The Illusion of Neatness
In this world there are Neatnicks and Messynicks
by Ruth S. Foster

Some people's homes always look as though they were momentarily expecting Architectural Digest's photographer, even in their closets. Other houses look as though they've been stirred up with a giant spoon and never tidyed up.

Most of us are somewhere in between, because neatness is really just a matter of available time. Neatnick and Messynick behavior carries over into the garden, too. Unfortunately, today's magazines are obsessed with Anglophile inspired fancy flower gardens - a style that requires the ultimate in Neatnick behavior.

Fortunately, there are a few things that
create an illusion of neatness without actually having a crew of English slaves doing constant maintenance, for illusion is sort of like sweeping the dirt under the rug.

To begin:
Sweep the paths clean or better still get someone to give you a blower. Blowers really make light work of paths and terraces, even leaves, without blisters from wielding a broom. And clean walks give that clean illusion (like the dirt under the rug).

The lawn is most important for an illusion of neatness. A lawn doesn't have to be good grass, just uniformly flat and hopefully green. No fuzzy seedheads, no different heights, no big bare spots. This may mean mowing a little oftener, and also overseeding twice a year (spring and late summer) to keep new grass coming. To compensate for the extra time mowing in very visible areas, mow less often in areas farther from the line of vision.

Make neat, crisp, edged beds. Nothing makes a yard look neater. Edging can be done with a spade, but the best tool is a sharp, flat edger. Push the edging tool straight down with your foot, and then flick the soil up and into the bed. Even better get a professional gardener, once a year, who will do the edging in lickity split time because he's had lots of experience.

If you do your own edging, first set up a taught string for perfect straight lines. You just can't do it neatly by eye. For curved beds, lay down the hose until the curves are exactly right

To maintain the neat edge is much easier. Every few weeks, just go around and clean up the edge cut the same way you created it in the first place, with a flick of the shovel.

There's always bark mulch. To finish the job even more neatly, add that ubiquitous bark mulch. It comes in colors which may turn you on,,, or off. Bark mulch does look commercial, like a luxury condominium, but it is NEAT.

Some caveats. Mulch should be no more than 2-4" deep, and NEVER, NEVER piled up against tree trunks. No mulch volcanoes. They cause rot and insects. Mulch around trees should be pulled away from the trunk to expose the root flare. This is where the trunk flares out just before the soil line. If a tree has no root flare but looks like a telephone pole, it is buried too deep.

When mulch gets grey and messy in a few months, the top can be lightly raked to clean and refresh it, and fluff it up. Or sprinkle a dusting of new bark. Just a dusting though, not another 2 inches. Personally, I don't like the commercial look, nor the repetitious clean ups. Instead, where I absolutely must have a neat mulch, I use small bark nuggets because they last 2 or 3 years.

Under shrub beds using a ground cover of myrtle or pachysandra is much easier to maintain. The edge can be mowed when doing the lawn. While it's not as neat as a proper dug edge, it's not bad. Ground covers do require one good hand weeding in June and another small weeding later in the summer. Mulched beds require several weedings a season. Thick hosta also makes a good ground cover because weeds have trouble growing through it.

Another trick is to mass flowers in one or just a few places, and keep those beds looking good. It's easier than having little measles of slightly neglected flowers sprinkled all around.

Reading this may make you just want to lie down in the hammock with a cool drink and some mosquito repellant.

But always there are those darn weeds just lying in wait. They have to be dealt with eventually if you you are a neatnick. Unfortunately there is no easy-care solution for weeds, but don't underestimate the usefulness of a mechanical weedwacker, when you've finished your drink that is.