Less Is Not Always More Until It Is

Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says, (I know his name, no matter)—so much less! Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.

Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto”

Less is more has been around since 1855 when Robert Browning coined the phrase in his “Andrea del Sarto,” a dramatic monologue inspired by the Renaissance artist having the same name as the poem’s title. Nearly one hundred years later, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe made the phrase really popular when he adopted it as a mantra for architecture, art and design. Today, less is more is more popular than ever because minimalism is gaining more and more traction.

I get it. I guess. Well, actually, I guess that I don’t get it. To prove that I don’t get it, I had to Google some examples of less is more so that I could include them here at the start of this post. I can’t believe that I couldn’t come up with any examples on my own, but I couldn’t.

Fortunately, I found a lot of examples on the Internet. However, only one or two of them found me nodding in agreement.

I really do understand that putting less focus on material things–consumerism–allows us to focus more on things that really matter and that bring us lasting happiness. Got it. Endorse it.

And I really do understand that minimalism can help the environment by reducing our carbon footprint. Got it. Got it. Endorse it twice over.

Those two concessions are about as far as I can go. Some of the other less-is-more examples leave me shaking my head.

Sleek, smaller design, often in a black and white scheme. Nope.

Decluttering. Nope. Nope.

Digital decluttering. Nope. Nope. Nope.

(If you desire a full understanding of why I dissed sleek design, decluttering, and digital decluttering, see “OHIO on My Mind.”)

Having scoffed at those examples of less is more, you can rest assured that I would never consider less is more when it comes to gardening. That’s when I draw the line in my compost heap and step across it to join sides with Robert Venturi, one of the major American architects of the twentieth century, who proclaimed that less is a bore.

As for me, I want my garden right now. No. I want it yesterday or the day before, and I want it to look as if I have been enjoying its lushness for years, if not forever.

Hear me and hear me well. Less is not more when it comes to the way that I garden. I garden, I garden my way.

I want nothing–absolutely nothing–to do with seeds. They take days to sprout, more days to grow, still more days to selectively thin, and even more days to bloom.

I want blooms, blooms, blooms. Glorious blooms. And I want them instanter.

“Those 4-inch pots are gorgeous! Look at all those blooms.”

“You must like them a lot to be buying fifteen each of three different annuals.”

“Oh, my. Yes. I love mass plantings.”

That’s a typical conversation as I make early spring pilgrimages to local garden centers, always to be reminded right after I have made my purchases:

“Keep ’em indoors until the danger of frost has passed.”

No big deal. I’ve never minded dragging a gazillion potted plants day after day–from mid-April to mid-May–in and out of my home, kitchen to deck and back again. Hey. Like I said. I want my garden yesterday or the day before. And either way I want it looking like it’s been there forever.

If you think that I have a bad attitude when it comes to seeds, I have an even worse attitude when it comes to saplings. (Think of me as a modern-day-Mae-West gardener: “When I’m good, I’m good. When I’m bad, I’m better.”)

If I’m going to plant a tree, I certainly do not expect to sit under it from the get-go and be shaded–Hmmm, that is something for me to think about–but, at least, I want it to be big enough and bold enough to cast a shadow.

When it comes to how many plants and trees I consider to be enough, it’s really simple.

For specimen plants and trees, I’m fine with one of each.

For all others, if one is good, then three, five, seven, or nine have to be better, especially since I garden in odd numbers when it comes to layout and design.

In fact, my odd-number planting rule struck me as perfect when I decided to plant bamboo. Nine clumps. Not to worry. Non-running.

That rule seemed equally perfect for my hardy bananas. Three groves. They were so small when I first planted them, that I hoped my neighbors would not notice. Trust me. They didn’t. Bigger is better even when it comes to bananas. But these days my neighbors get whiplash as they drive past, and it’s not because of our well-rutted road. Groves of big banana plants on a Virginia mountaintop make heads turn and make cars turn around.

