Looking down is looked down upon, isn’t it? Happy, healthy people are supposed to stand tall and look toward the horizon. “Looking up” is a way of saying things are improving. A “downer” is a disappointment.
But gardeners, even the most optimistic ones, are almost always looking down.
If I ever become incapable of bending over, my gardening days will be over. Except in specially designed gardens for the disabled, it’s impossible to garden in an upright position or while seated.
Sometimes I’m appalled by how much of my time in the garden is spent in a bent-over position. I’ve even wondered if it’s harmful. (I suspect it makes face wrinkles worse. Gravity, you know.) On the other hand, I don’t have any back problems. Maybe I’ve naturally used the correct technique for bending over, called the “hip-hinge.”
Planting things, weeding, deadheading, connecting hoses, and just peering at plants to see how they’re doing — all those garden tasks require one to bend over. Never mind picking up tools and gathering weeds, clippings, etc. for disposal, which require any number of additional bend-overs.
For some garden jobs, such as manual edge trimming or intensive weeding in one spot, I get down onto one or both knees. A kneeling pad helps, as does switching positions every now and then.
Thinking about this, I realized that both kneeling and bending at the waist are positions associated with humility and showing respect. What could be more appropriate for us gardeners than to bend our knees and our bodies, and turn our faces toward the Earth?
These thoughts reminded me of words by Henry Beston, nature writer and gardener:
“Touch the earth, love the earth, honour the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all, and they are the songs of birds at daybreak, Orion and the Bear, and dawn seen over ocean from the beach.” (From The Outermost House: a year of life on the great beach of Cape Cod.)
As a gardener and creature of Earth, I am honoured to bend my back and knees to her. The rewards are rich and wonderful.
Most gardeners complain about weeds. It’s been said that there are no weeds, only plants in the wrong places. There may be something to that. Take the dandelion in the image at the top of the post. It’s been in that spot for several years. I cut out the flowers that have bloomed to keep them from producing seeds and otherwise leave it be. It’s sort of like keeping a wild animal as a pet.
More seriously weedy are several plants I would never have introduced to this garden now that I’ve come to know them. Once established, they spread and colonize, often invading other plants to the point both have to be dug up in order to remove the invader.
Two I’m doing battle with right now are Italian arum and periwinkle (Vinca minor, two different varieties). I planted them because they were praised and recommended by reputable garden writers.
The late Henry Mitchell was keen on the Italian arum (Arum italicum), and since he was a good writer, I was infected with his enthusiasm for the plant. Okay, my original specimen was grown from seeds I collected near a bike path, so maybe it’s an unruly type. Mitchell, I recall, mentioned a variety called “Marmoratum,” which apparently was granted an Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.
I would like to bestow an Invasive Plant Curse on the arum, because it has made itself a pest here. It spreads both by seeds — which are one of its most attractive features — and underground bulblets. The older the plant, the deeper it roots, making it almost impossible to remove without major digging and disruption. And its flowers are unremarkable, apart from smelling like rotting meat (a quality common to the arum family).
So, Mr. Mitchell, were you aware of these problems with the arum and chose not to reveal them, or was yours better-behaved?
A plant with similar faults is the bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta or H. hispanica or maybe a hybrid of the two, H. × massartiana). It’s the much-praised denizen of the springtime woodland. I didn’t plant them; they were already established when I started gardening here. In bloom, it’s quite pretty, but it spreads even faster than the arum, and like it has lush, dense foliage that weighs down or shades any smaller plants nearby. Both bluebells and arum go dormant for the summer, but in spring, where these plants grow thickly, others get shaded or crowded out.
The bulbs of arums and bluebells are a foot or more below the soil surface, so digging them out is a challenge. In spots where they’ve wedged themselves in among other plants, it means major disturbance. The optimal times for transplanting or dividing perennials and bulbs vary, so one is bound to be doing this operation at non-optimal times for some things. Besides, in my garden it’s tough, unpleasant work, because there will inevitably be tree roots to deal with.
I’m going to experiment with cutting off the top growth of arums and bluebells in specific areas. In theory, this will eventually do them in.
Periwinkle is often recommended as a groundcover for “problem areas” such as dry shade. That’s why I planted it here. Unfortunately, I chose the unimproved basic type of Vinca minor. It has covered the ground altogether too well. It’s evergreen, so few other herbaceous plants can compete with a thick mat of it. Even the yellow and green variegated type has revved up in recent years and wound its way around irises and other perennials.
