garden maintenance

White daffodil with pale yellow middle near pond

Plant Material

Now that spring is imminent, perennials are poking their noses above the ground, telling gardeners that they are alive and ready for another growing season. Gardeners hover anxiously over spots where particularly fussy or cold-intolerant specimens were last seen, hoping for a sign of life.

003I’ve been hovering over my blue poppies. Late last summer, I transplanted them to what I thought were deluxe accommodations in half-barrels. Excellent soil, no tree roots, and a pea gravel mulch intended to prevent crown rot. Custom made roofs on legs to keep away winter rain. No efforts were spared. The plants settled in nicely and made new growth before they went dormant for winter. So far this spring, things don’t look good. I’m beginning to think the pea gravel was a mistake; it probably kept the top layer of soil moist enough for the dreaded crown rot to do its thing. If all seven plants are dead, I’ll have to acquire new ones and try again.

The white and yellow daffodil in the featured image has bloomed faithfully each spring since the mid 1990s. At first there was only one flower; a few years later, there were two, and the past two or three springs, it’s produced three flowers. So what? Daffodils are planted out by the thousands in parks and even in some private gardens. But this one plant is easily identifiable, and so regular, that I have come to recognize it as an individual.

This picture — of a gardener fussing over a few plants, or even a single one — is completely removed from the way plants are sold and handled on a commercial scale. We’ve all seen hundreds of potted plants for sale, not at nurseries or even garden centres, but at grocery stores, hardware stores, and discount consumer outlets. No one fusses over these units produced by mass propagation. They’re given minimal attention by busy staff, wheeled in and out of display areas daily, get knocked over by windstorms, and finally start to look a bit stressed. Plants that don’t sell by the end of July are put on deep discount and finally trashed. At least they’re compostable.

Then there are instant gardens installed by landscape contractors driving trucks with graphically designed logos on the doors. In a week, the job is done. A multitude of perennials and shrubs has been plugged into the ground in pleasing patterns. The operation has more in common with laying carpets or interlocking bricks than with my kind of gardening. Freshly finished, such gardens look lovely and (on a bad day) make me think mine — the result of a quarter century of earnest digging, planting, watering, and anxious hovering — looks pathetic by comparison. Of course, if not maintained by someone who knows what they’re doing, those installed gardens go downhill pretty fast. I’ve seen it happen.

Those who do large scale garden work seem to have a utilitarian or even disrespectful attitude toward plants. Often, it starts with razing and removal of every growing thing on a city lot — and of the original house too — followed by digging a great big hole, maybe a bit of blasting. A huge house is erected and landscaping installed by a contractor. Another contractor provides an irrigation system, probably programmed and controlled with a smartphone app. A truck pulls up once a week, disgorging fast-moving people wielding power tools who buzz through the place, mowing, trimming, fluffing up the soil and adding mulch. As long as the bills are paid, the place looks fine. In such gardens, you don’t see any shabbily-dressed figures (i.e., resident gardeners) drifting around, peering at plants and scuffling inefficiently, making repeated trips to the shed for yet another tool, a couple more stakes, or a ball of twine.

I want to say that the instant garden isn’t really  a garden, and those yard maintenance folks aren’t gardeners. I suspect this idea may be tainted with irrational sentimentality, but I’m clinging to it anyway. To me a garden is a patch of earth sweated over by someone who knows almost every plant that grows from it, who rejoices when those first shoots appear in spring and mourns when they don’t.

I suppose what I’m really talking about is analogous to the difference between the backyard chicken flock where every hen has a name, and the industrial poultry system. The small, personal garden and the installed landscape are really two different (if related) things. Each has a place, but in me they evoke opposite reactions.

 

 

 

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Miniature daffodil, variety unknown.

Garden Restart: Mixing, Mulching, and Moving

Transitioning from the somnolence of winter to the sometimes frantic activities of spring in the garden can be painful. For a few weeks, I kept finding reasons to stay inside, hunched over my electronic devices. Too cold, too windy; oh hey, now it’s raining! I’m staying in.

