Landscape design Weeds

Long Live Messy Gardens!

Having been a horticulturist working in the field of communications for more than 20 years already, I’m often asked if I have a garden. Obviously, the answer is yes. And this is often followed by the comment “It must be nice!” This is where the dream of my fabulous garden comes crashing down, because the answer is “No”!

Here’s a poorly shod shoemaker, you’re telling yourself. It’s a classic. There’s a bit of that, but it’s that’s not all. The truth is, I ‘m not fond of neatly kept and finely cut gardens. I love messy gardens!

Image: Terence Groos on Wikimedia Commons.

What Exactly is a Beautiful Garden?

Aesthetics, beauty. Such subjective notions, in all fields, be it fashion, hairdressing, makeup, architecture, art, etc. Generally determined by social currents, the definition of beauty depends on few things and this definition changes over time. There was a time when a beautiful garden in Quebec had to have a rockery and a railroad tie wall! In the 2000s, you had to have a water garden and now you can’t do without an alignment of ornamental grasses in a rectangular flower bed! But in general, a beautiful garden is clean, neat with a nice, dark, uniform lawn. But in the end, all this isn’t based on much.

A Beautiful Garden, To my Eyes

From the first day when I was able to take advantage of my little plot of land to plant a myriad of plants, this garden in creation has always been an ecological garden. No pesticides, no synthetic fertilizers, no plastic stuff. Only plants well adapted to their growing environment. And over time, it has become a garden that I weed less and less, firstly because the plants occupy their full space and then because I tolerate wild spontaneity more and more. So, yes, over time my flowerbeds have gained freedom and I have gained precious minutes!

Ode to the Messy Garden

But fundamentally, I like these lawnless gardens, where everything is intertwined. Medium-sized plants support larger ones. Annuals reseed themselves everywhere and fill the smallest interstices. Some weeds are welcomed with open arms. Perennials and vines invade the shrubs. The strongest show their presence. Some elbow their way and they overflow everywhere! That’s pure happiness!

Weeds growing with the ornamental plants. Image: Flickr

The messy garden is essentially a cottage garden or a mixed border, but with a wild touch. It’s less structured, less organized, less thought out, less thoughtful. It is more impulsive, more automatist. No one worries about the harmonies of colors, heights and textures. We plant what we love. It’s a jungle!

Fans of “beautiful gardens” see in this a lack of rigor or even laziness on the part of the gardener-owner. Personally, I see a desire to let nature splash the garden. I see it as a way to stimulate cohabitation and encourage biodiversity. The messy garden is a happy haven for insects, pollinators and birds. It is the most welcoming garden ever! And in fact, it is the garden that should supplant all the mundane lawns in the universe!

The messy garden is an ecosystem in itself. And in this era where large cities are struggling to grab and protect 13.5% (this is the Canadian average in 2021) of their natural territory for conservation purposes, messy gardens are a fabulous avenue for adding green spaces in residential areas. Let’s remember that Canada made a commitment to protect 30% of its territory during the recent COP15.

The Messy Challenge

The big problem with messy gardens is social acceptability. We experience the same issues with the development of bioretention cells, rain gardens and bioswales in residential areas. Citizens are not all ready to tolerate what they consider disorder, but which is simply the expression of nature. There’s still a lot of educational work to be done in order to demonstrate the many advantages of messy gardens and at the same time, the multiple negative impacts that gardens controlled with pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and thorough weeding can have.

And that’s why I am fascinated by messy gardens. It’s also why people remain unimpressed with my own garden and why in all honesty I can confidently say that my garden is not “beautiful” (by current aesthetic standards). Whatever. Basically, a garden should be beautiful in the eyes of its owner. I love my messy garden and I only have eyes for it.

The vegetable patch can also be a messy garden! Image: Flickr.

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

14 comments on “Long Live Messy Gardens!

  1. You made my day! In our upscale neighborhood I am the odd one out, always taking clue from nature rather than forcing ‘beauty’. My focus is native plants and chemical free yards where plants can find harmony and vitality and the strong ones can thrive without synthetic boost.
    Not the typical tidy garden but always a pleasure for me- I know my neighbors don’t understand me or my way of gardening but when I see the happy finches, humming birds, butterflies and bees dancing from flower to weed I know I am doing something better and greater than just maintaining a manicured look, for which my wild friends are thankful and I am thankful they get to enjoy the space as much as I do.

  2. Kay Verdone

    This post of yours will be saved and savoured. Every once in a while I will re read it to give myself further encouragement to watch my garden evolve. At 76 I am wanting to make peace with my garden and the effort it makes to respond to the permissive love I give it. As in Braiding Sweetgrass, I want my garden to love me back. It does just that, providing food, colour, scents, movements in breezes and so on. Somehow with age has come a desire to have much less control over this wee space. And, may it never be so private that bugs, kids, bees, birds and other critters avoid it. Welcome all.

  3. My goal is for my still somewhat new garden to look messy! I’m waiting for the plants to spread and fill in the spaces so it looks lush and overgrown. If you have any tips for encouraging that, please let me know. 🙂

  4. This post is a giant excuse for being lazy and I totally dig it, pun intended.

  5. I have a friend with similar convictions/taste who calls her garden The Garden of Benign Neglect. I’m very happy to plant native plants but I also love my peonies, daffodils, snowdrops, colchicums . . . We have a lawn which is more like a cropped meadow and someone else in the family mows it. I would be content to just mow paths through it. I wish you had included photos of your own garden instead of open source images from the internet.

  6. Roy L Whitaker

    I always enjoy your articles. I’m all for a messy garden (trees and berry patches in my case since I’m hopeless with flowers and veggies), but my wife’s favorite pastime in the world is riding her John Deere mower, and she’ll mow any weed or blade of grass that’s more than 1/4 of an inch. So I manage to leave things messy at the edges and in each of the anti-deer tree cages while all the other space is carefully manicured. All in the interest of family harmony.

  7. Sharon Leggett

    Amen

  8. Deb Schumaker

    Aha! I call my garden the accidental garden! Moles have transported all kinds of corms and bulblets….and then there’s a gladiolus where I didn’t plant one…or those shamrocks! In another space a broccoli or kale or tomato sprouts…will it fit I ask? Sometimes I move them…if too many then discard! Sunflowers grow in my carrots and I have to make sure they don’t shade them! Yes I love my messy/accidental garden!

  9. Marcia L, Barr

    I love your garden. We moved from our house to a condo three and a half years ago, and I still miss my garden. Yours reminded me so much of mine that I started to cry. It is a delight to see you enjoying it.

  10. I realized that I mostly garden for the birds bees and bugs anyway. And I love to see what the plant is going to do! Where will it go, how tall will it get, when will the flowers come? What insect will pollinate it? Last year I had a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) grow so tall — must have been 12 feet? Just amazing — a tree in one year. To eat I only grew cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. It’s always fun to just let things grow wild.

  11. Granny Pat

    My neighbours definitely think I am “weird” and lazy because I love weeds so much I take photos of them and frame them and because I am more concerned about providing habitat for the woodpeckers and pheasants than I am about a “snag” “disfiguring” my front lawn. Weird, lazy, crazy . . . all labels I wear proudly. Great post.

  12. Glen Spurrell

    Oh Julie you are so right! This idea fits in perfectly with the various themes of this blog: laidback, making the most of space and, of course, being friendly to the natural world. Amen to all of that!

  13. Ann T Dubas

    Love your post Julie! We also love our wild gardens full of native plants and some nice exotics. We use herbicides-but only on invasive species. Our area is infested with them. I hate killing vines (except the invasive ones) but also hate the killer vines that strangle trees, twisting so hard they dent the bark.

  14. Thank you Julie. The amount of resources wasted and the environmental damage inflicted by maintaining the classic “perfect lawn & garden” is horrific!
    Hopefully more scientific information provided and examples set by experts like yourself will help others realize that they could be part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!

%d bloggers like this: