Organic Gardening 101: Learning to Love What You’ve Got (How to Stop Spraying and Start Seeing Beauty Everywhere)

by Genevieve on July 25, 2009

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We’ve been talking about how to prevent pests on roses and flowers, and how to treat them organically if you do end up with problems. Today I want to talk about one of the biggest things that keeps us from gardening organically – our expectations and attachments to a specific kind of garden or plant.

Expectations are a funny thing – there is so much incredible beauty in nature and the plant world, but sometimes our desire for a certain kind of garden or plant makes the flaws we percieve in our gardens really stand out.

Take lawns, for example. I have a wonderful gardening friend who lusts after a perfect, flat, weed-free chemlawn. The problem with that? She has a casual rolling lawn with apple trees and bird feeders dotted through it, and naturally sloping beds around the edges.  All organic.

Her lawn is a lovely natural place where she watches the birds and wildlife, and attempts to flatten it out and remove every weed would make it feel out of step with the rest of her gentle country garden. She’d spend more time than she wants to keeping every last weed out organically, and she’d have to get rid of or put concrete under the bird feeders to keep them neat.

She knows in her head that a “perfect” magazine lawn wouldn’t fit her lifestyle or the rest of her garden, but… she still dreams of that lawn, and was shocked at my suggestion that she might embrace what she has, and introduce some tough stepable groundcovers to flower within her lawn area – chamomile, or blue star creeper – and run with the meadow-like theme.

It’s not just perfect lawns we get attached to, either. Many of us are in love with the idea of a certain kind of flower. Maybe you grew up back east and dream of lilacs in spring, but live in such a mild climate that they don’t really thrive. Perhaps you love roses, and want to grow all the latest hybrid teas, but despair of the black spot come August.

Whatever it is for you, coming to terms with what your garden supports and letting go of those things which simply aren’t working will bring you such peace, and will make organic gardening so much easier. A healthy plant that loves where it’s been placed won’t need spraying.

Here’s how to stop chasing the things that aren’t working, and start loving what is:

First, think about what attributes you really want:

Say you grow those giant ruffly Fuchsias that are so prone to Fuchsia Gall Mite in our coastal climate. What is it you really want out of them? Loads of purple and magenta flowers that will spill over in a shady container?  Something to attract hummingbirds? There are substitutes for each of those attributes.

Maybe you have a shady woodland garden under the trees, but long for big bodacious blooms like you think of for sunny gardens, and keep planting things that say “full sun to part shade”, hoping that “does well in part shade” will translate into “does well in full shade” once you get them home.

Once you finally give up the sickly roses and move towards the shade section in the nursery, you can find loads of cheerful color, cut flowers and foliage for vases, and fragrance. The shade won’t hold you back from an amazing flower garden (I promise!) – it is the expectation that your shady garden support specific sun-loving plants that leaves you feeling let-down.

Whatever it is you’re doing that’s not working for you, think about your real goals:

Is it a specific color or flower shape? Fragrance? Stems you can cut for a vase? Or something that reminds you of your childhood home?

Perhaps there’s another plant, or couple of plants, that can give you what you want without needing spraying or fussing with.

Next, swap out overbred, disease-prone plants for their sturdy, old-fashioned, or simpler-flowered counterparts.

With roses, we often want a large hybrid tea rose, bred for big gorgeous flowers that we can cut and bring indoors. But breeding for one specific attribute like flower color or size can lead to a plant with a perfect bloom, but without the vigor to withstand everyday stresses.

As Pomona Belvedere points out in the comments for this article:

I love some of the hybrid teas, but it is a fact that they are the most disease-prone high-maintenance roses around.

David Austin roses are a wonderful reblooming alternative, as are many other shrub roses, grandifloras, and floribundas. Tea roses (precursors to HTs) do well in hot climates; hybrid musks are great in semi-shade; Buck Roses are good for cold climates. So are a lot of old roses, though many of them bloom just once. But beautifully. And historically.

If you love roses but hate spraying, try these disease-resistant rose varieties for the coastal Pacific Northwest.

Are you a fan of Fuchsias? Fuchsia thymifolia, with tiny fairy-sized flowers, and Fuchsia magellanica, a large shrub with slender, drooping bells in either magenta with purple, or pale pink (‘Alba’), look a lot different from the giant pom-poms we see in so many Fuchsia hybrids, but they are resistant to the Fuchsia Gall Mite that distorts the leaves of so many hybrids.

Many ruffly Camellia flowers hold moisture and get a bacterial disease when they bloom, which turns their flowers brown. The simple beauty of Camellias that only have a single row of petals on their flower is enhanced by the fact that the plainer flower doesn’t get diseased. Check out simple-flowered Sasanqua Camellias like ‘Yuletide’, or the variety ‘Fairy Blush’ for a flower that won’t turn brown and mushy in the rain.

Maximize your enjoyment of plants that need extra care by placing them where you’ll really enjoy them every day.

Instead of having five in the garden, just put one near your front door where you’ll appreciate it every day, and choose sturdier plants for the rest of the garden.

Start thinking of bugs as being kind of cute, because they kind of are!

Caterpillar on Variegated Italian Buckthorn Bees buzz cheerfully around your garden, little inchworms and caterpillars curl their bodies around leaves and twigs, and beetles and bugs soldier their way through soil and foliage, sometimes pausing atop a stem for a bit of sunshine.

If our first reaction to bugs is that they are a natural part of the garden and an element to enjoy, then we won’t get so freaked out if they occasionally nibble our plants. I’m not advocating leaving pest problems to fester, but allow for a few nibbles here or there without bringing in the big (spray) guns.

Adjust your definition of beauty to notice what is beautiful now, rather than what you wish was beautiful.

If we’re expecting no weeds, flawless leaves and ginormous blooms, we may miss the beauty of a dandelion flower mingling perfectly with our Hardy Cranesbill, or the pretty serration of an eaten leaf.

Your garden is alive, and just like you and me, it’ll never be perfect. Sure, let’s move plants around and weed and thoughtfully spray if needed, but at the end of the day, just take pleasure in what is, even if that includes some beauty that we might otherwise see as an imperfection.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Debbie July 26, 2009 at 5:31 am

Genevieve,

What a wonderful post. You are so correct in pointing out that beauty is all around us in our gardens and often we just need to adjust our expectations a bit and open our eyes a little wider.

It can difficult to have realistic expectations for our own gardens when we are contantly seeing pictures in gardening magazines of lush, beautiful and flawless gardens that are often maintained by a staff of professionals but of course we’re not told that!
.-= Debbie´s last blog ..Welcoming Wildlife In My Garden…Baby Robins =-.

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Monica the Garden Faerie July 26, 2009 at 7:45 am

I guess I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve always loved what is in my garden and very much accept the natural pace of things (not applicable to other eareas of my life). I do use Roundup on poison ivy and buckhorn (painted on stumps) but other than that I’ve been an organic gardener for as long as I’ve been gardening… almost 20 (eep!) years!
.-= Monica the Garden Faerie´s last blog ..Meet Me in St. Louis! =-.

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Mist July 26, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Sound advice. Loving what you’ve got is the best way to live a happy life and the environment will even like it.
.-= Mist ´s last blog ..Flower Garden Tips =-.

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Susan (garden-chick) July 28, 2009 at 5:12 pm

This is such great advice, particularly figuring out what it is you like about a plant, then looking for those attributes in a plant that’s more culturally suited to your garden. It’s still hard to resist buying the wrong plants at time. As someone with a mostly shade garden, I confess to being guilty of wilfully ignoring the “sun to part shade” description on the tag!
.-= Susan (garden-chick)´s last blog ..UC Verde Grass – the lawn alternative I’ve been waiting for? =-.

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Genevieve July 29, 2009 at 12:24 pm

Thanks, Debbie! I think you put it really well in noting that those perfect magazine gardens are not only maintained by pros or homeowners with a lot of time on their hands, but also, as Saxon Holt the garden photographer points out, they’re often “stuffed” with container plants just before shooting! LOL. Talk about unrealistic. Pretty, but not what every inch of our gardens will look like every time of the year.

LOL, Monica, yeah, if only our acceptance of the natural pace of things extended elsewhere!

Hi Mist, nice to meet you, and thank you for stopping by!

Hi Susan, I am with you. Even for us professionals who know better, just like you I’ve been tempted by some plants for my own garden that are, hmm, aspirational, to put it mildly!

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Cindy Graebner July 29, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Liked the comments on fuchsias. Actually, even F. magellinica is susceptible to the mite. I had to stop selling it because of the mite. I have a bunch of great fuchsia species that have been tested for mite by Strybing Arboretum…a few…Fuchsia arborescens and F. paniculata which have very similar purple cluster blooms, F. Miep-aalhuizan, a goregous species cross, F.microphylla aprica….tiny bright flower on a 5 ft shrub ….F. Red Bush Fanling, large flowers in two different colors of red on the same bloom, F. denticulata and F. Fulgens with orange and pink combos, and then the large dramatic F. boliviana and F boliviana alba. Hummers love these all winter long. If it gets really into the low 20′s for a few days, they can die back to do reapper.

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Genevieve July 29, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Cindy, what a spectacularly useful comment! I’m sure I’m going to be referring to this a lot, thank you. I ought to come on out and take photos of some of these pretties so I can tell people about them! Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your knowledge!

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Debbie July 29, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Genevieve,

I’m not familiar with Saxon Holt’s comments on his experiences with photographing gardens but I am very intrigued. Can you point me in the right direction to read them firsthand?
.-= Debbie´s last blog ..Purple Beautyberry…The Cinderella Shrub =-.

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Genevieve July 29, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Debbie, thanks for asking – yes, check these articles out. Saxon’s my favorite garden photographer easily (see the Grasses book in the first post on garden rant – Best.Garden.Porn. EVER!!) and it’s so reassuring to me that he gives away some of the secrets of the magazine gardens. His advice has definitely helped me take better plant pictures, just by having the courage to “stage” a scene.

Amy Stewart on Garden Rant calls him out:
http://www.gardenrant.com/my_weblog/2007/10/you-go-saxon-ho.html

He responds with some good dish!:
http://www.gardeninggonewild.com/?p=338

And a favorite post of his that helped me “see” some better photos in my own gardens:
http://www.gardeninggonewild.com/?p=2622

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Debbie July 30, 2009 at 9:31 am

Genevieve,

Thanks for the links, I had so much fun looking through them all. Would you mind if I used a few on my blog and linked back to your post?
.-= Debbie´s last blog ..Purple Beautyberry…The Cinderella Shrub =-.

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Genevieve July 30, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Debbie, that would completely delight me! Thanks for thinking of it!

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Town Mouse August 5, 2009 at 9:17 am

I couldn’t agree more! Living in drought-stricken CA, it’s painful to watch so many pine after moisture-loving beauties. But it’s encouraging so see the tide is turning, there’s more and more interest in sustainable gardens (and that means no pesticides and not so much water).
.-= Town Mouse´s last blog ..Dead or Alive? =-.

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Nancy @PlantAvenue September 24, 2009 at 7:26 am

Great post – and so true! I planted some ornamental cabbage that was devoured by cabbage worms. I’m very much against using chemical pesticides so I researched some other options (which I outlined in my post here: http://plantavenue.blogspot.com/2009/08/cabbage-worm.html) but in the end decided to simply not plant them again next year. Maybe instead I’ll plant some more bee-friendly florals instead :)
.-= Nancy @PlantAvenue´s last blog ..Can You Root A Rosemary Cutting? =-.

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Genevieve October 1, 2009 at 9:24 pm

Nice, Nancy!! Thanks so much for the link to your cabbage worm post. Organics rule, man.
And Town Mouse, every time I see a well-used native I think of you…. That’s high praise indeed!

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lois kimbrell November 22, 2011 at 6:50 pm

I have really enjoyed visiting your site. Your Post (Learning to Love What You’ve Got) is great. I am of like mind, if something just does not work out go for something else.
I like to check out how things grow in the wild you can some times get an idea as to how and where to plant some of the domesticated cousins to the cousin in the wild. Along road sides that are you may see certain plants thriving is sunny areas and that same plant in shady areas just surviving. You may learn that you can use a “Weed” that does not require alot of care and attention and actually has a pretty flower or can add some interest to a location in your yard that is other wise barren and neglected. Also some bushes do better in front of a wood area than displayed singuraly.
I also like the looks of your site which is simple yet elegant.

Thanks.

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