Month: October 2010

Setting the Edge

If your garden includes both grass (i.e. a lawn) and something that isn’t grass, like perennial beds, a shrub border, a mixed border or an area to grow vegetables or herbs, you probably know about edging. If you don’t, you should.

Lawns necessitate some of the more tedious tasks in gardening, the major one being mowing. Some gardeners would contend that lawn maintenance really isn’t gardening at all, being more akin to vacuuming or cleaning out the eavestroughs. I’m not going to get into that argument, because what I want to focus on here is edging, which I consider to be a fundamental gardening task.

I don’t have “a lawn.” I have lawns. That sounds pretty grand, but what I mean is that the grass plots in my garden do not form one large expanse. Rather, they are discrete areas among beds, borders and walkways, ranging in size from 15 x 15 feet (roughly speaking) to perhaps 15 x 30 feet. Just about all of them adjoin planted areas in which grass is not welcome. In order to keep it out, I edge two or three times in a growing season.

Like many other garden jobs, edging may be done with a machine or with hand tools. The machine is either a gas-powered or electric string trimmer. The hand tool is a half-moon-shaped blade with a handle and “footsteps” or treads that make it easy to push the tool into the sod using one’s foot. I admit that string trimmers are faster, especially for cutting the turf that often impinges on concrete sidewalks, but I don’t recommend using them near plants that you want to keep. The foot-powered edger is the tool of choice in places where grass is next to soil.

If you edge at regular intervals it need not be a major project. You don’t even need to stretch a string or lay out a hose for accuracy, because the turf edge will be easily found, and only the tentative incursions of grass that have grown since the last edging session will need to be removed. On the other hand, if you’re carving out a new bed or restoring a nearly obliterated edge, setting up a guide is a good idea.

Using the edger is actually kind of fun. There is a great description of the process in Sara B. Stein’s delightful book, My Weeds : a gardener’s botany. The tedious part of edging is dealing with the chunks of turf you cut off, which is why it’s best to edge regularly.  In any case, you will have to get down on your knees and remove the unwanted grass, be it small clumps or big chunks. Large pieces of turf are best turned over and allowed to dry, after which you can shake out some of the soil. As you work your way along the edge, you can check out what’s going on in the bed or border — plants needing division or getting too pushy, or surprises such as desirable seedlings or plants that you thought were dead, but aren’t.

Once you’ve removed the unwanted grass and fluffed up the soil along the edge, you can, if perfection is your goal, get out your grass shears and trim the grass along the newly cut edge.  This, in fact, is routine maintenance between edging sessions. Lawn grass has a tendency to grow sideways, so every two or three mowings, you should trim the edge with grass shears. There are different models, including some that allow one to do the job while standing upright. I can’t comment on their effectiveness because my shears are a simple, hand-held type. Three tips: number one, wear gloves; a lengthy trimming session can cause blisters.  Number two, use a kneeling pad, especially if the grass is damp.  Number three, don’t rush.

Some may be appalled by now at the prospect of grubbing around on your knees, using primitive hand tools, snipping grass blades with what are really just oversized scissors. But I have found that an edge-trimming session, if conducted at leisure without interruptions, is a kind of meditation. The task is simple enough that you can let your mind idle and drift. Ideas float up from who knows where. It’s sort of like fishing. If nothing else, you develop a better relationship with some of your plants while vastly improving the look of your garden.

That’s the main reason for edging, as far as I’m concerned. Almost nothing else has such an immediately beneficial effect on the look of a garden as refreshing the edges. Fuzzy, overgrown edges with long grass lying over the plants in a border make a garden look sloppy and uncared-for, no matter how well the plants are growing. If you spend an hour or two trimming the edges, without doing anything else, there will be a 100% improvement. I know because I’ve done it many times. My “lawns” are nothing special — mixed grass of dubious pedigree — and my borders contend with light, sandy soil full of invading tree roots. My garden is not exactly paradise, but when the beds are freshly edged and clipped, and the sunlight filters through the leaves of the maples at just the right angle, and you view the vista from just the right spot, there is a resemblance.

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My Less-Than-Perfect Patch

This winter I will have to decide whether to keep my vegetable garden (actually more of a vegetable patch) or re-purpose it. It has become too shady and infested with tree roots to be a suitable piece of ground in which to grow vegetables, apart from peas, lettuce, spinach and scarlet runner beans (which are surprisingly tolerant of difficult conditions).  Tomatoes, cucumbers and anything else that requires full sun and fertile soil have been a total failure the past two or three years, despite dutiful digging-in of compost, manure, lime and other goodies.