Fortunately, periwinkle can be uprooted quite easily, working from the edge of a patch inward to the more established parts. It pays to keep an eye out for a resurgence, though. Missed bits or roots that haven’t been extracted will make a comeback.
Forget-me-not (Myosotis) is another of my self-inflicted weeds. It’s a case of too much of a good thing. In full spring bloom, it creates a blue mist of tiny flowers. What’s not to love? Its habit of abundant self-seeding, that’s what. The dense crop of seedlings that results can out-compete less aggressive plants. Individual plants are short-lived and easy to pull up, but it’s important to remove most of them as soon as bloom starts to fade, leaving only a few to develop seeds.
Random self-seeding is also responsible for a surprisingly large number of unintended hellebores in some of my beds and borders. Now, I like hellebores, and they do well here, but I don’t want them in the wrong places (they are fair-sized plants with “presence”) or glommed up against other plants that need their fair share of space, nutrients, and water. Moreover, not all of the volunteers have attractive blooms; some of them are murky mixtures of purple and green. Which means I’m going to dig some of them up and send them to the big compost heap in the sky.
The difference between a garden and plants growing in a state of nature is that the latter is a winner-take-all brawl and the garden has a referee — the weary gardener, who decides what is a weed and what isn’t.
Specifically, The Gardener’s Bed-Book and The Gardener’s Day Book, both by Richardson Wright (1887-1961), originally published in 1929 and 1938 respectively, the decade between the stock market crash and the start of World War II. Like many books about gardening, they are based on the calendar, with a short essay for every day of the year and a longer one at the end of each month. They reminded me of blog posts. I found myself wanting to press a “Like” button and write comments!
Most of the essays, as expected, are about gardening. Each one is followed by a timely tip, such as when to order seeds, plants, or bulbs, and dates by which various tasks should be done. The basics of gardening haven’t changed that much in centuries, so I could relate to Wright’s thoughts about different plants and musings on gardening as pastime and passion. Despite being written almost a century ago, many of the daily tips are surprisingly apt. I’ll have to pay more attention to some of them.
It’s a different story when it comes to pest control. The differences between then and now are substantial. Toxic chemicals were all the rage then, such as Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate and slaked lime), Semesan (organomercury compounds), and Black Leaf 40 (nicotine sulphate). Next to advice to apply arsenate of lead to cabbages was a pencilled note — “Good Lord!” — I must have made the first time I read the book.
Wright’s attitudes and phraseology are of their time, and a few of his remarks are offensive by today’s standards, but there aren’t enough of those to make the book a complete turn-off. Some of his observations on “modern society,” like outrageously fast speeds on highways, seem a bit quaint. One essay includes an observation that Americans drink standing up rather than sitting down, gulping rather than sipping. He associates this habit with early death and suggests sitting down and savouring wine or beer. This sounds a lot like the recent “slow food” trend. The pleasures of food and wine are mentioned regularly, and there are even a few recipes.
I was amused by instructions such as “Check up on the the gardener to see if he has sharpened all edge tools,” and references to a “lawn boy.” Clearly, Wright was among the privileged folks who lived well during the Depression, although he could not afford to install a swimming pool due to “the wind that blew down Wall Street.” Frequent references to hot beds and cold frames made me wonder if these have been replaced by greenhouses, polytunnels, and similar structures.
I haven’t been able to find out much more about Richardson Wright besides his role as editor of House and Garden magazine. He appears to have been a respected figure, both as a promoter of gardening and as a writer, but as yet lacks a Wikipedia entry. In the preface to the Bed-Book, Allen Lacy describes him as “…a congenial soul with a good sense of humor and a well-furnished mind and the manners of a gentleman…” Wright’s garden was in the Silvermine area of Connecticut, a place he called “Sun House.” It must have been quite large, with space for luxuries such as nursery beds and those desirable features of great gardens, stone walls.
Dipping into these books is rather like a visit to a past time. Not that far back, though. I was surprised to read that cars had radios in the 1930s, and it appears that a certain type of book was called a “murder mystery” even in that pre-World War II era. Altogether, Mr. Wright’s books provided a pleasant and interesting diversion, just as they were intended to do almost a century ago.
I can’t remember when or where I bought these books. They’re reprints, not originals, published in 1989. A price of $23.95 appears on the jackets, but I don’t think I would have paid that much, so they probably came from a used bookstore. I recently rediscovered them with considerable delight. They’re chunky little books, about seven inches tall by five wide and more than an inch thick, a comfortable size for the bedside table.
