earth magic

Blue Siberian irises

Six Harsh Truths About Gardening

Another gardening year is drawing to an end. It’s time to evaluate and plan for Next Year (which is always the best year). But right now, the gardener is tired—of lugging watering cans, digging holes, and sawing roots while in a bent-over position. Some plants are overgrown, others are moribund. The gardener is oppressed by all the things that must be done—but not right now, because it’s not the right season.

In this rather glum mood, the gardener ponders some harsh truths.

Harsh Truth Number One. Gardening is not a hobby you can put aside when you get tired of it, or something more exciting comes along. Not in a place where constant attention must be paid to watering. Then there’s weeding, staking, tying, and deadheading. And let’s not forget pruning. Forget about those summer camping trips, unless you’re prepared to deal with a mess when you return.

Harsh Truth Number Two. Unless you confine yourself to growing vegetables, annuals, and herbaceous ornamentals, you will have to learn to prune “woody subjects,” such as shrubs and even trees. And then you’ll actually have to do it. Pruning often means cutting off healthy growth that looks like the best part of the plant, trusting that it will have a beneficial effect in the end. That’s hard to do. And after a pruning session, you have to dispose of all the lovely stuff you’ve cut off.

Harsh Truth Number Three. Plants are going to die, despite your best efforts. The new, exciting perennial that’s being touted by all the experts. The marginally hardy shrub you fuss over and cosset, telling yourself that maybe it’s actually grown a bit this year. And sometimes an old reliable blooms better than it ever has, and then suddenly wilts, never to rise again.

Harsh Truth Number Four. Your garden will never look anything like your vision of it at the planning stage, or like those swoon-worthy photos in horticultural magazines. (Remember, though, that those photos capture moments, not seasons.) And no matter how well a plant does in your garden, you will inevitably see it looking better in someone else’s.

Harsh Truth Number Five. You are responsible for your garden, but you’re not really in control of it. Weather—rain (or lack of it), sun, wind, frost—has the last word. Along with fungi, bugs, raccoons, the roots of nearby trees, and the inner workings of plants themselves. The gardener isn’t the supreme commander, but rather a combination of servant, coach, first aid attendant, cleanup crew, and undertaker.

Harsh Truth Number Six. No matter how much hope, love, and sweat you expend on your garden, there’s no guarantee that it will persist beyond your tenure. Once the gardener has shuffled off to the retirement home or downsized to a condo, the garden will change, or even disappear, along with the house, the trees, and the pavements, to be replaced by some architectural monstrosity and instant landscaping. I’ve seen this happen too often where I live. But then, the present house and garden replaced farmland, which in turn replaced wildlife habitat or land inhabited and harvested by indigenous people.

Harsh truths can be overwhelming. After reading the above, one may ask, “So why garden, if it’s so harsh?”

Every gardener will have their own answer. The satisfaction of growing food. A certain amount of exercise. Being outside and forming a relationship with the natural world. I can relate to all of these, but for me the reward comes when I go out into the garden and experience a moment when colours, textures, the relationship of light with the plants, the smells of flowers and earth and living things combine in a form of perfection. These episodes are brief and cannot be commanded, but they outweigh all the harsh truths. It’s as though my acceptance of them, and doing the necessary work, makes a kind of magic.

Benign light
Gilds the very air,
Makes dust motes into small blessings,
Deepens the hues of leaf and flower.
The gardener stands bemused
At the gateway between day and night,
Clutching secateurs and a handful of spent flowers.
Caught in stillness,
As white flowers become little stars,
And the light fades to blue.
Pond bench, hostas, with Athyrium niponicum var. pictum (Japanese painted fern) in foreground
Back garden perennial beds in June, with Verbascum chaixii, Delphinium, Asiatic lilies, and white campion (Lychnis coronaria "Alba") in bloom
Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. Pictum) and pond

Blasted, Battered and Bothered

Southern Vancouver Island enjoyed a couple of perfect late summer days early this week — high temperatures around 25 degrees C (about 75 F), nice calm evenings — nothing to complain about (except the continuing drought, but never mind that). Then on Thursday we got a “marine push.”  That’s a term used by meteorologists in this part of the world to describe a phenomenon where the overall flow of air shifts from offshore to onshore as something called a “thermal trough” exits the area. Warm (or hot) air from the interior of British Columbia is replaced by cool marine air from the Pacific Ocean. This time, unfortunately, the pressure gradient was such that we had strong winds all day and most of the night.

I admit it — I hate strong winds. I know some people find them bracing and energizing. People who engage in sports such as sailing, windsurfing and hang gliding live for windy days, and we definitely get our share here in Victoria, as those onshore winds are funneled up the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

But I, being a gardener, mutter and curse when the wind gets up into the strong category and persists, battering plants, ripping Clematis armandii from the eaves of the garage, and sucking up what little precious moisture remains in the soil.

The effects of wind are especially annoying now, at the dry and rattling end of Hell Month (see my July 18 post), when the garden already looks wretched.  Leaves are pulled from the maples, not the yellow and orange ones that will brighten the ground in October, but green leaves — a peculiar, sickly, dead-looking green. They give the garden a depressing air as they lie on the lawn and lodge among the equally tired-looking foliage in the perennial borders. The pond is scummed with algae and a generous sprinkling of those ugly leaves. There are twigs everywhere, and plants that were listing only slightly before have acquired a definite lean — an eastward one, of course.

This illustrates one of the central facts of gardening — crucial factors that determine success or failure are beyond the gardener’s control. Unlike indoor hobbyists and creative types (knitters, painters, woodworkers, potters), we gardeners work with the stuff of the earth and the natural world. Rain and wind, heat and frost, the depredations of insects and disease — all are elements about which we can do little or nothing. We water our gardens in dry weather, we stake tall plants, we race around with dusts and sprays intended to kill bugs or cure blights, we construct plastic tents, greenhouses or shade structures, but really, in the end we are at the mercy of nature.

Anyone who has gardened for more than a year or two knows this. And those of us who continue to garden in despite of this non-negotiable fact have come to embrace it. In our creative enterprise we are engaged with forces far greater than ourselves. We dance and wrestle with the Earth itself. Both our triumphs and our failures are the results of this partnership.

And all the complaining we do? We are entitled to it. It’s part of the package. Look at farmers, who are gardeners on a grand scale, with their livelihoods on the line. They complain all the time. But they are always looking ahead to Next Year.