Let’s see whether I have anything else to prove that less is not more when it comes to my gardening. Goodness! How on earth could I forget English ivy. Well, I nearly forgot it, no doubt because for once I broke my cardinal rule of planting in odd numbers. I planted the ivy in twosies. I needed ivy to hide not only a humongous and hideous stump just below my driveway but also to hide the rock wall that I built to hide the stump.

It worked so well there that I decided some ivy would soften the stone wall surrounding three sides of my Koi Pond. The fourth side, lest you think that I slighted it, is a dramatic waterfall, cascading from a height of five or seven or nine feet or so.

I wouldn’t want the world at large to know this–and I know that I can trust you, Dear Reader, to keep what I am about to say to yourself–but in my insistence on having my gardens look as if they have been around forever from day one, I confess that I may have made a mistake or five.

Mistake #1. Planting things too close together. Let’s face it. Too close is too close.

Mistake #2. See Mistake #3. My mistakes come in odd numbers only.

Mistake #3.  Not paying close enough attention to how big things will grow. Double disaster. Too close and too large.

Mistake #4. See Mistake #5. My mistakes come in odd numbers only.

Mistake #5. Not fully understanding that gardeners like me who nurture and care for their gardens end up with plants and trees that are much larger than expected. Miracle Grow grows miracles.

In case you’re wondering how my less-is-not-more approach to gardening played out over time, let me share with you.

Year One. Oh, joy. This is gorgeous. This is proof. My garden looks as if it’s been here for a while. It almost has that old-garden look. So there! I knew from the get-go that less is not more.

Year Two. See Year Three. I garden in odd numbers only.

Year Three. Oh, joy of joys. Everything is so lush. The garden really does look elegant and established.

Year Four. See Year Five. I garden in odd numbers only.

Year Five. Joy to the fifth. Cheers! This is an English garden at its best. Blooms, blooms, blooms. Glorious blooms everywhere. Everything in the garden is touching. I can’t even see weeds between the plants. Maybe there are no weeds. Better still, even if the deer have been in the gardens, I can’t tell what they’ve eaten.

Year Six. See Year Seven. I garden in odd numbers only.

Year Seven. Well, if I must say so myself, the stone walls really do look mysterious hidden beneath the English ivy. Here and there the sunlight bounces off a stone. For all that I know, what I’m walking past might be the foundations of ancient Roman ruins awaiting an archaeological dig. And I am rather glad that the manicured borders around the garden beds have disappeared. Too formal was a tad too much for a mountain man like me.

Year Eight. See Year Nine. I garden in odd numbers only.

Year Nine. The season of the slow awakening finally came. I looked out my windows one day, and I realized that it was gone. All gone. To be certain, it’s all there, but now it’s all so overgrown and all so close together that it looks like an Impressionistic study in shades of emerald green.

From afar, it’s rather dramatic. But let’s face it. Gardening cannot be done from afar. Gardening requires down and dirty.

Recovery from my initial Impressionistic shock was slow, and I confess to having been in denial for a year or three. It was a downer. I felt overwhelmed by the “muchness” of it all, just as Frost’s farmer felt in “After Apple-Picking”: “For I have had too much / Of apple picking: I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.”

But I started to take heart when I started ripping out enough English ivy to fill five, seven, or maybe nine forty-five-gallon yard bags.

I got really hyped when I discovered the stone wall surrounding the red-leaf Japanese maple. Now, though, the maple has overgrown its stone wall boundaries. Joy!

“Mr. Gardener, tear down that wall.”

I did, and I rebuilt it sufficiently far away from the mature maple–exactly where I should have built it to begin with.

Then I repeated the ivy demolition on the three sides of the Koi Pond. Wow! What rocks I have! I can’t believe that I dug those stones out of the ground using just my pick and then managed to position them so expertly. They are stunning. Simply stunning. And with all that ivy gone, the pond is every bit as big as I recall it.

