Is less more? I associate the familiar phrase with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the founders of modern architecture and a proponent of simplicity of style. But when I went to confirm this, I found to my surprise that the phrase was first used in print in Andrea del Sarto, a poem by Robert Browning.
Who strive – you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,-
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) – so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia.
Regardless of its origin, the phrase is well worth remembering — and well worth applying in the garden. Pruning, dividing, getting rid of whatever is too much — doing this can improve a garden enormously.
So we’ve been working to make less of the garden at Glen Villa these last few months. Not by shrinking the size but by removing the excess. A section along a path through the woods, for instance, has gone from this…
The view on a grey day is not as appealing, perhaps, as a picture from earlier in the season, but the site will be better nonetheless for the severe hair-cut we’ve given it. Why? Because the growth that originally protected the seedling evergreens we planted was threatening to overwhelm them.
Over several days last month, the area was trimmed down and the brush chipped up, exposing those rapidly growing trees to full view.
Next year we will do the fine-tuning to make this area more attractive, but in the meantime, we left that area to do a quicker clean-up closer to home.
This particular clean-up shows how easy it is to become accustomed to things as they are. A friend walking around the garden in late October suggested that the view of the waterfall could easily be improved by removing a single tree.
Taking down one tree improved the situation but still left the waterfall hidden.
Taking down two more trees completed the job. The enormous boulder that gives the waterfall so much of its character is now clearly visible. (So thank you for the suggestion, Jordan!)
Our final clean-up job is almost complete, and what a difference it has made! Some 15 years ago, we planted a group of hawthorn trees by the entry to Glen Villa. Over time, their canopy had become thicker and thicker. And anyone who is familiar with hawthorns knows how daunting their thorns can be. So while pruning was clearly necessary, we always put off doing the work.
In 2011, the trees looked like this.
The trees in full leaf looked as bad as the leafless ones, possibly worse. Their canopies were so crowded that the shape of the tree was totally hidden.
Now the hawthorns look thinner.
One tree remains to be pruned, and that will take place this week, all going well.
Have we taken out enough? too much? Next year will tell the tale. But the size of the piles says that we need to prune these trees more often.
The shape of the tree that is revealed once the pruning is done makes the job worthwhile.
If cleaning up cupboards and drawers gives a certain satisfaction, then cleaning up trees and woods gives even more. The trick is knowing when to stop. Because once you start looking, areas just waiting to be thinned out appear as if by magic. My friend John Hay spotted this one last weekend, and cleaning up here is the next job on the list.
As satisfying as a good clean-up can be, though, less is not always more. Sometimes it is simply less.
Are you in the midst of a clean-up, indoors or out?