JoAnne Skelly: Too much tidiness gets in way of a good garden

I have often written that I am a lazy gardener. I try to manage my landscape with as little work as possible. Today, reading Mirabel Osler’s “A Gentle Plea for Chaos,” I found out that in regard to landscape design I am “eclectically wanton” and “less cerebral.” This sounds so much nicer than lazy. I am not a well-controlled gardener because there is no “antiseptic tidiness” in my yard; in fact, there is little tidiness at all. Osler writes, “The very soul of a garden is shriveled by zealous regimentation.” She would be quite happy in my unregimented garden. She points out that a mania for neatness or lust for conformity destroys any atmosphere and sensuality a garden might have.

She calls those who “plant and drift, who prune and amble” and who actually sit in their gardens, random gardeners who have the “freedom to loll.” True cottage gardens with flowers interplanted with herbs, veggies, berries and fruit trees are examples of lovely chaos. But lovely chaos is much harder to achieve than a contrived heavily pruned landscape. “It requires intuition and a genius for letting things have their heads,” Osler writes.

Of course, there is a time and place for precision in landscaping. How the lines in the garden are created with walls, paths, hedges, irrigation and other structural features requires planning. Every landscape should begin with tree selection and placement because “trees are the salient features around which everything else is worked.” Tree planting is precise because trees must be planted according to size at maturity, rather than randomly, in areas of the yard with good drainage and decent soil.

Existing features of a site may dominate a design. These can include native or ornamental trees, boulders, creeks (if you are lucky) or the shape of the land. Even an improper gardener will work to incorporate these effectively for function and aesthetics.

Once the bones of the garden are in and dominant elements are integrated, hard lines can be softened by letting “a bit of native vitality” take over. Allow new growth on shrubs such as forsythia to arch gracefully. Avoid pruning plants into little green meatballs. Let grape hyacinth, feverfew and other flowers self-sow where they will. Each year my garden beds surprise me with new, uninvited-but-welcome arrivals. Permit a “modicum of chaos” or some “amiable disorder.” Over time, this will set the garden singing, Osler says.

JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and may be reached at or 775-887-2252.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment