garden shoulds

It's not that there's never a time and place for should.  Psychopaths and sociopaths behave badly and they should be more caring and considerate of others.

But most of us are not psychopaths or sociopaths. We are just ordinary well meaning people who often feel guilty and drained of pleasure because we feel we have disobeyed our inner, insistent shoulds.

This applies in the garden just as it is does in other parts of life.

Here are a few garden shoulds.

1. You should mulch the garden.

Organic mulches certainly are good for the soil, promoting healthy soil as they decompose. This helps plants to be strong and to resist diseases and pests. They also suppress weeds and conserve water.

A downside to covering the soil with mulch is that the mulch prevents certain native bees from building their nests in burrows in the ground in urban areas. This would be a shame because our native bees are precious important pollinators and their presence increases biodiversity. Australia has around 1,500 species of native bees, but most of the bees we see are the introduced commercial honeybee.

Some people simply don't like the look of mulch, seeing it as untidy, and they are perfectly entitled to this position.

2.  You should water the garden.

As I walk around I see many gardens watered unnecessarily. If you want to grow food you probably do need to water - although before European settlement people managed pretty well foraging for bush tucker.

If you don't want to water the garden, like me, here are three tips: mulch the soil, use dense groundcovers and grow plants that aren't thirsty and can survive dry times.

3. A garden needs regular upkeep.

It depends on the garden. A formal garden with carefully shaped and sculpted shrubs would need regular upkeep if you want it to look good.

I garden whenever I can, but I get busy with other aspects of life and sometimes don't manage to garden for weeks at a time. When I can't get into the garden for a while, the effect on me is serious. I miss it so much, I practically come out in a rash. But I need the garden more than the garden needs me. The garden does all right. There may be a few more weeds. Jobs like digging up and dividing plants will still be there when I get back. As will all the other garden tasks.

4. You shouldn't use insecticides or pesticides.

It depends on the insecticide. Toxic ones like Round up definitely harm the environment, but what are we to do when weeds or insect pests reach plague proportions? If we don't control them somehow they will take over.

For the last decade or so I have managed my garden without using insecticides or pesticides. Once I was challenged by an invasion of vine weevils, and managed to obtain some beneficial nematodes that are parasitic on weevils, and a natural biological way of solving the problem.

Another time there was an infestation of caterpillars on a Eucalyptus leucoxylon rosea. First I tried squashing them by hand (gloved!) but there were too many so I chopped the whole tree down to the ground with the caterpillars on it, and put the lot in the recycling bin. I hope they died there. I feel uncomfortable that I just might have passed the problem on to someone else. Anyway, soon the tree grew back - multi- trunked and minus the caterpillars.

5.  The garden should be for living in, not just for looking at.

I heard this should at the International Garden Design conference from one of the garden design stars. Of course I immediately felt upset and that somehow I had failed because my garden is looked at from inside the house much more often than being physically occupied. Partly because most people seem reluctant to be outside when it's cold and don't like being bitten by mosquitos when it's hot.

Once I stopped feeling like a failure and regained my capacity to think, I realized I'm perfectly happy with this. If people come into the garden, that's fine. If they choose to look at it through the windows that's fine too. As long as they don't completely turn their backs to the windows - that's going a step too far!

6. You should use indigenous plantings.

I am a member of IFFA (Indigenous Flora and Fauna Association). Its aims are pure and to be supported: to promote the appreciation, study, conservation and management of indigenous flora and fauna through research and discussion, networking and advocacy, and information exchange.

But today's world is multicultural, and even if you tried, you couldn't stop change. Some non indigenous flora and fauna have naturalized, and don't necessarily harm the environment. We want to save as many threatened species as we can. But personally, I suffer from too much doubt to be able to maintain a hard line stand on just about anything.

7. You should grow your own food.

Sigh ... yes, maybe we should. Heaps of advantages for individuals and for the planet. It's just that I prefer to have a different kind of garden. There's lots of self sown parsley and that's a food, but it wouldn't really give you a balanced diet.

So ... let's grow what we like, and never forget: Green is good!

I suggest we write our garden shoulds on a piece of biodegradable paper, rip up the paper and add the shreds to the compost heap.


  1. Your prescription for your garden is about as solid as a rock. I applaud your credo from start to finish. I must say that within my circle the people who are dedicated to (obsessive about?) gardens and those equally passionate about photography ,are never quite satisfied with the results!

    1. I agree, focussing on results is a recipe for un-joyfulness.

  2. I agree with most of your 'should', catmint.
    I should water, keep maintainance, grow my own food, but I can't live all the year in my garden cottage because the cottage was build for warm season only living. On other hand when my little tuja got disease last fall I needed to use insecticide by advice of RHC.

    1. Hi Nadezda, glad you managed to save your little tuja!

  3. I hate 'Garden shoulds'. Of course I also often think and say I should do this and should do that in the garden, but actually I really think there are no shoulds for the garden:
    I never mulch the garden.
    Watering only when it's really too dry and of course my potplants.
    Regular upkeep just when necessary but I love the garden to be a bit wild.
    Since about 10 years I don't use insecticides and I think, I believe that I have less problems then before.
    Feeding the garden is a must, own compost and manure prevent diseases.
    My garden is for living in ánd looking at.
    I use all kind of plants but it should look as natural as possible.
    We did grow our own food in the past but by now I only grow some lettuces and herbs, it is just for myself.
    Pfft, that's my list of shoulds, actually I have no shoulds, the things I do in the garden I just love to do.

    1. Hi Janneke, lovely to hear from you, another anti-shouldist.

  4. All "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" should be tempered with the kind of perspective and reason you've outlined in this post. I was glad to hear that your tree grew back when you cut it to the ground in response to the caterpillar invasion. I did the same with a perennial lupine once but unfortunately I yanked the roots too. I still miss that plant!

    1. Hi Kris, so many plants gone to plant heaven. I think that gum tree grew back out of spite because I wasn't sure that I actually wanted in that position anyway.

  5. A good read.
    I do not mulch.
    I water if there is a heatwave and the plants are really struggling.
    I have wild areas to support bees etc.
    I do not grow my own food as I have many rabbit visitors to the garden and it just didn't work.

    I love my secateurs though and I use them everyday.

    1. I find it hard too when plants are struggling in a heatwave but if I manage to resist watering them and they survive, they become very very tough.

  6. The 'shoulds' are whips which too many of us apply. To ourselves and sometimes to others.
    Water is at a premium here and I SHOULD get off my fundament and order and spread mulch.
    One of my own personal shoulds is learning to enjoy/appreciate the garden as it is, not yearning towards the non existent day when a mythical self has done all the work which is still needed. My garden, like my mind, is an eclectic mix of the native and the imported.

    1. Dear EC, Nice comment, we should choose our own shoulds.

  7. Spent most of today on Should Prune. Once that is chipped I Can Mulch.

    I think enjoying the view of the garden thru the window is a valid part of living in it. I have slowly learnt to deliberately plan the view thru each window.

    My version of should grow food, is more 'permaculture' and bush tucker. We have lili pili - and those tiny berries are delicious!

    1. They are delicious, there are several lilli pilli I pass on my walks, and when they are ripe I pick the berries and eat them. No one else seems to do this. I 'should' plant some in my garden but have never got round to it.

  8. This is so good. You are right--it makes sense for each gardener to create a list like this. I must say I agree with you on all of them. I do water parts of my garden--mainly the ones near the house; the wild areas are on their own. I do live in my garden at times, especially when the mosquitoes aren't too bad: Sometimes I take a beer out onto the porch or the patio and sit and dream and watch the hummingbirds and the bees. Regarding growing my own food: I don't have enough sun here. So, we subscribe to a local CSA food share for locally grown, organic food: I guess that's the next best thing. This is an excellent post, and very thought-provoking!

    1. Thank you, Beth, so pleased you enjoyed the post. I try to buy food at farmers markets too.

  9. I like your photographs! And your final suggestion :-)

    1. I'm so pleased you mentioned the photos. The originals are views of a cactus in a front garden in my street and using those photoshop things were fun and I think made them look a bit surreal.

  10. I agree with you 100% and want to add that a garden should bring us joy and should never be compared to any other. We should be less critical of ourselves and see our gardens the way pollinators do. That might make all the difference!

    1. Hi CM, Good idea - it's a real burden to have to think about appearances all the time.


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