Feeding mulch ingredients in wheelbarrow with spade near compost heap. Alfalfa pellets, soy meal, lime, steer manure, compost.

Compost, steer manure, and alfalfa pellets under soy meal and lime, waiting to be mixed up.

Two weeks ago, I shook off the excuses, made a Things To Do In The Garden list, and got going. I visited my local feed, seed, and garden supplies store and bought a bunch of stuff. I cut down old plant stalks, removed some plants entirely, and moved others to better spots. Having been somewhat negligent about soil improvement the last few years, I scattered 6-8-6 fertilizer around. Then I wheeled out the wheelbarrow, grabbed a spade, and mixed up some feeding mulch.

Feeding mulch and trowel.

Feeding mulch ready to use.

Feeding mulch, otherwise known as “top dressing,” is something I discovered in Further Along the Garden Path, a book by Pacific Northwest gardener and writer Ann Lovejoy. You mix up a bunch of mostly organic plant nutrient materials and apply them to your beds and borders. The basic ones are alfalfa pellets, aged manure, and compost. Extras include dolomite lime, bone meal, kelp meal, and soy meal.

The compost I made last year turned out exceptionally well — nicely rotted down, black and crumbly. To half a wheelbarrow of this, I added half a bag of steer manure, an ice cream pail of alfalfa pellets, another of soy meal, and half a small coffee can of lime. This year I didn’t have bone or kelp meal, but I’m hoping it won’t matter.

Feeding mulch in wheelbarrow with spade and trowel.Mixing up the stuff is sort of like combining the dry ingredients for muffins, on a grand scale. I use a spade, turning the mixture into the centre, rearranging and turning again until it looks uniform. Then I deposit about 2 cm (1 inch) uniformly over the soil of each bed. The idea is to sprinkle it evenly, avoiding damage to plants. Sometimes I have to flap a hand gently through foliage to shake the stuff down. Five wheelbarrow loads pretty much did the trick. I’m self-congratulating that I managed to get this task done early this year, before most plants have made much growth. There’s nothing like damaging delicate new growth by dumping mulch on it. Oh, the irony.

Another must-do-it-now thing is pruning, largely because of “Compost Day,” which is the one day per year when the municipality picks up fallen and pruned branches, twigs and other garden debris. This year it’s March 20th on my street, so any ambitious pruning has to be done before then. I already have the usual huge brush pile, but will add to it once I psych myself up, don a suit of armour (actually an old yellow rain jacket), and cut out the deadwood from a massive old climbing rose that’s grown into a maple tree and neighbouring hollies. Yes, rose thorns and holly prickles. Oh joy.

I’ve already pruned the magnolia, the photinia and another climbing rose, a plant of “New Dawn” that graces a rather shaky pergola in the back garden. And I’ve lived to write about it, despite racing up and down ladders and wrestling thorny rose canes. Not to mention dealing with the terrible finality of pruning — once you cut something, you can’t put it back. My rule: if in doubt, cut less rather than more.

Toadflax (Linaria purpurea) foliage turning colour in fall.

Linaria purpurea plant last fall, now dispatched (by me).

Speaking of terrible finalities, I actually made myself yank out three magnificent specimens of toadflax, Linaria purpurea, one of my favourite near-weeds. They looked great all last summer and into fall, when the foliage turned an interesting pinkish shade. They were all set to do it again this year, but alas, they had planted themselves in a spot I’d never intended for them, where they threatened to hulk over a couple of groundcovers. So, out they came. I hate killing healthy plants, even if there are way too many of them; part of me still regrets the deed.

Surviving purple crocus, dead fern foliage.

Crocuses protected by dead fern foliage.

