Month: December 2011

New Year’s Resolutions for Gardeners

Looking in my garden notebook, I see lists of Things To Do, compiled at various times over the years, usually in the fall or winter. Try growing delphiniums in big pots. Replace old lavender plants. Divide Stipa gigantea. Acquire Nerines. Rescue Digitalis ferruginea — again.  Gratifyingly, quite a few of these items have “Done” scribbled next to them. Others have become old friends as they reappear in lists year after year. For example: Prune old apple tree to stop branches from rubbing garage roof. That one was on the list for 2008 and it’s back for 2012. Right after “Acquire new pruning saw.”

But can these lists of specific garden tasks be called “New Year’s resolutions?”  I don’t think so. Resolutions are characterized by a goal more elevated than merely getting things done. Their ultimate purpose is to make one a better person. While it’s true that pruning this and dividing that may make the garden better in small ways, New Year’s resolutions for the garden ought to have a more widespread and long-term effect.

So here is a short list of worthy intentions for gardeners:

1. Keep up with basic maintenance — weeding, deadheading, edging, watering, mulching.  Especially deadheading and edging; they can make the difference between a slovenly patch and something that looks like a garden. Doing this stuff keeps the gardener connected to the garden, which is important.

2. Pay attention to what’s going on in your garden. Really look and see — not only the plants you have introduced, but the entire scene, including animal inhabitants such as squirrels, birds and raccoons. They are part of the life of your garden, so come to terms with their presence.

3. Try something new — a new plant, a new technique. Growing something from seed, for example, or from cuttings. Try air-layering or grafting. Turn something into a bonsai or a standard.

4. Don’t give divisions of vigorously colonizing plants to other gardeners without a clear warning. Give away some really good plants occasionally, rather than those of which you have a surplus because of their spreading habits.

5. Make a decision about whether to get that maple tree removed, and do it. Think hard before planting an eventually large tree in a small garden.

6. Fight bindweed. Always.

Worthy goals, all of them. In the end, though, it does come down to the list of specific things that Must Be Done. Such as: Finish cutting down last year’s perennials before they start sprouting out in the spring. Cut down the very dead looking clematis that is uglifying the cotoneaster by the front steps (it’s not dead, of course, but is doing a great job of looking that way). Surgically remove the lowest limbs of the sideways-spreading magnolia and hope that makes it look more tree-like. Top the rampant hollies on the west side of the back garden. Think about repotting and dividing the potted delphiniums before the dreaded vine weevil (a common pest of plants grown in pots) shows up. And fight that bindweed.

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The Disconnected Gardener

I have become disconnected from my garden. Yesterday I realized that I had no idea what was going on out there. During the active gardening season, I manage to take a walk around the place nearly every day, but since the period of short days and long nights began, it’s dark when I leave for work in the morning and dark when I return. That leaves weekends, but lately I have been preoccupied by other things, and of course there’s winter inertia…

October and even November were full of activity, mostly cleanup — cutting down withered perennial stalks and raking up a zillion leaves. The compost pile is overflowing, or was last time I looked at it. Once it sinks a bit I’ll have to get out there and poke it with a crowbar to introduce air so as to avoid anaerobic decomposition, which produces slimy, smelly results.

But this morning, the garden has an abandoned look to it, I think — slightly dishevelled, with leftover leaves here and there, the oriental hellebores flopping their foliage all over the ground, not much in the way of colour besides tired greens and muted browns.

Tired Garden

Of course, here on the west coast, gardens never really go dormant the way they do in places with real winter, where snow covers everything for months. In my south-facing front garden, snowdrops are already poking up and will be blooming in January. The Corsican hellebores have buds that will open in the next couple of months. The place is full of bird visitors, from sparrows to hummingbirds (Anna’s), and there are a couple (maybe more) raccoons hanging around. Life is definitely going on out there, but just now I am not a participant.

This brings up the idea of the link between garden and gardener. So often, the state of one mirrors that of the other, although if the gardener goes out of commission and becomes a couch-dwelling lump or computer-fixated zombie, the garden really doesn’t care. Plants can look after themselves, for the most part. The place just gets messy, slowly losing the characteristics that distinguish it as a garden — neatness, tidiness, edges and selectivity. If it remains untouched indefinitely, a garden reverts to whatever it was originally — a forest, a Garry oak meadow, a piece of prairie. Of course, all the non-native plants introduced since the area was settled prevent a true return to nature. Then there are municipal bylaws about maintaining one’s property. Long before this happens, I know I’ll be out there again, engaging with the plants, the shrubs, trees and pond, dealing with the depredations of hole-digging, rock-rolling raccoons, being a gardener again.

