get at a mature size? That may come
sooner than you expect.  If you need to,
choose a smaller variety of the plant so it will not become so overpowering.

2. The
second is what kind of maintenance does
the plant need. It may need to be regularly pruned so that it does not take
over the small garden where it is currently planted.  If the plant needs pruning, get the right
tools and learn how to prune.

3. The
third issue might be dividing a plant like a perennial when it is too big.  A clematis recta I have in my garden has
taken over the spot. It looks too big. It has been there for over ten years,
and I have never divided it.  In the same
small garden is a phlox which I did divide at the end of the spring this year.
The area looks much better.

am not a believer in deadheading. It seems like more work, but it does make the
gardGuestMickey2en look better, more in order.  So
perhaps some plants need to be deadheaded after they bloom. Don’t deadhead
clematis vines since you want the seed head to show.

these principles I just laid out are
issues any gardener has to think about, but I was just confronted with my own
garden maintenance problem.

had just been away for over a week and discovered powdery mildew on my white
Phlox paniculata. You can see the photo here. The leaves were white!  I used a wonderful “sure-fire” cure
recommended by the most recent edition of one of my favorite publications “The
Avant Gardener”. Here it is: 1 tablespoon dormant oil, l heaping tablespoon
baking soda, and ½ teaspoons insecticidal soap (I used regular liquid dish soap
since the amount was so low) per gallon. Sprayed the concoction a few times
over several days. Worked just great. A real consequence of maintenance!

when you think of maintenance, think of what you need to do to keep things
looking good. Don’t put in any new plant till you make sure what you have looks
good. I think the name of the game
of gardening is maintenance.

Thomas Mickey is a Master Gardener and
landscape designer from Rye, NH. 

Photo: Powdery mildew makes this phlox paniculata stand out in my garden, and not
because of the flowers.

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Susan Harris

Susan’s a garden writer, teacher and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. Co-founder of GardenRant, she also wrote for national gardening magazines and independent garden centers before retiring in 2014. Now she has time for these projects:

  • Founding and now managing the pro-science educational nonprofit GOOD GARDENING VIDEOS that finds and promotes the best videos on YouTube for teaching people to garden.
  • Creating and managing DC GARDENS, the nonprofit campaign to promote the public gardens of the Washington, D.C. area, and gardening by locals.
  • Creating and editing the community website GREENBELT ONLINE to serve her adopted hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland (a “New Deal Utopia” founded in 1937).

Contact Susan via email or by leaving a comment here.

Photo by Stephen Brown.


  1. Thomas, you are correct in pointing out that without the continuing hand of the gardener, Mother Nature works to equalize any gardened space to its surroundings and starts the slow process of succession toward a wild state for that particular environment. But many homeowners’ associations have strict rules to keep the neighborhood looking like a golf course. Some here in Florida have color swatches and if residents’ lawns are not green enough, they are fined. Fortunately we have a new law that states that you cannot require residents into practices that are counter to Florida Friendly yards. http://www.floridayards.org

    While you have provided some guidelines here is another way to look at it:
    A sustainable gardener will plan ahead so the work required to keep up appearances will be minimized:
    1) Choose the right plants for the planting sites. Plan ahead so those plants won’t outgrow the space available, as you stated. Choose ones that are not prone to mildew or other diseases prevalent in your area, and that will tolerate the conditions of the planting site such as frequent standing water, drought, salt, acidity, alkalinity, etc. Choose plants that don’t require much in the way of fertilizer–maybe only yearly topdressings of compost and mulch.
    2) Arrange your landscape to reduce the need for extra maintenance such as installing pavers or heavy mulch around the edges of a lawn so the mower can do all the work–no string trimmers needed.
    3) Minimize the lawn area and develop meadow areas with wildflowers and native bunching grasses. And don’t harass your neighbors who are in the process of developing such meadows–it might take several years.

  2. While I agree that gardening is mostly maintenance and some people don’t maintain as well as I do, I can’t bring myself to bag on other gardeners for not maintaining my way. Mostly I’m just glad there are gardeners out there whose enthusiasm outstrips their experience and I can appreciate an untidy garden by someone who loves to try new plants much more than a tidy garden filled with very generic plantings (like a previous guest ranter’s “slut plants.”)

  3. Getting the right size shrub/tree plant is always a problem because those little cards on the plants LIE. They are not the full size at maturity, they are what the size is in 10 years. It is an evil plot to force you to rip out your over grown shrubs and buy new in 10 years. I planted a thread leaf false cypress hedge. The tag said 8′ x 6′. Perfect. I had an 6′ wide strip. Those things would be much taller and wider if I did not prune vigorously each year. Check the size of trees and shrubs on a state extension site or any source that is not trying to sell you anything. Even these can vary widely in their dimensions.

  4. Let’s face it. Planting is fun. It’s sexy. Maintainance is not sexy. Real gardening is a combination of the creative and the maintainance (to whatever one’s personal standard is). I do hate to see some poor plant looking sickly, overwhelmed , or just plain dead, because someone couldn’t commit themselves to it’s care.

    People CHOOSE to buy into a developement with stringent landscape rules. Having chosen to do it, they are obligated to live by the rules. You’d never catch me in one. That’s my choice.

  5. 90% of gardening is weeding? SHOOT ME. Personally if I have to garden that way. SHOOT ME. Professionally if I landscape design that way.

    90% of my gardening is NOT weeding. Why? Right plant, right spot. What? Canopy & understory trees, shrubs, groundcovers, mulch.

    Do I get weeds? YES. Less than 5% of my gardening labor/year is weeding.

    My landscape also saves about $35/month in a/c costs with trees. At 22 years, so far, almost $5,000 tax free dollars. And don’t forget curb appeal value.

    Or the value of happiness a landscape creates.

    Thank you for choosing the topic. Wish we were talking instead of writing. More give/take. Your P. paniculata? I had them too. For low maintenance I composted them ages ago & planted hydrangea.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  6. Phlox paniculata was looking real good driving by this little main street house,
    Somebody was poring water to it
    and admiring the 10 by 6 inch clusters of rosey sweet smelling flowers.
    My phlox looks dinky. Gonna move it. It has potential.

  7. E agree with Ginny. Proper planning ahead of time can resolve a lot of problems ahead of time.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have been known to grab something on impulse because it’s so pretty at the nursery, only to find problems down the road.

    I do much better when I have researched my location (soil, exposure, moisture, etc) as well as doing my homework on plants before I plant.

  8. I have to admit, I go at it great guns in the Spring. Then the Florida summer hits and the air conditioning calls. After a few months of basic mowing, things get a little shabby by the end of the season. Fortunately, the bug bites again about now and everything will look good until next summer.

    I know it would look better if I didn’t let things slide but this has gone on long enough I no longer fret about it. My biggest consolation this year is that my sidewalk has a neater edge than my landscaper neighbor. I think his teenage boys have gone on strike.

  9. While maintenance is not the most fun thing in many cases, it does bring the gardener into the palette and allows for observation.

    There have been many times that I spotted a problem in one area while taking care of some maintenance in another area.

    “Walking the garden” on a regularly scheduled basis is of extreme importance if the gardener is to head off problems in the early stages.

    That’s why I like maintenance!

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