Kay lives here

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An epiphany on the nature of problem-solving whilst weeding…

Photo: Black kangaroo paws in the dying sunlight

I have not been, traditionally, much of a gardener. In fact, we built and moved into our house over 6 years ago and up until last month we have not had any kind of garden at all.

The reasons for this are multiple:

  1. I don’t like the traditional “lawn with flowerbeds” that everyone in our suburb has – not only is it boring and ugly, but it’s a massive waste of water, looks unnatural and is totally unsuitable for our drought-crippled West Australian climate
  2. Neither Dave nor myself are gardeners, and we really had no idea how to approach creating a native, water-wise garden, and
  3. Establishing a garden has really not been a priority for us, at all.

That all came to an end a few weeks ago with the help of a friend of mine, Mrs A, who is a gardening nut and has been suffering separation anxiety from her own garden after the sale of her house. I gave Mrs A free rein and a couple of hundred bucks and she chose, sourced and planted around 90 trees, shrubs and groundcovers native to our general area as well as instructing us in their care.

The garden is still quite sparse now (during winter) but next spring we’re expecting the groundcovers to start growing spreading, the bushes to start filling out and the trees to start stretching. In a couple of years, we’re hoping it will become a pocket of riotous wild natural bushland that uses a minimal amount of our state’s precious water, doesn’t require much in the way of maintenance, provides some screening for the house, and looks bloody fantastic.

If you’re wondering where problem-solving fits into all this, hold on, I’m getting to it…

For now, each plant is quite small and they are spaced apart. Around each plant we put a small circle of mulch to help retain water. After the first rain shower we had, the weeds starting shooting up all over the garden, and I started the battle to keep them down. I started by going after the biggest ones, but it seemed that every day there were more and more and I really wasn’t getting anywhere.

Then one morning, squatting in the front garden with a pair of gloves and a weed bucket, I had an epiphany. I’m a geek and a programmer. I am fully aware of my anal-retentive tendencies and in my daily work as well as my personal life, I quite often harness these tendencies in order to get things done efficiently. In essence, the garden shouldn’t be any different.

How do we accomplish a task or project? By breaking it down into it’s smallest components and then working on them one by one until they are finished. I break a new site into sections and complete them one at a time. To borrow David Allen’s example from the excellent book/productivity bible Getting Things Done, there’s no point putting “Climb Mt Everest” onto your todo list – but if you put down “buy protective clothing”, “book ticket to Nepal” and “research sherpas”, you’re on your way to accomplishing the larger goal.

The geek factor comes into this as well: make it a game or competition, and the race becomes more important than the end result. The compulsion to keep going, to beat whatever the criteria for success is (shortest time, or longest time, or whatever it may be) will drive the geek to keep going.

So, back to my garden. What is the purpose of weeding? I don’t care about the weeds themselves, but I don’t want them stealing water and nutrients and choking out my plants before they have a chance to establish themselves. So I set the goal: make the immediate 30cm area around each plant weed-free. This roughly equates to the mulched area around each one. Then I defined the process: I would go around the garden clockwise and remove all weeds from each mulched area, plant by plant. Once that was done, maintaining that weed-free zone would be a much simpler undertaking. The weeds outside the mulch zones I’m not particularly bothered about, but if their removal becomes a necessity I will formulate a new methodology to attack them.

After one full week, approximately 70% of my plants have a completely weed-free zone. On the first day, I cleared around about three plants. The second day, I doubled the number of cleared plants. On Friday, I popped out at lunchtime just to do a spot of weeding. That’s my anal-retentive impulses taking over. For now, I’m happy to let them.

In essence, my epiphany is not really news to anyone except me – every “problem” in life can (and should!) be attacked with the same philosophy. Embrace your inner anal-retentive geek! It really works.