“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Garden writer Toni Gattone, tonigattone.com, who specializes in inspiring people to enjoy gardening at every age, wrote an inspiring blog post recently.
In it, she eschews well-meant but often ineffective “fix it” New Year’s resolutions in favor of taking the gift of winter’s slower pace to assess how to make your life — and garden — grow with ease and beauty.
She asked a question that hit me like a ton of bricks: “What are you willing to prune out of your garden and your life?”
While the act of pruning a green branch may feel cruel to a novice gardener, when done thoughtfully, it boosts the plant’s health rather than decreases it. There’s even a type called “renewal pruning” done in stages over three years to encourage fresh growth. The idea of “pruning your life” can feel much the same, as anyone who has “Marie Kondo’d” their indoor clutter can attest.
Case in point: our overgrown four-variety tiered apple espalier, which has not sparked joy in a while. It’s hardly earning its keep since the lower tiers, which are naturally bland yellow apples, are taking over the others. Spokes of waterspouts are shooting in all directions because I forgot to prune again this summer.
The idea was great, but in execution, not so much.
I wondered what I could replace it with that I (and probably passers-by) would enjoy more. Star jasmine or southern magnolia for evergreen winter interest? That would prune away the work of pruning, bagging each apple to prevent coddling moth and cleaning up rotting leftovers from the ground — and my annual guilt at forgetting to prune.
Just like an overflowing closet or bookcase stacked from floor to ceiling (ask me how I know), clutter in the garden is just as troublesome.
When negative becomes positive
Negative space is soothing because our brains don’t have to analyze or process it — they just sail on to the next thing to notice. One hallmark of compelling design is that it “reads” easily — or at least some main elements do. Think of rolling hills punctuated by a handful of fir trees, or a curated wall of plants on Instagram — the hills highlight the trees, as the wall space does the pothos and philodendron.
Negative space needn’t be empty — it just needs to be made up of one thing, whether that’s a sea of sedges, sunflowers or paving.
Please skip the lawn, however. While used effectively in parks and golf courses, a grass lawn is my least favorite version of negative space. A green blanket is not worth the cost in soil health, time and maintenance.
It’s worth considering what tasks you enjoy the most — would you rather spend your summer arranging flowers from a cutting garden or eating home-grown salads? Shaping a topiary or mowing a wildflower meadow?
Conversely, which tasks do you compulsively avoid? Prune them away as best you can.
If you have had it with weeding, plant a good ground cover that can play nicely with your plants. Streamlining your efforts down to what you love to see and take care of will reap benefits for years to come in your body, which will have fewer aches, in your mind, which will have a shorter to-do list, and in your garden, which will be more beautiful and peaceful.
Casting around our yard, I see we need some negative space, more repetition, as well as more winter interest.
Years of cramming plants in where they mostly fit and usually grow has led to a Jackson Pollock-style landscape rather than an intentional one. There are numerous examples of plants that are hogging sun and nutrients from their neighbors or just adding visual chaos. There could be a lot of digging in my near future, but imagining the calm to come will keep me going.
What in your life could use some pruning attention?