I picked up Roy Diblik’s The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden from the library shelf because I knew the author supplied the plants for the Lurie Garden in Chicago, working closely with designer Piet Oudolf, and I wanted to learn more about the naturalistic style of gardening that both of these men espouse. Yes, there is much to learn about naturalistic gardening (also called Dutch Wave, New Wave, and the New Perennialism) in this book, but I was utterly charmed by Diblik’s love of plants. He loves plants, and he wants you to love plants, too. The point of the punny title is that once you know plants, you will know how to care for them efficiently, but even more than that, once you know them you will love them and will be able to express your own sense of beauty through them.
So many gardening books seem to avoid discussing the emotional and creative aspect of gardening. Instead, the goal seems to be something practical or perhaps virtuous: provide food for your family, improve the resale value of your house, save the planet! And Diblik does want to save the planet, or he wouldn’t have written this book. Ecology is the foundation of this way of gardening–but not the point of it. A richer life for the gardenere is the point, in his view.
The naturalistic style of gardening aims to create an artificial plant community that is nearly self-sustaining. (By artificial, I mean it wouldn’t occur exactly that way in the wild.) There is no mulching, as the garden plants cover every inch of ground (or close to it). There is no fertilizing, as the debris from the plants themselves will feed the planting as it decays. As a matter of fact, Diblik recommends mowing the whole thing down in late winter or very early spring with a mulching mower, making several passes so everything is chopped into bits, the more readily to rot in place. Mowing is not done sooner because the dead plants are considered to have their own unique beauty. In fact, plants are chosen in part for how well they look when dead. Diblik doesn’t pretend there is no weeding, but he tells you when the critical times are for catching weeds small, warns you of the most pernicious weeds that must be removed early, and describes a weeding technique that should make the job go quickly.
One thing that bothers me about this book is it is aimed at beginners. It is so far removed from what is thought of as traditional gardening practices that I think beginners will be a bit put off. However, for those who have been attracted to the gardens designed by Piet Oudolf and others but have been at a loss as to how to get started, this book provides a way in. But, really, this is a wonderful book for beginners precisely because he encourages the reader to observe and learn more about their plants by what they see. The first two chapters, “Understanding Your Garden” and “Understanding Plants,” cover things that most beginners don’t think of–and should.
Another thing that disturbs me is his procedure for starting such a bed seems to make no allowance for rocks: Kill the sod and leave it in place, and then use a tile spade to plant your selections according to the plan you have chosen. But what if your tile spade hits a rock one inch down? And what if you move the spade over six inches and still hit rock? I can easily imagine digging an eighteen-inch wide hole just to plant one six-inch container, because it’s happened to me before. And then Diblik’s instruction to avoid turning over the soil is meaningless and the goal of leaving as much sod as possible in place is lost. I have no good answer for this.
I especially love his plant profiles because they go beyond the usual statistics (hardiness zone, bloom color, etc.) and provide a description that really gives you a feel for the plant, how it might behave in your garden. There are a lot of plants I hadn’t heard of before and will be keeping an eye out for.
I have been reading about and exploring this type of gardening in my online browsing, but The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden is the first book I’ve read on the subject. Other books I plan to read are:
- Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes
- Planting: A New Perspective
- The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden
- The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World
And here are some of the gardens that have gotten me interested in this way of gardening:
I’m certainly going to have a lot to think about this winter. How about you?