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July, 2006

Gentle Gardening

by Valerie

There are about as many different ways of gardening as there are gardeners. Any particular adjective can conjure up an impression of a plant management style that differs from all others in either subtle or dramatic ways. It's easy to picture lazy, meticulous, or intensive methods of cultivating the flora on a plot of land.

My own gardening technique, within our yard, tends towards the relaxed. Well, okay, the lazy. I don't spend much time pruning, installing new plants, or pulling out weeds. At times I've expended much more effort on our gardens, especially when they were first being established. However, now that many of the plants are mature, there is little to be done other than trim back overgrown branches and water during the summer. I often walk about in our gardens, though, and watch the insects and other creatures, or just look at what is blooming at the moment.

Our own yard is small and we are limited in what is practical to grow. There are no large ornamental plants, no plants that need a lot of sun (due to the constantly increasing tree cover), no expensive exotics, and nothing that cannot stand a bit of drought when I don't get around to watering as often as I should.

Since I do like plants, and am especially drawn to those that are out of the ordinary, I've found the ideal outlet for my more extended gardening urge: I volunteer at the Hartman Prehistoric Garden here in Austin's Zilker Park. Spending one morning a week working amongst the large ponds, palms, cycads, ferns, and other ancient flora seems to satisfy a desire to be involved in a garden bigger and better than any one person can create. With 1.5 acres and plenty of water, it is possible to grow sun-loving plants as well as those that need more moisture than is usually provided by our local rainfall. There are bauhinias and gingers in bloom throughout the summer, horsetail ferns reaching 10 feet in height, and stately cypress and magnolia trees. The ponds host gar, minnows, turtles, and tadpoles, while dragonflies, lizards, snakes, and birds are evident in abundance.

The Prehistoric Garden is part of the larger Zilker Botanical Garden. This facility does not have a horticulture director, or even an adequate staff, to care for the plants and grounds. Since there are no paid personnel with expertise in the types of plants within the Hartman Garden, it is currently cared for by a small group of volunteers, led by the consultant and cycad expert who helped create it in the first place, Craig. He manages to spend at least three mornings a week working in the Garden to keep it looking as good as possible in spite of having to also attend to his vocation.

Now about this idea of gentle gardening. It is certainly not descriptive of the methods by which we care for the plants, which includes using loppers, saws, and multiple people to do major tree pruning, planting, or removal. Just pruning the lower leaves of a palm requires more effort than anyone who hasn't done it can imagine. Many cycads and palms are quite spiky, not to mention large, so it is no small feat to care for them. Trees and large shrubs need constant attention so that one particular species or individual does not crowd out others. No, the term "gentle" does not apply to the physical exertion required of some of the gardening activities. It is more of a description of the way we guide the growth and development of the plants.

Once a garden is created, with paths, ponds, rocks, and shelters installed and most plants in place, the work is only beginning. Any garden is a growing, living entity and it cannot be left to its own devices if it is intended to be more than just a wild area for plants. There must be a plan that accommodates the future size and tendencies of the plants. Somebody must be on hand to remove unwanted weeds and plants that die, to fertilize, cultivate, and water the plants, keep the pond and filter system running properly, and, in a public garden, to repair vandalism and other types of damage.

It is possible to force a garden into the desired state, by aggressively pruning, replacing plants often, or even removing plants that are just not growing as expected. Because there are so few people working in the Hartman Prehistoric Garden, and there is almost no money available for plants and supplies, it is not possible to do a great deal at any one time. Instead, things happen gradually. Before any large branch or tree is cut, there is a period of thought beforehand, deciding whether or not it would really look better or help the plant. Once a limb is sawed off, it isn't going to grow back. So, we gradually shape the ever-growing trees and shrubs to complement each other and the overall vista. At times, it just seems right to open up a space for other smaller plants or to create a view deeper into the garden.

Some other aspects of gentle gardening include the constant spreading of seeds, removal of scale and webworms by hand, selectively trimming native vines so that they can grow over some branches but not conceal smaller featured plants, and digging out only those weeds that are invasive or unsightly. Algae that grows on the surface of the ponds in winter is removed by using a long stem of bamboo with the leaves left on so that by turning it, the algal mats are pulled into a sort of giant Q-tip. Because there is no money for fancy fences or signs, the volunteers have built low wood fences out of pruned native juniper to help remind visitors to stay on the path and off the plants. These fences have been installed one section at a time, using much muscle power and a few hand tools.

During my weekly sessions in the Prehistoric Garden, I might pull weeds, help with pruning, plant seeds, or do the occasional tasks of fertilizing the lotuses in the ponds, installing a new plant, or spreading mulch. There is always time to notice and photograph the myriad insects, spiders, and other animals that inhabit the Garden. There is also time to answer visitors' questions. There is even time to just sit and enjoy the beautiful landscape that has been created right here in central Texas. While our climate, especially in the blazing summer heat, is not particularly gentle, it is nice to know that our influence on the Garden is.

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