It’s such a bad time to give up on growing vegetables! What with the “hundred mile diet” and the craze for locally grown food, vegetable gardens have become fashionable. (Garden fashions — a topic for a future post). Having had a vegetable garden — or at least a patch — for the past 25 years, it’s hard to throw in the trowel.

The trouble is that there are few things sadder than a sad vegetable garden. It’s a total contradiction. Vegetable gardens should be orderly, prosperous and lush. A perennial or mixed border grown in less than ideal conditions can be attractive despite its lack of perfection (I know this because I have such borders), but a vegetable garden of runty, struggling, unproductive plants is an offense to the eye.

I have two exemplars of perfection when it comes to vegetable gardens, both featured years ago in Horticulture magazine. The first is (or was) the garden of Peter Chan, in Portland, Oregon. The article’s title is “Peter Chan’s Perfect Patch,” (Horticulture, May 1985) and perfect it was, although clearly more than a “patch.” The garden was framed by wonderful paths made from stones dug up in the course of its making, and the raised beds were separated by narrow walkways of packed earth. The rows of plants were arrow-straight, weedless and healthy. Bean and pea trellises were solidly constructed, not shaky makeshifts cobbled together from assorted oddments. The whole place was groomed and managed to perfection, practical and beautiful in its orderliness.

My other ideal when it comes to vegetable gardens is that of Rosemary Verey, as written up in the July 1987 issue of Horticulture. Influenced by the jardin potager at the Chateau de Villandry, it features stone walls and an intricate layout of square and triangular beds separated by paths of brick and tile radiating from the centre of a 60 by 60 foot square. The vegetables were grown in blocks, artistically combined with herbs, espaliered fruit trees and the occasional clipped shrub. Details such as alternating red- and green-leafed lettuces and ripening onion tops arranged in parallel lines put the final touch on perfection.

I had a better situation for growing vegetables in my first garden, in the 1980s. The soil was a fat clay loam, difficult to dig but richer than the lean sandy loam of my current garden. Shade and tree roots were not a problem. One year I had a wheelbarrow full of carrots and every year a freezer full of green beans. Tomatoes brought indoors before frost lasted until Christmas. Those were the days.

Here I did at least attempt a layout of my 15 x 30 foot patch a la Ms. Verey, dividing the space into two diamond shapes and six triangles. But my brick paths are too narrow to be practical, due to a shortage of bricks. Then there’s the awkwardly placed apple tree and all the volunteer and spreading plants that I have failed to discipline over the years — various mints, mulleins, violets, Corydalis lutea and Echinops ritro.  There just isn’t a lot of space left for vegetables.  And I use part of the patch as a temporary storage area for finished compost. The shade and tree roots are the final blow.

 

Less-than-perfect vegetable patch

 

This year I grew my tomatoes in big pots parked in a number of sunny spots around the place. This was a success (or would have been if not for a late, cold spring and cool summer) and I intend to do it again next year. I will probably grow peas, lettuces, spinach and the tolerant runner beans again, but I admit that my vegetable growing aspirations have been considerably scaled back.

Critical Support

I didn’t know about writers’ critique groups until four years after I started writing, by which time I had written a novel and accumulated a growing file of rejection letters from agents and publishers. I was also deeply into my second novel, a sequel to the first. As I began to suspect that the road to publication was not going to be a smooth and easy one, I decided I needed a support group.

After one or two false starts, I connected with a writers’ group that looked promising. It met once a month and seemed to have a healthy and diverse membership. In addition to the monthly meetings, most of which featured a speaker, a benefit of membership was access to critique groups — for poetry, creative nonfiction and a newly-formed fiction group, which met twice monthly in members’ homes. I joined with enthusiasm and arrived at my first meeting with the first 25 pages of the novel I was working on.

After that first meeting in the fall of 2004, the group grew from six members to more than 20, split to form three or four new groups and changed its venue from members’ homes to a room above a pub to a coffee shop. When I finally parted company from it a couple of months ago, there was only one other member besides myself who had been there since 2004.

Now I belong to a newly-formed short story group (not sure why, since I’m not partial to writing short fiction) and a novelists’ group that started up after the schism of the original fiction group. One thing I realized over the years was that novels and longer short stories are not as well served by open critique groups as are stories of 3,000 words or less, that can be thoroughly discussed in the course of a single meeting. That original group had a shifting membership right from the start. People would be there for two or three meetings and never be seen again. Others would be there some days but not others. Someone who joined the group only to be faced with Chapter 7 of a novel was not likely to be as enthused (or as effective) in critiquing it as someone who had read the preceding six chapters.