On the plus side, quite a few crocuses have survived this winter’s massacre, although some of the survivors have been nibbled by deer. At least deer nibbling doesn’t kill the plant outright. Having their corms dug up and eaten by some pesky rodent does. Crocuses growing under other plants have been overlooked by both diggers and deer.

OK, I’ve checked off a whole bunch of items on my TTD list, and I’ve re-engaged with the garden. The weather is improving (but let’s hope the rain doesn’t stop altogether; we need those April showers). These days, I’m finding reasons to stay outside rather than in.

Corsican hellebore and variegated vinca, green and yellow with pale purple flowers

Corsican hellebore and variegated periwinkle with swollen alfalfa pellets visible in the feeding mulch.

 

Purple crocuses

The Old Garden and the Old Gardener

I’ve been gardening the same patch of land for a quarter century. You would think that means perfection has been achieved.

You would be wrong.

An old garden full of trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, and self-seeding annuals, gardened by someone not good at ruthless removal, becomes a mess. New gardeners, take note! Sometimes you have to remove (i.e., kill) perfectly healthy, beautiful plants because they’re in the wrong place, or there are too many of them, or they’re weeds. If you relent and let them be, your garden will become a mess.

Define “mess.”

In my garden, it means a jumble of plants above ground and an entanglement of roots, rhizomes, corms, and bulbs beneath the surface. Any garden project, however simple and straightforward its intention, rapidly becomes complicated and tricky.

purple hellebore flowers

Oriental hellebore

For example, the other day I decided to cut down the old foliage of some oriental hellebores, to better display the emerging flowers, and in anticipation of distributing compost and fertilizer in the next few weeks. This is best done while the ground is relatively bare, meaning after old stuff has been removed and before new growth has covered the ground. And, of course, after any unwanted plants (sometimes called “weeds”) have been removed.

Simple, right? Except that in this garden the line between weed and non-weed has always been kind of fuzzy.

Arum italicum foliage

Italian arum foliage

So, back to the hellebores. Snipping the old stems close to the ground was easy, but while doing that I noticed that a nearby patch of Italian arum was encroaching on some emerging irises and the still dormant buds of a peony. I had been careless about cutting down the arum’s seed stalks (because they’re so ornamental, like little red corn cobs on sticks) and they had sprouted new plants around the original one, as well as spreading underground. I got the hori-hori knife and went to work.

June 11, 2016

Hori-hori knife and its sheath.

The young arums were easy enough to dig up and remove, but the mature arums’ bulbous roots are quite deep underground. Try digging them up without harming the irises and peonies. Too often, I heard that awful crisp snap of plant tissues breaking. Several arum roots remained below ground, and at least one iris was prematurely dispatched. At the end of the session, instead of a neatly weeded patch of ground, the area resembled a battlefield, complete with casualties.

The whole place is like this! Regular garden plants rub roots with the tough specimens I brought in because they were recommended for situations like mine — sandy soil, shade, tree roots, and increasingly dry summers. Any kind of adjustment that involves digging almost always becomes a blood and guts situation — well, okay, a battle with roots, with some unoffending plant as collateral damage.

Another annoyance this year is the crocus massacre. Over the years, crocuses, mostly purple ones, have multiplied and spread through the garden, sometimes by accident, sometimes intentionally. But now I’ve found many holes several inches deep, surrounded by broken crocus shoots, many with buds showing. The bulbs — or more accurately, corms — have been eaten. Rats, which have become distressingly numerous in this superlative suburb in recent years, are my number one suspect. I know squirrels are reputed to eat crocuses, but there have always been squirrels here, and I’ve never observed them digging up crocuses. They’re more interested in picking up sunflower seeds dropped from the bird feeder, and unlike rats, they’re diurnal. So I’ve resorted to covering the remaining crocuses with chicken wire, which is ugly and not kind to plant tissues, but may preserve them.

That’s the thing about gardening, though. Unlike many hobbies or avocations, it involves so many factors beyond the control of the person who undertakes it. Weather, soil, birds, rats, insects, and the gardener’s state of health (both physical and mental) — all these things influence what happens in a garden, but none of them is entirely under the gardener’s control.

