The merits of tidy gardens revisited

“O, what pity is it

That he had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land

As we this garden!” 

— William Shakespeare, “Richard II,” 1595

The bard was a true believer in tidy gardens. Indeed, he mentions weeding, pruning and “manuring” gardens no fewer than a dozen times in his plays, leading Henry Ellacombe, author of “The Plant-Lore & Garden Craft of Shakespeare” (1896) to observe that all of the references “would almost tempt us to say that Shakespeare was a gardener by profession.”

It’s hard to believe the bard would have had the time to maintain a garden, but perhaps he used the work as a respite from writing.

Shakespeare often used the image of an orderly garden as a metaphor for describing the historical state of affairs in England. However, there are several factual advantages for keeping one’s garden neat.

A tidy garden is a healthier garden. During the same scene in “Richard II” as the passage above, a gardener at the Duke of York’s palace notes, “The noisome weeds, which without profit suck the soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.”

Weeds compete with other plants for moisture and nutrients. An uncluttered garden reduces fungal and bacterial diseases by allowing sunshine and air to circulate among the plants, while tidying up weeds and dead foliage helps to prevent pesky insects from lurking about.

A tidy garden also makes a healthier gardener. In “Richard II,” the Queen asks her ladies-in-waiting, “What sport shall we devise in this garden to drive away the heavy thought of care?” It seems even the monarchs of 14th century England understood the merits of physical exertion in the garden. (One of the ladies suggests lawn bowling.) In fact, tidying up the garden provides stretching and toning exercise that helps to keep gardeners’ bodies healthy and fit.

A tidy garden makes a happier gardener. The Queen makes this connection when she visits the Duke of York’s well-kept garden to drive away her heavy thoughts. Studies have shown that tidiness lowers anxiety and stress levels because it’s easier to move around and find things in a neat, orderly environment. People also tend to sleep better when they live and work in organized spaces.

A tidy garden makes happier neighbors. The Duke of York’s gardener bemoans the king for neglecting his “garden.” He says, “Superfluous branches we lop away, that bearing boughs may live; had he done so, himself had borne the crown which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.”

Although the neighbors will probably not accuse you of leading the whole country to ruin, they may think your messy garden reflects poorly on the ‘hood. Certainly, “beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder” must be considered here; however, real estate experts insist that homes with tidy gardens sell faster and bring in higher offers.

All of this makes it sound as if I share Shakespeare’s enthusiasm for tidy gardens. Actually, in autumn I enjoy leaving most of my herbaceous perennial gardens in their natural state. (I clear dead foliage from my bulbs, though.) As the plants succumb to overnight frosts and the colorful flowers fade, my garden continues to offer delight by attracting birds and other wildlife that forage seeds and gather dried leaves and twigs for overwintering nests.

As in the forests, fallen leaves in my garden protect plant roots and regulate moisture, as well as provide nutrients to the soil as the leaves decompose. Insect pests and disease can overwinter in the dead foliage, but so, too, can beneficial insects such as ladybugs, hoverflies, lacewings and some species of bees. Thus, garden-friendly insects will be around when the “bad bugs” show up.

It’s beautiful to see morning frost sparkling on bare branches in winter. There is a certain stark splendor in the way the limbs reach toward the gray skies as if paying tribute for winter’s break from the hard work of growing. I think the garden plants have it right, never mind what Shakespeare advised. He probably had someone else do all of his gardening work, anyway.

— Rhonda Nowak is Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/

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