A Light-Bulb Moment
In the Day Book, Mr. Wright’s advice for March 30th is “Roll and rake the lawn.” This got me wondering why anyone would do that (aside from preparing an area for seeding a new lawn). Surely it’s the opposite of aerating, which one is now advised to do, with machines that remove small cores of soil and presumably let in air. Might frost-heaved areas need rolling? Or maybe mole runs? Indeed, on April 13th, one is advised to oil the mole traps. I’ve never lived in a place with moles, so have no experience of their activities.
Then I remembered something from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, a favourite book of mine in past years. In the chapter titled “Dulce Domum,” Mole remembers the old home from which he departed in the middle of spring cleaning to seek wider horizons. When he and Rat revisit the place months later, Rat has a job of it to convince Mole that it’s really a nice little house and not a shabby, decrepit dump. Anyway, it seems Mole owns a lawn roller, because he doesn’t care for “animals” kicking up his lawn into little mounds. It’s taken me almost 60 years to discover and appreciate that little joke on Mr. Grahame’s part.
To my surprise, I forgot to schedule the post I had intended for today (March 22nd). I’ll schedule it for next week, and in the meantime, here are some photos from my garden taken on the first day of spring.
I was about to say something about the garden being a welcome diversion in these days of staying at home and “social distancing,” but that would be inaccurate. The truth is I prefer messing about in the garden to most kinds of socializing.
Fellow bloggers, how are you coping with whatever virus-avoiding situation you’re in? Are you reading, watching, or maybe even writing? Is anyone getting bored?
Never mind that March 20th is the official first day of spring, here it’s been under way for weeks. The grass has been mowed twice. Crocuses have gone through two sets of flowers (the first of which were nibbled by deer). And the gardener is racing around with clippers in pocket, clutching a digging knife in one hand and a bucket (for the stuff to be clipped or dug) in the other, muttering incoherently.
I should know by now that going out and having a look around the garden at this time of year always ends in a frantic session of dealing with several small crises at once. Spray deer repellent or fetch netting for the plant that always gets eaten. Dig up those wild garlic sprouts and those snowberry suckers.
Where did all these weeds come from? Especially hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta). I pulled up zillions of them last spring, but I must have missed a few. This plant is also called “shotweed,” and no doubt it lived up to its name and shot seeds all over the place. The little plants are kind of pretty, with their rosettes of lacy leaves and their tiny wild flowers. Maybe I should just leave them? I understand this plant is edible, reputed to add a peppery zing to salads. Maybe I should treat it as a salad herb.
Hold it right there! This sort of thinking is why I have so many quasi-weeds and out-and-out weedy weeds here. Many are self-inflicted.
As a reminder, here is a list entitled Plants I Would Never Have Planted if I Knew Better: Italian arum, Snowberry, Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), Periwinkle, Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria aurea). And another list called Plants of Which I Have Way Too Many. I’m talking about you, Purple Toadflax and Rose Campion, champion self-seeders both.
Of course, it doesn’t help that I find it nearly impossible to remove (i.e., kill) any plant that’s growing vigorously and looking great. Even if it’s a weed. In fact, it’s quite possible all those hairy bittercress plants are descended from a pretty little specimen I failed to pull up years ago, thus ensuring its abundant presence here for all time.
On the plus side, in an east-facing window of the garden shed, there is a small pan containing a nice little crop of blue poppy seedlings. They are still too small to handle, but they’re alive and therefore full of potential.
The evergreen clematis (C. armandii) looks wonderful this year, weaving garlands of white flowers through a big old holly. Last year it failed to bloom at all, after brutally cold winds in early February. The pink hellebore “Pirouette” is blooming abundantly, and dark red “Ruby Wine” is living up to its name. “Black Diamond,” on the other hand, is not blooming. “Not blooming yet,” I say hopefully.
Sometimes I think nine-tenths of gardening is a matter of balancing the plants that grow way too vigorously with those that don’t. Maybe instead of striving for the ideal of each plant neatly surrounded by an area of bare dirt, I should consider how plants behave in natural environments, where tangled messes are the norm and bare dirt is an aberration. Let them fight it out among themselves and appreciate the survivors.
Years ago, I wrote a post about why I hate pruning. I still hate it. “Strength follows the knife” and “Prune vigorous plants lightly and weak ones hard,” are two pieces of advice I wonder about as I wield the clippers and pruning saw. Maybe they’re true for plants in optimal situations. What really happens is gardeners underestimate the ultimate size of shrubs. A day comes when hard pruning of the vigorous is necessary to make it possible to get into the house without having to turn sideways. It’s not a pruning issue so much as a planting one.