Picking up the spade and the trowel, and committing oneself to turning a patch of land into a garden, is a momentous undertaking. Once you’ve created the garden, you must do whatever it takes to maintain it, even if that means struggles of various kinds. Frost? Cover or move those tender plants. Drought? Hoist the watering can and wrestle with the hose. Crowding and imbalance? Clip back, cut down, or dig up. Weeds? Pull and dig. And curse and pull and dig some more. Ravenous rodents? Lay out chicken wire. And so on.

Gardening is a lifelong negotiation with the forces of the natural world. Few things are more real and raw. And despite everything, worthwhile.

Crocuses and chicken wire to prevent rats from digging them up

Chicken wire may protect these crocuses from being dug up by rats.

Campion Cull

I have often mentioned the rose campion, Lychnis coronaria. It’s one of the easiest of garden perennials, practically a weed, in fact. It resists drought, tolerates shade, comes in white or what I call “magenta” (a dark purplish red, anyway), and seeds mightily.

That, of course, is why my place has more than enough of this plant. In the first flush of summer bloom, the white form is visually dominant in the back garden.

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Multiple clumps of white-flowered campion

The thing is, I find it impossible to yank out or dig up a plant that looks healthy, especially if it’s in full bloom. L. coronaria manages to look too good to kill most of the time, especially if deadheaded. This extends the bloom season and delays the onset of seediness. By July or August, deadheading 3 dozen or more plants gets to be a pain, especially those that are hard to get at. I resort to cutting the flowering stalks down or removing them altogether. That minimizes seed production, but does not eliminate it. Which is why I have so many plants.

This winter has been relatively tough, and one effect of that is that the campion plants look distinctly shabby.

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Noticing this, I seized the opportunity and a digging tool, and did a bit of a cull. Of course, there was no way to tell which plants were white-flowering and which were magenta, but I concentrated on spots I recalled as having way too many of the white form.

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Results of the massacre — a pile of pulled up campion plants.

At its best, the white-flowered form is as cool and elegant as many difficult perennials.

July 2, 2012

White Lychnis coronaria and unknown Euphorbia.

 

After the massacre, I started feeling some regret at the number of plants I had removed. Looking around, though, there is no shortage of Lychnis coronaria in this garden. And if I feel there is, all I have to do is let a single plant produce seed and scatter it around. Repopulation is guaranteed.

The Art of Raking

Every day there are more leaves on the ground. The outlines of the garden are growing blurred under a patina of yellow, brown and muddled green. Time to get the rake out of the shed and wield it cleverly.

Leaves being assembled on the grass circle among perennial beds.

Leaves being assembled on the grass circle among perennial beds.

In a place like mine — a mosaic of paths, mixed beds and borders, and small sections of grass (usually known as “lawn”) — raking isn’t just a matter of applying the rake’s tines to the ground and stroking toward oneself. On grass and paths you can do that, but winkling leaves out from among herbaceous and woody plant stems and off groundcovers that range from tough (periwinkle) to fragile (moss) requires attention and a variety of techniques.

A delicate touch works best — don’t bear down hard on the rake, just feather along the surface to snag leaves without beating up the underlying plants. If there are accumulated layers of leaves, keep feathering until most are picked up. It’s all right to leave a few leaves behind; earthworms will take care of them over the winter. Concentrate on removing the heavy, wet leaf buildup that can cause rot. Agile wrist-flicks, turning the rake edgewise in narrow spots, using sideways moves when needed — raking requires a surprising range of arm and hand movements.

Getting leaves out from this kind of situation needs a bit of finesse with the rake.

Getting leaves out from this kind of situation needs a bit of finesse with the rake.