In case you’re wondering about the bamboo, let me just say this. Those nine clumps have an impressive diameter of six feet. Each. Non-running? Right. This bamboo is leaping! I have renamed it Bamboozle Leptomorph! (Patent pending.) I’m still trying to remove as much of it as I can from my gardens, while leaving the original clumps intact. They are gorgeous. Nonetheless, Dear Reader, if you would like to gift your best enemies with some of my bamboo, please leap out to me. You can assure them, if they ask: Clumping. Non-running. Caveat inter vivos. 

No doubt you’re wondering about my bananas. Of all my less-is-not-more gardening ventures, the bananas might be my greatest success. A recent visitor commented that they reminded him of Peru! Imagine that! My own piece of Peru right here in the Shenandoah Valley. Rest assured: I’ll keep the bananas. Even though they are hardy, I have to work hard at wintering them over. When they start to outgrove their allotted space, I simply overwinter smaller sections of the groves. Or I dig up perimeter pups and give them to friends. (Enemies get the Bamboozle Leptomorph, sine caveat.)

The annuals? Never a problem because at the end of the season, Voila! They’re gone. If I want more, I’ll plant them again next year.

No doubt you know exactly where I am. That’s right. I am ripping out lots of my gardens that have exceeded by far my wildest dreams nightmares.

This fall, just as an example, I’ll be lifting and replanting 55 or so peonies that have been anchored in their spots since 1998 when I planted them with fierce determination to make them look as if they had been there forever.  Trust me. These days they look as if they have been there forever and a day.

The same can be said for all of my gardens.

As I move forward with these gardening challenges opportunities, I will be gardener enough to own up to the fact that “Less is not more until it is.”

What worked great for me for so many years is now simply too much. And too much is just too much.

But, as I own up to the shortfalls, I am seeing wide open expanses opportunities that I have not seen in decades. At the same time, I am seeing metaphorical steel and copper plant markers nudging their way up through the soil here and there and everywhere: Gardening Opportunity.” “Plant Tomorrow, Today.” “Just Plant It.”

Yep. I will savor the landscape’s openness through fall’s brilliant blaze and through winter’s snowy silence.

Come spring thaw, however, my unrepentant self and I will be right back at all the local garden centers. In all likelihood, I will do it all over again unless I somehow discover that sweet spot, somewhere between less is a bore and less is more.

9 thoughts on “Less Is Not Always More Until It Is

  1. Lush, plush and more! It sounds like the only thing missing in your garden is a small greenhouse. Think how nice it would be to plant seeds in your new greenhouse in the winter and watch them mature to those 4″ pots. No need to drive to the nursery every weekend (you’re saving money and helping the environment) or haul your new plants in and out to avoid a frost (you’re freeing up time for more important things). It would be a great place to pot up some of your vast peony tubers to store in a basement or to pass out as gifts. Have you considered propagating some of your favorite plants (odd numbers of course)? Yes, I think a greenhouse is exactly what you need!

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  2. Lush, plush and more! It sounds like the only thing missing in your garden is a small greenhouse. Think how nice it would be to plant seeds in your new greenhouse in the winter and watch them mature to those 4″ pots. No need to drive to the nursery every weekend (you’re saving money and helping the environment) or haul your new plants in and out to avoid a frost (you’re freeing up time for more important things). It would be a great place to pot up some of your vast peony tubers to store in a basement or to pass out as gifts. Have you considered propagating some of your favorite plants (odd numbers of course)? Yes, I think a greenhouse is exactly what you need!

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  3. I can imagine how majestic your garden is in full, luscious bloom! But oh, the bamboo. As a fellow bamboo-infested country inhabitant, your comment that you have bamboo aplenty for “friends” of readers is spot on–and gives me an idea ;-P

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  4. Ah, gardening! The promise and expectations when that venture is first contemplated are soon overrun (perfect word!) by the vines and weeds of reality! How do those glossy garden magazines manage to portray a lush, vibrant garden weith ne’er an errant weed or pest in sight? I think they are guilty of false promising!

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    • Thanks, Frank.

      Overrun by vines and weeds of reality really is perfect.

      I think all the mags have 1, 3, 5 or more underpaid and unacknowledged gardeners doing the down-and-dirty behind the scenes! Therein works their secret!

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