The lone voice of horticultural reason

The 10 Tenets Of Renegade Gardening

5-1-15_CC-7I am a Renegade Gardener. No doubt I became one in part because I was born, live, and garden in Minnesota, a state crisscrossed by USDA Hardiness Zones often given short shrift by national gardening books and magazines. I’m guessing the healthy skepticism born of my Scandinavian roots is an additional factor. Most certainly, I’ve acquired my stern judgments as a result of decades of abuse by those portions of the gardening industry that favor profit and propaganda over fairness and truth. Whatever the cause, after years of toil in the soil, I’ve developed a list of universal gardening principles that I believe you will eventually come to embrace. I call them:

The 10 Tenets Of Renegade Gardening

  1. Gardening is supposed to be challenging, relaxing, and fun. 
    Gardening is not worth your effort and time if you’re not willing to be challenged and to learn. The new, pre-designed, plant-by-number, “instant” gardens you order from catalogues and plunk into your yard according to directions are the horticultural equivalent of those paint-by-number craft kids you received on your twelfth birthday from your Aunt Helen. Remember those? The German Shepard head was the classic. It turned out really well, but did you learn how to paint? Do you paint now?
    Starting to garden is to slip on board a train of creativity for what will become a lifelong, relaxing journey, relaxing once we get past that initial stage where we plant a tree and then kill it by watering it, heavily, every day, for fear that it will die from lack of water. Or, conversely, kill the tree by watering it heavily at time of planting, then never watering it again, unaware that a newly planted tree (or shrub) needs to be watered about every five days, the first season.
    Renegade Gardeners never garden to the point of burnout, an ill that can befall gardeners once they discover this unbelievable depth of creativity they never knew they had. Divorce is another sticking point, in households where one of you develops a passion for gardening not shared by the spouse. If your spouse ever tells you that you are spending too much time in the garden, you are, trust me. Take it easy. Your garden is not going anywhere, even while you’re going out antiquing, or shopping for new kitchen cabinets, with the spouse. Understand that your garden and landscape will never be finished. Completing your first island perennial bed is a noteworthy achievement, certainly, but remember, in ten years it will have evergreens and a waterfall in it.
    There is a natural pace to gardening, and you will do well to find and match it. At the proper pace, every element of creating and tending to a landscape is fun, except for mowing the lawn. A real Renegade Gardener comes to realize that mowing the lawn is the gardening equivalent of cleaning the toilet. While mowing the lawn, the best one can do is daydream about what would look better growing there besides grass.
  2. Renegade Gardeners are cautious when perusing the plethora of products and plants sold by the commercial gardening industry. 
    Gardening is now a multi-billion dollar industry, and what the industry invents and sells are products, a bit more than half of which you don’t need. From tri-color, double hung daffodils, fragrance-free roses and special-blend fertilizers, to plastic wishing wells, three-pound boxes of Compost Helper and 75 new, identical gardening magazines, never forget that industry avarice always travels close behind any legitimate gardening trend.
  3. Gardening involves commitment.
    Gardening makes a poor part-time hobby, akin to dabbling in dentistry. It never ceases to amaze me how adults who wouldn’t dream of driving the Lexus one mile over 3,000 before having the oil changed treat the plants on their property as if they were maintenance-free. There is no such thing as a maintenance-free plant or landscape. An astutely planned and planted native prairie, or planting of native grasses and shrubs, once established, is pretty darn close, sure, but every so often it’s a good idea to burn the prairie, if you can get a permit, or at the very least get in there and weed for ten hours so it doesn’t revert to an abandoned city lot. Even a small yard of nothing but gorgeous, tall grasses, you’ll take a look at it after a few years and realize, hey, it needs boulder outcroppings. And a dry creek bed.
    If you want a landscape that includes annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs, you’ll need to learn about your soil, how to plant stuff, how to mulch, how to fertilize (if your soil needs it), how to water properly, how to prune and shear, how to divide and replant, how to prepare your gardens and landscape for winter if you live in the north, and how to keep the whole thing from looking like hell by August if you live in the south. It’s called gardening, and as noted previously, you will be astonished at how much fun you have.
  4. Renegade Gardeners learn the botanical Latin names of the plants they grow.