A lightweight rake that’s not too big works best. Bamboo rakes are very light, but I’ve read the ones available today aren’t as well made as in the past, and therefore not as durable. They are also pretty big. My rake of choice is an all-purpose hardware store model, nothing special, really. It’s more than thirty years old, with a wooden handle and metal head, now missing a few tines from each side.  I’ve been checking out rakes in stores lately, and will probably replace the old guy with a similar model that’s no heavier. I also have an all-metal rake whose width can be adjusted with a sliding device on the handle. It’s handy in tight spots or for scooping floating leaves from the pond surface, but is heavier than the wooden-handled dude, and not as well-balanced, so I don’t use it that often. For pond “raking,” a device made from a broom handle, wire coat hanger and a plastic onion bag works quite well, and is a lot lighter.

The Old Reliable is on the right, and the Adjustable on the left.

The Old Reliable is on the right, and the Adjustable on the left.

Leaves that are slightly damp are easier to manage than crackly-dry ones, which float around and are hard to corral. On paved surfaces, a surprisingly effective way to move big piles of leaves is to use feet and legs (encased in rubber boots, of course) in a kind of shuffling motion to push the leaves along. I regularly do this when I’m putting together the huge pile of leaves to be collected from the boulevard by the municipality. Really wet leaves are heavy and disgusting, so it’s best not to put off leaf management too long, at least in places that get a lot of rain in the autumn.

Raking for a couple of hours is pretty good exercise, especially for the upper body. And it’s a pleasant way to spend time in the autumn garden, especially on a nice day — almost sunny, almost warm, without wind. In my recent raking session, I also cut down old perennial stalks, yanked out some elderly rose campion plants, and thought about projects for next spring. In the end, I had tangible evidence of my industriousness in the form of a nice big pile of leaves awaiting removal to the compost heap, and without any of the noise-induced stress I imagine accompanies a session with a leaf-blower. (But then, I consider leaf-blowers to be abominations; maybe some get a feeling of power from the roar they emit).

A classic leaf pile.

A classic leaf pile.

Taking the rake around the garden is the last dance of the gardening year. Whether it’s a waltz, a samba or a tarantella depends on the quantity of leaves, the terrain being raked, and the gardener’s urgency to get the job done.

 

Plants on the Move

Fall is a time for migrations. OK, plants don’t usually pull up their roots and go south for the winter, but this is an excellent time for gardeners to shift or divide the plants in their gardens. A week and a half ago, just before some scheduled minor surgery, I carried out a couple of projects.

Project #1. Quite a few of my plants have moved at least once since they came to this garden — usually in search of sunnier spots with fewer tree roots competing for water and nutrients. Earlier this year I made a list of Plants That Need To Be Moved. The demise of an old lavender shrub in the sunniest perennial bed was a blessing. I have a replacement, grown from a cutting, but I’ll have to find a different spot for it, because its former location — a space about the size of a bath mat — presented an opportunity to re-home almost the entire list.

Wide-open spaces freed up by demise of lavender shrub!

Wide-open spaces freed up by demise of lavender shrub!

 

Another view of the possibilities.

Another view of the possibilities.

The spot now accommodates two nameless yellow and white late-blooming iris, two purple Siberian iris, one Geranium “Johnson’s Blue,” one blue veronica, one Astrantia major, one Potentilla tonguei, and one small stem of Sedum “Bertram Anderson.”

Transplants settling in to their new space.

Transplants settling in to their new space.

OK, I know I’ve jammed too many plants into this spot. But consider: the irises are skinny and are cuddled up against a tall aster (whose bare legs are visible in the photo) that has attained its full growth for the year. And the other plants are undersized due to having endured poor conditions in their old spots, and will take a while to plump up. At that point, some adjustments will be needed. Those adjustments are an important part of gardening, so I’m just ensuring I’ll have something to do in a year or two. A thought occurred to me the other day: There is no point in having a garden, except to have an arena in which to do the activities that constitute gardening. (I’m speaking here of ornamental gardening, of course; growing food is another matter altogether).