On another topic entirely, I went to a most entertaining concert last night, of the Winter Harp ensemble — three harps, flutes, a variety of medieval instruments and an amazing, one-woman percussion section. Clad in jewel-toned velvets and silks, they performed Christmas tunes with a medieval/celtic twist, along with brief narrations on seasonal themes. Percussionist Lauri Lyster wielded an array of drums, shakers, bells, chimes, metal bowls and a clay pot with flair and precision. It was truly a feast for the ear and the eye.

Plant ID

Managing an undisciplined perennial bed is rather like keeping track of a bunch of unruly children. It’s impossible to keep your eye on everyone and almost certain that someone is perpetrating mischief when you’re not looking. Plants get bigger, die suddenly, seed exuberantly and send out sneaky runners that pop up in spots never intended by the gardener. In a mixed border that contains shrubs, perennials, grasses and bulbs, it can be hard to tell who’s who, what’s where and whatever happened to that.

I’ve done a lot of raking lately, including pulling leaves from the perennial beds, working around cut stalks, standing stalks, shrubs and stakes. Not infrequently, I find plant labels among the leaves I’ve raked out. Geranium macrorrhizum “Album,” one proclaims. Brunnera macrophylla “Jack Frost,” says another. With luck, I’ll actually remember where these plants are and restore the labels to the correct spots. But not always.

Years ago, I bought a supply of plant tags made of thin copper. The idea was to impress a plant’s name into the soft metal with a pen and attach the label to the plant using the wires at one end. That’s fine for shrubs, but doesn’t work so well for herbaceous subjects that die down when dormant. For those — tulips and lilies, as I recall — I fastened the tags to short stakes which I inserted next to the plants they designated. The problem was, of course, that over the years the stakes rotted and fell over. Occasionally I rake them up, with the copper labels still attached and pretty much illegible due to oxidization. So much for that. (Most of the lilies have succumbed to tree root competition, so it really doesn’t matter).

Some will ask — why bother with plant labels at all? Why make your garden look like one of those meet and greet sessions where the participants all wear a sticker that says “Hello my name is …?” Can’t you tell what the plants are just by looking at them? Yes, when they have top growth. But when they go dormant — and of course a lot of bulbs are summer dormant — they may as well not exist, until the gardener jabs a fork into their midst to plant something else. Then there is swearing and lamentation at the impaled lily bulb or whatever.

Many gardeners draw up maps of their perennial beds, usually at the planning stage. In theory, these maps can be kept up to date and referred to before doing any digging, but let’s be realistic. It’s hard to keep up with all the antics plants get up to on their own, and it takes a pretty obsessive-compulsive type of gardener to note on the map all the changes that happen over the years. I’ll bet most of us have no idea where these maps are after a while.

Plant labels are the logical choice, but it’s hard to find good ones. Wood rots, plastic becomes brittle and snaps. Any label stuck in the ground is vulnerable to being yanked out by a rake or raccoon (seriously!), or buried. The best labels are probably ones made entirely of aluminum or zinc. I understand they can be written on, and presumably the writing won’t fade. I note that permanent marker pens are recommended, but really, is anything permanent when subjected to outdoor conditions year after year? Those metal labels are quite pricey as well — about $2 each for oversize aluminum ones, although somewhat more modest zinc ones are less than $20 for a set of 25.

I admit that after my experience with the copper tags, I’ve pretty much given up on labelling my perennials. When I plant something new, I dutifully stick the plastic label it came with into the soil beside the plant, consigning it to its fate. Ironically, if the new introduction happens to expire in short order, I retrieve the label and put it into a tin can in the shed — a kind of memorial to plants that didn’t make it. Looking through this catalogue of failures is humbling and disheartening. Cimicifuga racemosa, Ajuga reptans “Burgundy glow,” Imperata cylindrica “Red Baron,” Coreopsis verticillata “Moonbeam.” It’s a long list of plants that simply could not face the thought of life in this garden and made an exit to a better world. Requiescat in pacem. At least all those labels have given me something to remember them by.