Maintenance vs. Stewardship: Turning a New Leaf

I’m not a fan of renaming something in order to change public perception. Language is powerful, minds are pliable and as any politician knows, we can quickly distance ourselves from the truth of the matter. However, every once and awhile a definition is beautifully expanded by rephrasing a term, and such is the case when it comes to considering the time we spend on our landscapes as ‘stewardship’ rather than ‘maintenance.’



Earlier in the month I spent a thought-provoking afternoon at The Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council’s annual Turning a New Leaf Conference, and throughout each of the talks I attended, a core idea would surface: Let’s think of our role in the landscape as a chance to be stewards, not merely groundskeepers.

In my profession as a garden writer and nosy parker, I meet and talk to a lot of groundskeepers – and I’m not talking about paid professionals. These are the people who maintain a ‘yard’ with an uninspiring selection of basic foundation shrubs, a large lawn, and approximately twenty five hundred linear feet of beds, paths and driveway to edge.


Just another Pleasant Valley Sunday.


They hate their job. They absolutely loathe it.

I hate it for them. But what I hate most is that they confuse this excruciatingly tedious work with my job as a gardener. I experience my share of tedious jobs, certainly; but as such work is integral to the overall stewardship of the landscape, the sting of that tedium is lessened by its value. Thus, mowing is not mowing – it is a framing of paintings I have created with plants. Clearing invasive brambles is not clearing invasive brambles, it is thoughtful editing to allow desired saplings and spring ephemerals to carpet the woodland.

When you fail to cultivate connection to your outside space, you cheat yourself of experiencing a profound sense of purpose as steward and caretaker for your little part of planet Earth. You become a slave to something that doesn’t excite you. Something that never ever stops growing – yet never grows into something remotely inspiring. A landscape that doesn’t pay you, doesn’t look any different from year to year, and continues to take a toll on your back, your hands, and your life energy.

To dominate that landscape and make the hated job easier, you rely on pesticides and herbicides as weapons, not tools, and you are likely to spend thousands on anything and everything that promises relief from never-ending toil. The herbicides end up in the Bay, the newest effort-saver ends up in the landfill, and you still end up staring at the same scene next year.

There is another way.

Rick Darke, keynote speaker at the conference and author of numerous books on the aesthetics of living landscapes, urged the audience to think in terms of ‘creative dynamic stewardship’ – challenging home owners to re-vitalize their landscapes by visualizing them as a haven for wildlife and the natural processes of decay and regeneration.

“When we see something is beautiful,” he pointed out, “we are more likely to conserve it.”

I would add, we are also more likely to become connected to it.

But how do we make that shift? Perhaps it is as simple as surveying our landscape whilst pondering the words of Alexander Pope “Consult the genius of the place in all…”

To build, to plant, whatever you intend,

To rear the column, or the arch to bend,

To swell the terrace, or to sink the grot;

In all, let Nature never be forgot…”

Here on my own property at Oldmeadow, I am exquisitely aware that I could do little but edit the woodland, mow around stately trees and shapely ones, keep the invasive brambles at bay and set up bird feeding stations and toad houses, and I would have a landscape that invigorated and inspired me.  The ornamental and vegetable gardens I obsessively tend are just gravy.


When you find yourself staring at the buttressed trunk of a beech for ten minutes while raking leaves, you know you’ve made that connection.


It feels good to be a caretaker of that land, just as it felt good twenty years ago to open the windows on a busy London street and tend to humble window boxes where springtime songbirds would make nests.  Whatever your landscape happens to be – patio or potager – stewardship of that landscape gives you purpose – something constant within the fleeting gimmicks of a modern life.  Thanksgiving is every day.


Allowing surprises in the landscape – such as these self-seeded cosmos – rather than keeping things ‘just so’ helps us cultivate a sense of discovery in our outside spaces.


If your landscape isn’t flipping that switch inside of you, it’s time to change it.

This may be as easy as adding native berrying shrubs like winterberry or beautyberry, planting a small dogwood or stewartia outside a kitchen window for nesting sites, or working with groundcovers and grasses to cut down on weeding. Planting living landscapes to which you feel united – landscapes that make you smile each time you tend them.


‘Helene von Steine’ stachys is a great contrast to berrying shrubs – particularly red ones like this winterberry (Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’). It’s also a weed-smothering groundcover.


It’s “making maintenance sexy again” as Beth Ginter, Lead Coordinator of the Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional Certification Program, told her audience.  After all, what’s sexier than an intimate connection?

For more information about the Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council or attending the 2019 Turning a New Leaf Conference, visit

Reprinted with permission by The Frederick News Post


By | 2018-02-20T20:40:44+00:00 November 24th, 2017|

About the Author:

Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.


  1. tonytomeo November 24, 2017 at 4:11 am - Reply

    I think that most of us who read gardening articles happen to be more connected with their garden than not. From what I read, not many are too ‘disconnected’ from it.

    • Marianne Willburn November 26, 2017 at 4:13 am - Reply

      I agree wholeheartedly. But I do have a lot of non-gardeners that read my articles and it is to them that the spirit of this article is directed. (And perhaps to those who are feeling a little bit weary.)

  2. Barbara Warner November 25, 2017 at 3:20 pm - Reply

    I agree with you 100% about connecting with nature and looking at those tree trunks in awe, planting shrubs and flowers that birds, bees, and butterflies can use and I get the pleasure of watching those things maintain their own livelihood and reproduce. However, my question is – I am allergic to poison ivy, oak, and sumac, so how do I keep those things out of my beds and fences without using pesticides? The poison oak just took over one of my shade beds this summer – climbing through lilacs, my hydrangeas, Lenten roses, peonies – etc. – all planted near a fence under my pecan tree. The neighbor does not maintain his side of the fence at all, and the poison took over before I realized it. I also have a wild grapevine that keeps coming in and around my lilacs. It gets very messy in there. WHAT TO DO???
    Thanks! I look forward to your response.

    • Marianne Willburn November 26, 2017 at 4:10 am - Reply

      Hi Barbara, in the article I refer to homeowners often using pesticides and herbicides as ‘weapons, not tools’ two very different perspectives. I use them when it makes sense to do so – as valuable tools – looking at each situation individually and always tending towards organic methods first. It certainly sounds as if you have a strong and respectful relationship with your outside space, and would probably use those chemicals sparingly. I’m highly allergic to poison oak and ivy and when I see it in my beds I get gloves, pull it and put it in a bag to throw away. When I see it in the understory of the woods, I spray or paint it and look forward to the day when I have it completely under control and can just pull a small seedling here and there. It’s a long process, but used this way, the glyphosate is a valuable tool. Wild grape is another very very difficult weed that is deeply rooted and incredibly aggressive. When it is continuing to entangle itself within a woody shrub and roots will be disturbed by an aggressive trowel, painting its leaves with glyphosate is my answer. At this time of year (if you completely bundle up and wash with Tecnu within an hour to make sure any contact is lessened) you’ll be able to see the vines and cut them out. In the spring, when new leaves come from the base, paint a bit of glyphosate on them and you should be able to kill them before they wind up back on the woody shrubs or before you have to use a great deal of chemical. I have not at this point found anything organic that is as effective on these two aggressive native vines and am always looking for other equally effective methods. Good luck!

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