Project #2. Several years ago, I prepared a small bed under a magnolia for a planting of Meconopsis X “Lingholm” (or, at any event, plants grown from seed collected from a known specimen of “Lingholm”).

Meconopsis bed, newly dug in April 2012

Meconopsis bed, newly dug in April 2012

The blue poppies bloomed well that spring, but since then have done poorly. I decided to dig up the plants, improve the soil and replant.

My estimation of the survival abilities of my Meconopsis plants has greatly increased, after removing 2 cubic feet of loofah-like magnolia feeding roots from the bed and the root balls of every one of the seven surviving blue poppies. I replaced the removed roots with an equal amount of nicely rotted compost. Most of the Meconopsis look better already, and I hope all seven will sprout out and bloom next spring. Transplanting in fall usually means you have to wait until the following spring to see real results.

 

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In the meantime, I’m forbidden to do any real digging, root ball wrestling or lugging buckets full of compost for the next few weeks, so the only thing to do is admire the new plantings, make more lists, and hope.

 

July in the Garden: Planning and Plant Management

July isn’t a month for starting new garden projects. It’s not a good time to move plants around, too early to plant bulbs, too late to start vegetable or annual seeds (except for winter vegetables, maybe) and too hot for serious digging, sod-stripping and other labours.

Maintenance is the thing now: keeping an eye on everything, making sure water is supplied as needed, lawn mowing, edge clipping, and deadheading. While engaged in all that, the gardener inevitably notices Things That Must Be Done. Just not now. All these tasks and projects are written down in the Garden Notebook.

Garden Notebook

Garden Notebook

 

For example:  Blue irises have crowded out the blue Veronica in the Old Front Bed; and Geranium “Johnson’s Blue” and Limonium latifolium are in too much shade. Must remove some of the irises OR move the Veronica, Limonium and Geranium to sunnier spots. I hesitate to rip out the irises, because they bloomed so well this past spring.

An old lavender in the New Front Bed is on its last legs and scheduled for removal. That will free up a spot suitable for “Johnson’s Blue” as well as some of the Siberian irises now struggling along in deep, dry shade near the driveway. The Veronica can go into a spot a few feet to the west of its present location, currently occupied by a rather pushy Sedum that has taken over more space than it deserves. A small, sunny spot in the New Front Bed near Saponaria “Max Frei” is perfect for the Limonium, or at least can be made perfect by judicious removal of other things, keeping in mind that “Max” is a bit pushy when in full bloom.

Sometimes I think gardening is like running a hotel for the fussy and infirm.

On the other hand, there are plenty of plants that need “managing” rather than cosseting. One that does almost too well here is good old Lychnis coronaria, the Rose Campion. Now that I have time, I have managed to keep up with deadheading my dozens of plants, even though that means snipping off each faded flower individually. It helps that most of them are between knee and waist level, and I can get at most of the plants without acrobatics. But it is a seriously tedious task, one best done in a “Zen” frame of mind.

Rose Campion and deadheading equipment.

Rose Campion and deadheading equipment.

Another reliable plant that seeds prolifically is the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica (had to include that Latin moniker, of course!). Years ago, someone gave me a plant of the basic orange form. Then I bought seeds of a strain called “Thai Silks,” and a few years after that acquired seeds of a white or cream-coloured form. These have mixed and mingled, with bumblebees moving pollen around, so every year there is a different proportion of colours.

June 19, 2016

California poppies in 2010.

California poppies in 2010.

The only problem with these easy-going plants is that by mid to late July they lose their looks — floppy, too many seed pods, not enough flowers. The thing to do at that point is harvest some of the seeds by snipping off almost-ripe pods, and then cut the plants to within an inch or two of the ground. They quickly put out fresh growth and are blooming again in a few weeks, much to the delight of gardener and bumblebees. Oh, about those seed pods — when ready, they split and spew seeds all over the place, so put them in a glass or a jelly jar to contain the explosions.