Uh-oh, I hear the garden issuing further orders. Gotta run. Not wanting to end on a complaining note, I’ll just insert another picture…
To a gardener, the deaths of plants are in a category of their own. They’re not like the deaths of people or pets, but some of them have similar effects.
Over the years, many plants have lived and died in my garden. I’ve even dispatched killed quite a few — those I considered weeds or otherwise undesirable. Too big, too ugly, potentially invasive, or just in the way.
Many plants come into the garden for one reason — to produce edibles. The whole point of growing them is to harvest and eat them. Many, such as tomatoes, are not cold-hardy in most parts of the northern hemisphere. Once the frosts hit them, they’re done. And that’s fine with the gardener, as long as they produced tomatoes before exiting the scene. This is also true of summer annuals such as marigolds or petunias. Bloom hard, die young, that’s their story.
But other plant deaths are disasters for garden and gardener. The death of a valued tree or shrub that was the focal point of a garden leaves a big hole. Or the demise of a perennial the gardener spent time and/or effort nurturing. Those are painful. Even the memories continue to twinge years later, when the gardener is reminded of them by photographs.
When a valued plant dies, the gardener questions their skills and calls themselves a bad plant parent, for failing to provide the necessary care and attention. It’s especially tough when the plant was part of the garden or household for years or even decades. And especially if it was beautiful.
Plants whose deaths have hit me hard: a pink African violet, all those blue poppies, the “Stargazer” lilies, a big old jade plant that was left outside on a night of -3 degrees C, several Japanese maples killed by verticillium wilt, several delphiniums that succumbed to root rot.
A sudden plant death is easier to deal with than a long, lingering one. A saxifrage with reddish leaves and a cloud of starlike white flowers went from full bloom to wilted to dead in just a few days. A post-mortem revealed a gang of small worms around the roots. (The plant was in a pot.) I promptly discarded both the victim and the apparent cause of death.
Then there was the pink African violet. Reliable as a rock for twenty years, it decided to turn limp and fade away over a several weeks, no matter what I did.
Right now I’m going through that again, with a second African violet, a blue one I’ve had since 1993. It hasn’t made up its mind to die as yet, and even perked up for a while after I repotted it into fresh soil. But for weeks now it has looked feeble. Thinking its usual location was too cold, I moved it to a warmer spot. I administer water sparingly, hover over it every day, but its prospects aren’t good.
Because plants can renew themselves by growing offsets, or gardeners can perpetuate them by divisions or cuttings, it’s easy to think they should live forever. But they’re no more immortal than we are.
Plant deaths are evidence of a gardener’s failings. I selected the wrong plant for a particular location. I failed to dig a deep enough hole. I failed to supply adequate water or nutrients. I allowed other plants to overwhelm the newcomer. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Beats fist on chest. Thump, thump, thump.
There are as many rules for gardeners as there are for writers, and I’ve broken most of them.
But then, why did the stupid plant decide to die? Didn’t it know how much work I put into digging that hole, adding that compost, running out with the watering can to make sure it didn’t dry out? Those blue poppies, for example — why did they turn up their noses at what I offered them? First their noses, and then their toes. How dare they die! To hell with them!
Gardeners go through the stages of grief too: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Sometimes acceptance is slow to arrive.
When it does, I find myself valuing the dead plants more than living ones. They become the fallen heroes of the garden, more worthwhile than the living plants simply because they are no more. If I have pictures of them, I can look back and remember.
In the meantime, I’m still at the bargaining stage with the blue African violet.
I’ve had this one amaryllis among my houseplants for years. Maybe decades. I can’t remember where I got it and have no idea what its variety name is. It’s a basic bright scarlet. No stripes or two-tone effects.
I vaguely recall it blooming long ago and trying various techniques to get it to rebloom — putting it outside for the summer, withholding water when leaves started yellowing, etc. What happened was the bulb split into three smaller bulbs. I potted them individually and grew them on. Sometimes one of them surprised me and put out a bloom stalk, but the bulbs remained small.
I must have figured out the proper treatment somewhere along the line. One bulb, which spent most of the time in an east window, got bigger and fatter. It has bloomed reliably, and this year (after a splendid growth of leaves last spring and summer) decided to form not one, but two bloom stalks. What is strange is that it never had the necessary period of dormancy first. A couple of leaves started to yellow last fall, so I reduced watering in preparation for dormancy during the winter. Instead, the plant sprouted a bud! So I resumed watering and moved it to a south window. A few weeks later, a second bud emerged. Thrills and excitement!
