GARDEN THERAPY: Fluff – December 2021

By Mel Bellar

Fluff implies something trivial, extraneous, without true value or content. Personally, I have little tolerance for fluff in general and can’t stand marshmallow fluff. But fluff in the garden is another story and something that we all should embrace.

Fluff:  the act of spiffing up a garden to make it look nice with what is going on at the moment; similar to fluffing the pillows on the bed or couch or fluffing up one’s hair to go out.

I have been doing garden maintenance for myself and others for a very long time, and over the years my teammates and I have fumbled around with what to call what we do when we “take care” of a garden. Sometimes we are doing a Spring cleanup, or doing something specific like pruning the rugosas, dividing the iris or weeding the vegetable garden. However, more often than not, we are just doing what is necessary to make things look nice with what the garden has to offer at the time. We have called it doing a “maintenance pass,” a “visit” or just, “Let’s do” or “We did” the Ditcheks (for example). One day I referred to it as a fluff or just “fluffing,” and slowly it became our standard term. Now, many of our clients use the word and it is my goal to have it permeate the gardening world. Yes, I am joking, but it is quite fitting.

So, what constitutes a garden fluff? It depends on the time of the year, but it always involves making the garden look nice and tidy, relative to the style of the garden. It is a little like straightening up and cleaning the house. At our house, that does not mean getting out the Pledge to polish the furniture or polishing the silver, but it might at your house.  A good fluff will nearly always include weeding and edging the beds (where they meet the turf grass). It often involves deadheading and pruning out any dead branches or brown areas. In the Spring it might mean picking the leftover leaves (from the Spring cleanup) out of the junipers or putting down some fresh mulch.  It very often involves some refined pruning to shrub and trees that bloom on new wood, such as panicle
hydrangeas (Limelight, Quickfire, Tardiva). A little later in the Spring we need to cut back or clean up the spent foliage of early blooming bulbs like snowdrops, scilla/bluebells or even some early blooming daffodils, and divide and move around perennials that are pushing out of their spot. Nearly every garden requires some adjustments, which means moving things around that are outgrowing their space or just need to be repositioned to look better. It is impossible to plant a garden; where it looks good in year 1, 3, 5 and 10 without cutting things back and moving them around. Hence, a fluff can actually involve some serious labor, even if it is a very soft word.

Later in the Summer, fluffing requires a lot of cutting back to keep things from growing into each other and to keep the integrity of some of the individual plants.  Sometimes we want to have things grow together in a mashup. But the garden usually looks better if we cut back some things after they bloom to create some space and air. In my garden, this is particularly important in the Summer, as a fluff requires a lot of cutting back of things falling into the paths and falling all over each other. The garden should feel rejuvenated and looking great after a good fluff!

Fluffing a garden is one of the most gratifying things that I do. Designing and creating big installations are thrilling, but it takes weeks or months of work, and then it is basically nascent and raw and takes time to settle and grow in. Doing a fluff can only take hours and leaves the garden fresh and beautiful.  It is a particularly fun event to take on with my likeminded friends and team mates.

We used to call what we did for our last visit of the season, a Fall cleanup. Since the thinking about Fall cleanups has changed in the gardening world, we only cut back what looks bad, do some final weeding and clear the leaves only out of the paths and paved areas.  It felt weird and wrong to do such a flimsy final visit until I started thinking of it as a Fall fluff instead of a Fall cleanup. Now I feel better about it. I just noticed today, however, that the Fall fluff of my garden needs some refreshing as some of the things that looked fine a couple of weeks ago are looking a little shabby now. There is nothing wrong with doing an early Winter fluff to keep it looking nice.  A good snowfall will really make it fluffy.

Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.~