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Great Gardening: The tidiness factor

It’s the worry of many a third-grader turning in a project, as well as gardeners who have visitors on the way. Or bus tours. Or photographers. And the answer is: Neatness counts – sometimes, sort of, and depending.

What’s your garden style?

I know people who can’t stand to see plants touching each other. That sounds extreme, and possibly I’m rolling my eyes a little. But I understand that there are many homeowners, landscapers’ clients and even landscapers themselves who strongly prefer beds with well-spaced and tightly clipped plants, with lots of mulch covering the soil between them.

A large lawn usually surrounds those landscape beds. That look is typical in many suburbs, and some consider it the American front yard paradigm. While it certainly is not an eco-friendly style (and I deeply hope the backyards are different), tidy it is. Neatness rules.

A cottage garden, or what is called an English-style border, is the opposite of that style. To envision it, think of English cottages with no lawns, overflowing with lilies, cosmos, delphiniums, all things flowering. The plants lean on fences and drape on paths. They not only touch each other, they weave their stems cozily together!

There is no mulch in sight. And – hurrah! – it’s also what those on garden walks and tours will see in the front, side, and backyards of hundreds of private gardens in Buffalo and surrounding towns this month.

It’s not that the gardens aren’t tended – they have lots of attention and their own degree of tidiness – but most of them are effusive, ebullient and enthusiastic.

And there are many degrees, among many garden styles, on the neatness scale.

What does neatness really mean?

No matter how much your plants do or don’t flop, lean, or touch each other, some neatness in the garden is essential. In your house it means you pick up and put away. When company is coming to the garden, it’s similar. Put away the tools, the hoses, the deer repellent spray, your drinking glasses and the kids’ toys.

“Always hide your work,” a florist once told me. And just as she buries the wires and oasis under foliage in the centerpiece, we gardeners should erase all signs of whatever it took to make the garden look this great (or socially acceptable).

What if you couldn’t get to the weeding or dead-heading or removing browning leaves? You apologize frequently, saying, “Oh it’s a work in progress ... I just haven’t finished ... it was so wet this year ... the daylilies have already finished (or haven’t opened yet), etc.”

But, honestly, most people don’t notice the plant details or understand your gardening process. They do form impressions that are often influenced by some basic grooming steps, that you can accomplish.

A stone border defines the edges of Stephen Bellus’ shade garden on Lancaster Avenue, dominated by hostas.  (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Make a neat impression

Besides putting away your stuff, these two practices make a garden look well-tended and farther along the neatness spectrum:

1. Define the edges. The No. 1 way to make a good impression, and the last thing you do before the guests arrive, is to neaten up the “edges.” That means the line between sidewalk and plants, path and landscape bed, fence and garden – wherever there’s a dividing line. Something about a crisp edge simply satisfies the eye of the onlooker.

How to do it definitely depends upon your tools and preferences. A perfectionist gardener in Kenmore gets on his knees and clips the grass along the sidewalk with a scissors. A suburban homeowner hires a landscaper with an edging tool to run along all the beds to make clean lines. Another gardener makes a V-shaped wedge 5 inches deep and 5 inches wide at the top, to define the edge of all the beds.

Or you might simply work around the outside of your flower beds, pulling obvious encroaching weeds, and then lightly mulch the outer rim so there is a clean, dark line. It also helps to mow or mulch a path or wash the flagstones or pavers. Just define the edge.

2. Clarify the clumps. Even in a fully matured perennial garden, in which plants grow together and almost no soil shows, the whole thing looks neater if each swath or cluster of plants appears defined. While a few plants may weave in and out among others, the garden makes the best impression if it is clear where each swath of a species begins and ends.

Pull out that one ragweed or mugwort from a group of bee-balm. Pull the finished forget-me-nots or weedy grasses from around the hostas. Even if you can’t do all the weeding, get out the obvious intruders that make your chosen perennials look messy.

As a very mature gardener with a very mature perennial/shrub border I can tell you that it gets easier, year by year, as you let swaths and clumps of excellent plants cover the soil, touch each other and – yes! – block the weeds. You just have to keep tweaking and – to a degree – tidying up as the season moves along.

A view from the porch of Ellie Dorritie's garden in Buffalo. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Your philosophy

Finally, when it comes to neatness, the most important element is who you are and what is your tolerance level. Are you relaxed and philosophical about a few weeds and plant groups running into each other? Or is immaculate grooming really important to you, and you’d hate to appear out of control?

My dear mother – not a gardener – always viewed my lush, abundant perennial garden and said: “Oh dear, honey, you are just too busy. I’m afraid it’s getting overgrown!”

Well, “overgrown” is in the eye of the beholder. Tidiness may count – just not equally for everybody.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant. She and Jim Charlier are the authors of “Buffalo-Style Gardens: Create a Quirky, One-of-a-Kind Private Garden with Eye-Catching Designs” (St. Lynn’s Press, $24.95).

This weekend's garden tours, July 12-14

* Take a look at Sally Cunningham's last Great Gardening column:

Sally Cunningham: Plants for pollinators

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