    This has nothing to do with opportunities to be snooty, which do arise from time to time. The botanical Latin names for plants are part of the hobby, similar in this way to sailing, sewing, poker or skateboarding terminology (“Mom!! I just landed a kickflip backside from a nollie, but I crucified my trucks!”).
    Relying solely on the common name for a plant is troublesome because common names often differ from region to region (or neighborhood to neighborhood). For instance, “Bachelor’s Buttons” must refer to at least twenty different plants. Common names can be misleading: A mountain ash (Sorbus) is not an ash (Fraxinus). Only the Latin name identifies exactly the plant your neighbor grows, and that you wish to buy.
    If you’d like, you can limit your Latin immersion to the category of perennials flowers. In truth, this is the area in which you will most often use it. People who know all the Latin names for trees and shrubs only work at a landscape arboretum or teach at a university, while those who know and gleefully spout out the Latin names for every annual under the sun typically display other facets of behavior that give me the creeps. Begin by memorizing the Latin names (just the first part, the genus, such as Campanula) of every perennial you grow. It’s on the plant tag. If it isn’t, switch nurseries.
    Then add the second word, the species (glomerata) and as you add more and more perennials to your garden you will surely learn and remember them all. Toss in the cultivar at the end (Campanula glomerata ‘Superba’) and you are describing only one possible plant out of the 270,000 known plant species on earth, and only one out of nearly 300 remarkably different species and varieties of campanula. Campanula glomerata ‘Superba’, by the way, happens to be a honey, although it’s getting harder and harder to find because the nurseries keep developing new varieties of plants, feeding their need to sell you a plant that’s new even though it may not be as good or as lovely as an older variety (see Tenet 2).
    When writing proper botanical plant names, genus and species (the first two words) are always in italics; the variety, if there is one, is not italicized but appears in single quotation marks. When writing about a plant genus in general, such as my reference to “campanula” a few sentences above, you can capitalize it or not, and need not place it in italics. The genus is already plural, no need to add an “s.” When you e-mail me down the road with a question, just write, “What in the world is eating holes in the leaves of all my damn hosta?,” not “hostas.” The answer by the way, is slugs. If the whole thing is being eaten, it’s deer. Don’t fret. You can’t kill a hosta with fire.
    See what you’re learning? Well, you already know much more than this! The Latin genus for many perennials serves double duty as the common name, such as ajuga, anemone, aster, astilbe, clematis, delphinium, hosta, monarda, and others. These are the Latin names, the genus, at least, so if you’ve been gardening for any amount of time, you already know some Latin.
    Oh … as to trees and shrubs? I didn’t want to scare anyone off. Start gardening and you’ll probably decide after a spell to learn the proper botanical names for these plants also. Especially in about eight years, when you realize that the reason you’re at a dead end is that your yard contains far too many perennials, and not nearly enough small trees and shrubs. But for now, they can wait.
  5. Gardening is not always easy.
    You want an easy hobby, try line dancing. Bowling is easier than gardening, and tons cheaper. In gardening, there are going to be certain projects that are taxing, such as wrestling a 300-pound, ball-and-burlap Colorado Blue Spruce into the planting hole, or attempting to lift the rental rototiller into the back of the pickup after the kid who was helping you disappears.
    Gardening is more difficult than surfing and scuba diving, and ranks about even with fly-fishing. Wanting gardening to be easy is what causes new gardeners to fall prey to the whiles of the commercial gardening industry (see Tenet 2) and make mistakes such as building retaining walls with brown concrete retaining wall block instead of natural stone, thus lending their yards the air of a state penal facility instead of a joyous celebration of all things natural. Why? Because stacking concrete retaining wall block flat and level is easy; fitting marvelously irregular boulders and natural wall stone is not. Gardening is not always easy.
  6. Renegade Gardeners come to realize that lawns are essentially a dumb idea. 
    The reason your home came with that huge lawn has more to do with wealthy landowners in 18th century England and their landscapes’ latent impact on impressionable 1950s Americans caught up in the suburban development craze than with any choice you had in the matter. A strip of grass running along the driveway, that’s nice; a large patch of lawn where the kids can throw the ball around, go for it. Just don’t think for one second that a vast sea of high-maintenance green surrounding all four sides of your house is something you would have chosen had you been given better options.