Eventually, several of us with novels in the works decided to form our own closed group. It meets once a month, but the pieces that each member submits are far longer than those permitted in the original group — between 10,000 and 25,000 words, rather than 3,000-5,000. This is why we have restricted our membership to four or five; it would simply be impossible to read and critique too many lengthy pieces. In the two years since its formation, the group has read and critiqued five novels in entirety (two of them mine) and is at present working on three others.

As well as a stable and committed membership, a critique group needs a few other characteristics to be effective. The first is a critiquing style that matches all its members’ expectations. People who want brutally frank opinions aren’t going to be happy in a group that shies away from the negative and calls every offering “wonderful.” Conversely, a writer with a fragile ego had better avoid groups with a taste for the literary jugular. The same goes for genre — hard-boiled thrillers aren’t likely to get helpful critiques from a group of romance writers (although you never know).

Critiquing aside, a group of this sort has another function — as a support group for its members. Let’s face it — most of us who come to writing as an avocation later in life aren’t likely to make it to the bestseller lists. Many of us will never be published or will end up being our own publishers. The other writers with whom we form connections, whom we see at  meeting after meeting as the years go by, whose works we read and come to know almost as well as our own — these folks may very well be the nucleus of our readership, or even our entire readership. The great thing is that it’s a readership that reads closely with attention to plot, character and style, and tells the author what it thinks — a literary circle and “friends of the work.”

Identifying a Mystery Plant

A couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues came back from a walk and said he had seen a plant new to him.  Could I identify it?  He described it as small and ground-hugging, with tiny, star-shaped orange flowers.  Sort of a pinky-orange, he said.  Salmon-coloured, in fact.

I was not only stumped but curious.  I tend to notice plants, and this one didn’t match anything I had seen in the area.  On my next break, I went out to see it for myself.  The plant’s growth habit reminded me of chickweed, but was neater and more restrained.  And the flowers were indeed pinky-orange.  On close inspection I could see that they had purple and yellow centres.  It didn’t take me long to conclude that this was a plant entirely new to me.

But it wasn’t growing in a remote jungle or an inaccessible mountain meadow, and I wasn’t plant explorer.  Any plant growing in a weedy island between a sidewalk and a paved road had to be common and probably a weed.

Surprisingly, the Internet was of limited help, at least in response to my googling of phrases such as “plant with tiny orange flowers,” or “plant that looks like chickweed but with orange flowers.”  If I’d had a camera, I could have taken a picture and posted it to one of any number of sites frequented by botanical whizzes who enjoy identifying plants.

At home that evening, I dug out a useful book — Plants of Coastal British Columbia Including Washington, Oregon & Alaska by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon.  It covers both native plants of the region and imports from elsewhere, and is profusely illustrated.  The book is organized by types of plants (trees, shrubs, herbaceous, aquatic) and botanical families.  I started near the back, with a section called “Other Families,” because I didn’t think this plant belonged to any of the others listed (although I was prepared to work my way through them if necessary)  Paging through, looking at the pictures, I saw a flower that looked a lot like the ones on the mystery plant, except that it was yellow, not orange.  It belonged to Bog St. John’s Wort (Hypericum anagalloides).  Most unlikely, but in the “notes” section below the description of this plant was the following:  “Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) resembles H. anagalloides, but it is an introduced annual from an unrelated family… Its flowers are salmon-coloured, borne on long, thin, curved stalks, and they are 10-17 mm wide.”  Bingo!  I googled the Latin name and found a wealth of information and pictures that confirmed the identification.

Here is a picture from Wikimedia Commons.

Anagallis arvensis is indeed a weedy species, despite its romantic common name, referring to the fictitious hero of a play set in the French Revolution.  And to me, who had never seen it before, it seemed novel and exotic.  Interestingly, another of its common names is “red chickweed.”  So I was on the right track from the start, except that I thought it orange, not red.  There is also a blue-flowered form, which I would love to see, being a sucker for anything with blue flowers.

This little episode tells me that a “plant identification for dummies” tool, whether printed or online, needs to have lots of pictures and be organized by flower colour.  The identification keys used by botanists are way too intimidating, bristling with unfamiliar terminology and requiring detailed knowledge of plant anatomy.  Most people zero in on flowers before any other feature.  If this plant had not been in bloom, my colleague would likely have never noticed it.

In this case, however, a bit of persistence and some serendipity did the trick.