Pink California Poppy and Lemon Thyme.

Pink California Poppy and Lemon Thyme.

And now, back into maintenance mode…

 

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Tools of garden maintenance (except the rock, of course).

 

New Front Bed in July.

Part of New Front Bed in July.

August in the Garden: Weeds and Visions

In one of my favourite garden books — My Weeds : a gardener’s botany — Sara B. Stein reveals that by the end of July she has “had it with weeds and gardens.” She no longer bothers to pull up weeds and spends the month of August in a place without a garden, and therefore without weeds. Whatever plants happen to grow there are fine; there is no need to identify any as weeds and struggle to remove them from the scene. Gardening makes some plants into weeds. Without the gardener, the garden is taken over by weeds and ceases to be a garden.

Stein outlines some of the measures she used in her own garden to make it less dependent on her attentions — using native species when possible, along with non-natives that are at home in the same conditions as they. This means revising paper garden designs and compromising on colours, but the results, she hopes, will make her gardens less sad when she can no longer look after them. In a garden populated by plants that are quasi-weeds, the gradient between “garden” and “untended nature” is less steep.

I have often thought that a similar approach would make gardening less of a struggle in the latter part of the summer in a climate with little or no summer rainfall. Especially in a garden whose soil is sandy and full of tree roots. Artfully arrange the tough plants that tolerate such conditions and voila — a garden that looks after itself. Of course there will still be mowing and edging, cutting back and cutting down, and yes, some weeding too, but no longer that feeling of battling an implacable adversary who is slowly winning, cosseting feeble darlings and helplessly watching them succumb despite my efforts.

August is a good month for me to think about this, because my garden looks pretty sad, at least in the harsh light of noon. There is a weary, crispy look to things. It would be seedier if I hadn’t done a lot of deadheading and cutting down of old stalks in the past week. The pond area is especially beaten-down, thanks to the busy paws of a raccoon family — a mother and two or maybe three little guys. I should be used to this by now; there’s always a raccoon family. Several generations may have spent the summer here since we dug the pond in 1993. I don’t mind, really. In a way it’s good to know my patch provides shelter and a livelihood to creatures, but I wish they didn’t make such a mess. The plantings around the pond are supposed to be lush and jungly, a green oasis even in summer, but it’s hard to sustain that illusion when plants are broken down and mashed flat.

Never mind. I originally meant to say that August is a sort of time-out month in the garden. The plans and aspirations of spring have either succeeded or failed by now. It’s not too early to make some new plans; indeed, September is a great month for reworking and replanting. Rip out a Senecio that has never looked good, along with excess Geranium sanguineum (a rather sneaky spreader) and replace with the young plants of white Echinacea grown from seed this spring. Someday they will be joined by a Dierama and Gaura that are now just seeds in pots. Liatris looks great with white Echinacea, and there is a soft orange poppy, none of whose names I know, that would be just the accent for the planting.

Who knows how these notions will turn out in reality?

That’s the thing about gardening — so much of it is done in the gardener’s mind and in some perfect future. Much better than futzing with weeds.

 

The "jungle" by the pond (in June)

The “jungle” by the pond (in June)

Lessons Re-Learned

Epimedium "Frohnleiten"

Epimedium “Frohnleiten”

Today was my first full day of gardening since last fall (not counting the pruning session in March). While generally happy with things in my little plot, I was reminded of a few truths for those who garden in small spaces (anything less than half an acre).

1. Never plant any shrub that suckers, no matter what sentimental associations it may have, or that it’s a native plant, or that some garden writer you admire spoke highly of it. This includes Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) and the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris). It also includes the woody perennial (not quite a shrub) Phygelius (also known as Cape figwort). I have all of these, and spend several unpleasant hours every year yanking, snipping and sawing their adventurous shoots. It’s an especially unrewarding task because I know most of the shoots will re-sprout and new ones will join them. It’s too late to remedy my unfortunate plant selection decisions, however, since the original shrubs, now huge and deeply rooted, would require immense labour or dynamite (or both) to dislodge them. Beware of rampaging groundcovers as well, such as ivy and Vinca major. Even the deceptively dainty-looking Vinca minor has thuggish tendencies.