  7. Gardening and rock music do not mix. 
    Do not garden accompanied by an active iPod, unless you’ve downloaded a lesson teaching you the Latin names of plants. In general, listening to most styles of music while gardening tends to lessen the soothing elements gardening infuses into the soul. Listening to hard rock while gardening might seem harmless early on in the project, but will both quicken the onset of anger and advance its intensity when something goes awry that results in the realization that you need to tear everything out and start over. Or when you do something that sprains an ankle, pokes an eye, or draws blood.
    Listening to modern country as you deadhead your Dianthus deltoides can lead to dizziness and gas. Classical music in the patio should be saved for after the watering is done and your guests have arrived. Classical music also makes you tire early. Only instrumental jazz, I have found, works pretty well alongside gardening, particularly pre-’65 Miles Davis. That, and the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” but of course, one could listen to Waterloo Sunset while cornered by a blood-lusting grizzly bear and feel perfectly at peace.
    The sounds nature makes in your yard is the most relaxing accompaniment to gardening, but if you must listen to something man-made, the best thing to listen to is baseball. Listening to baseball while you putter in the garden can be a smooth, sublime joy.
  8. Renegade Gardeners buy first from local growers. 
    Developing a close relationship with the established and esteemed nursery men and woman in your area is as important to your happiness and success in life as are your relationships with your doctor, lawyer, stockbroker and police chief, if you have teenage boys. This is an especially critical practice in the North, where hardiness is key to success. The best perennial you can buy comes from the nursery in your area where the plants are grown in nearby fields, propagated from seed and division, and over-wintered either in the ground or in pots buried under tarps, snow and hay. Most of the big garden centers and chains in any metro area buy plants grown out of state, from as far away as California, and are simply the middlemen between these mass-produced plugs and sticks and the unfortunates who buy them.
    Never buy plants from any retail outfit that in addition sells plywood, power tools, and toilet seats. You may find your red geraniums on sale for a few pennies less, but the quaint and cluttered, mom-and-pop nursery a few miles farther down the road that takes pride in growing annuals will sell you a better product. In gardening, it’s all about who has been taking care of the plant up to the moment you take it home. Unless the level of care is exactly equal, price should never be a factor.
  9. There is nothing wrong with cutting down a tree on your property. 
    It’s your tree, and just like any perennial, shrub, or concrete statue of a little boy with a fishing pole, for that matter, if it’s fallen into disfavor, it’s perfectly all right for you to make it go away. People have extrapolated news of the deforestation of the Brazilian rain forest into a belief that trees should no longer be cut down. Trees should no longer be cut down in the Brazilian rain forest because the loggers there are clear-cutting, lack any reforestation program, and ample substitutes are available for the hard woods being harvested.
    This has nothing to do with that damn spruce planted by a previous owner seven feet off the corner of your house that has had the audacity to attempt to grow twenty feet wide, or the white pine planted by the owner before that, that now sits half-dead under the sixty-foot canopy of a red oak that, when planted, was the same height as the pine. If you want to plant a tree every time you cut one down, great, but if you remove a tree from your property because it’s planted in a dumb spot, has been improperly pruned, succumbed to disease or storm damage, or simply impacts your ability to create the landscape you envision and you don’t plant a tree afterwards, that’s fine too. Never take any grief about it from the twelve year-old kids on your block, or their socialist parents, either.
  10. Irreverence is essential.
    We’re playing in the dirt, for heaven’s sake.

Virtually everything you need to know about gardening is contained on this site. OK, so I’m a little light on how to create an espalier lemon tree, but that’s what Google is for. The Current Column and content of the first four feature buttons on the left side of the Home Page are updated on or around the first of each month. Most of the hundreds of articles and feature items on the site include ample photographs. Pick, click, and peruse at will. No, there isn’t a search engine. That would be too easy (see Tenet 2).

Welcome aboard.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener