Designing with your hoe by Thomas Christopher

More than three decades ago, my wife-to-be dragged me kicking and screaming to central Texas, where she had a job at a scientific research institute. A born and bred Yankee, I had a keen sense of what I was leaving behind me. What wasn’t clear to me at departure time was all that I would learn in small town/rural Texas. Those lessons would change my life in many ways, and in particular the way I gardened.

I had learned horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where creating a new garden began with a carefully drafted design and then a trip to the nursery to buy the necessary plants. These purchases were carefully installed according to the blueprint; anything that popped up elsewhere and altered the original vision was treated as a weed.


Larry Weaner landscape where volunteers are encouraged and the design is allowed to follow the site’s natural ecological bent

In the cottage gardens of small town Texas I encountered a thriftier and more relaxed concept of design. These gardeners practiced what I came to think of as designing with a hoe.   Most of the plants they set out in their gardens were acquired as “starts” – seedlings or rooted cuttings – from other gardeners. As such, these starts most often belonged to species that reproduced prolifically and spontaneously in the local soil and climate. They might be natives or they might be naturalized; once released into the garden, these starts began to seed themselves into hospitable niches within the landscape. The gardeners then did their design work by hoeing out the volunteer seedlings wherever they were unwanted and leaving the rest.

This approach reduced to almost nothing the cost of acquiring plants. It also encouraged robust growth because the seeds that germinated tended to be the ones that fell into hospitable conditions. In general, the result was a lush tapestry that reflected the ecology of the site as well as the tastes of the gardener. It was a demonstration of the principle that Larry Weaner, my co-author on Garden Revolution, describes as “Letting the plant find its niche”.

The danger of this style of gardening is that it could release a too-prolific plant, an invasive species, into the landscape. One way to guard against this is to limit your planting to plants indigenous to the area (as my co-author Larry Weaner typically does), or to plants which, although exotic in origin, have a long history of good behavior in your area.

Designing with your hoe originally appeared on Garden Rant on June 6, 2016.


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