Here is a series of pictures from bud to bloom, January 26th to February 2nd.
I heard somewhere recently that we’ve hit the midpoint of winter. Quite appropriately, a foot of snow fell last week.
Full disclosure: these photos are from 2017. Somehow I didn’t get around to taking pictures of this year’s snow. But trust me, it looked just like this!
It’s all melted now, and there are hints of spring. I saw a couple of crocuses budding up today. Yellow ones; they’re always first. I heard a Bewick’s wren trying out his spring song. The Algerian iris, whose first two flowers were buried in snow, is sending up more bloom stalks.
When I lived in a place with real winter, snow came in November and didn’t melt until March. During those months, the garden didn’t exist, except as a memory and a future hope. The only garden-related things to do were read books about gardening, peruse seed and plant catalogues, make plans and lists, and dream.
In the mild climate of my present garden, winter comes and goes. Or rather, it takes different forms, from mild and wet to cold and snowy. The ground is almost always bare of snow. It’s not possible to disengage from the garden entirely, but a kind of not-caring sets in, especially when the weather is cold, wet, and/or windy.
Mild winter days are perfect for certain types of garden work, however. Pruning can and should be done while shrubs and trees are dormant. Today I finally got around to cutting down last summer’s long (20 feet/3 metres) growths of Clematis vitalba, otherwise known as “old man’s beard.” It’s another of my self-inflicted semi-weeds that’s made itself at home here. By now I can recognize its seedlings and pull them out, but there are still three vigorous specimens in different spots. I diligently cut down each summer’s growth in fall or winter, but this year I left it too late and ripe seeds have been distributed far and wide. (On the plus side, I’ve seen dark-eyed juncos eating them.)
Every year I end up growing (or trying to) a few plants from seed. This year it’s the blue camas, a prized native plant of our region, and Lomatium nudicaule (known as wild celery, bare-stem desert parsley, and several other common names). And, of course, my final attempt to grow meconopsis, the captivating and capricious Himalayan blue poppy. Their little seed pot spent a couple of weeks on top of the hot water tank and is now in the garden shed, where it should experience a variety of temperatures over the next couple of months. I’ve had success with this technique in the past. With luck, a few or maybe more than a few (!) plants will result, giving me something to fret get excited about for a season or two.
I’ve had this post in my drafts file since fall (aka “autumn”) but just had to write posts about other things first. Books, more books, and book cover images. After all that stuff, it’s about time for a garden-related post. So here it is.
I like the look of a tidy, tended garden. Leaves raked, edges crisp, dead stems and stalks cut down to bristly little stubs. It has that “been there, done that” look at the end of a growing season. Now it’s resting, waiting for spring, when sprouts will sprout, buds will bloom, and the gardener will bustle about dispensing magic dust and fresh compost.
I also like raking leaves, piling them up and loading them into a wheelbarrow for a short trip to the compost heap, where they’ll eventually become compost. In spring, I load compost into the wheelbarrow for a short trip back to the perennial beds where the leaves landed after falling off their trees.
Does anyone detect a wee bit of absurdity in that last paragraph? Raking up leaves, carting them several yards/metres and several months later — when they’ve decomposed — lugging them back to the very same spot.
Maybe it’s better to let them rot in place. That’s good enough for Mother Nature, after all. You don’t see her busting her butt with wheelbarrows. (But then, she has all the winds of heaven at her service.)
This past autumn, I thought I would try something different. I raked leaves off paths and pavements, but let most of them lie where they landed on beds and lawn areas. I didn’t leave as many on grass as in the perennial beds, and I made sure there were no thick, smothering leaf mats anywhere.
The idea is that earthworms will drag those leaves underground and… do whatever they do with them. Eat them, I guess, and poop out the remains in the form of worm castings, churning up the dirt in the process.
I’ve also resisted the urge to cut down all the withered perennial stalks, even after they’ve lost their charm and just look dead. I’ve read that they provide cover and feeding opportunities for birds. Supposedly, bugs deposit eggs in the dead plant material, and whatever hatches out is appreciated by foraging birds. I certainly see them hopping around and scratching among the dead leaves, so maybe there’s something to that. (Of course, the big attractions at my place are feeders full of seeds and suet.)
I’ll let this scene persist until we’re back to double-digit temperatures (in degrees C, of course), whereupon I will cut down the dead so the living may flourish.
Another plus to this approach is that it’s less work. I just hope I’m not creating a perfect environment for plant-eating larvae and fungi that will cause damage next spring and summer. I don’t think those organisms understand the concept of karma.