2. If your garden looks like a hopeless mess at this time of the year, do three things before you give up on it:  mow the lawn, edge the beds and cut down last year’s old stalks. This will instantly impart the look of a managed garden and motivate you to make further improvements by weeding, loosening the soil, introducing new plants and mulching. Even if the plants occupying the beds are nothing special, this treatment will make them look better. (This applies to perennial and mixed ornamental beds; vegetable gardens are another thing altogether).

3. If your garden is mainly one of tough, drought- and tree-root-tolerant perennials and shrubs along with various bulbs, don’t expect plants with more exacting requirements to do well or even survive without a lot of special attention. They are already having to put up with less than ideal growing conditions and will be no match against tough, colonizing plants such as peach-leaf bellflower, lamb’s ears, toadflax and rose campion. If you can’t provide them with a separate bed, keep an eye out for their early spring growth and make sure they aren’t overwhelmed by their robust, faster-growing companions. I say this after rescuing Thalictrum delavayi “Hewitt’s Double” and even Geum chiloense “Mrs. Bradshaw” (which isn’t generally considered a delicate thing, but is treated like one in my rooty patch). As for my blue poppies (Meconopsis), they have their own slender slice of earth to dwell in, but I wonder if it’s too close to a rather hefty magnolia. They have sprouted out quite well, all seventeen of them, so I have hopes.

Henry Mitchell said, “The life so short, the craft so long to learn. This was said about literature, but it really fits gardening better.” Very true.

Fiddleheads of Dryopteris filix-mas

Fiddleheads of Dryopteris filix-mas

Plants Are Not Furniture

Plants are not furniture, but some people try to use them as if they were. Books on landscaping and garden design often advise turning one’s plot of land into a set of “garden rooms” separated by hedges, trellises, shrubs or changes in elevation. That analogy is useful, but some take it further, instructing the homeowner to furnish the garden rooms with suitable plant material as well as actual furniture such as benches.

In selecting plants for a particular space, the architectural approach is useful. It makes sense to think of shapes and proportions before going to a nursery or plant catalogue. This approach, however, cannot ignore the fact that plants are living things that grow and change.

I began thinking about this topic upon seeing brand new gardens laid out and existing plantings undergoing maintenance. The new gardens look so promising — young, healthy, compact plants spaced out in plots of freshly turned and enriched soil, oriental hellebores alternating with ornamental grasses, and a few shrubs to add height. Very nice.

The established planting was one near a large new commercial/residential development intended to have a “village” atmosphere. More than a year ago, legions of blue fescue and lavender plants were installed in a long strip along a major road. At the time I wondered how they would fare, while acknowledging that they looked pretty good, lush yet neat. Recently, an army of landscaping company personnel trimmed, raked and mulched the planting, refreshing it and restoring tidiness.

Looking out at my as yet un-edged and mostly untrimmed beds, I felt more than a twinge of envy at the thought of these orderly plantings, but I have been a gardener long enough to know that application of considerable resources is needed to maintain this state. Plants, as I’ve already said, grow and change. The sofa and coffee table in one’s living room don’t double in bulk over the years or die out in the middle. Rugs may get grubby but they don’t start expanding into adjoining rooms. Perennials, shrubs and groundcovers do all these things, some very quickly. The only way to keep them within the bounds intended for them is to prune, shape, divide and sometimes replace. Even so, some plants die and others fill the spaces left vacant by their deaths. Unintended plants, weeds and others, creep in. The owner of the property may grow tired of the struggle and give up. A few years later there is little or no bare soil to be seen and the proportions and colour schemes so carefully worked out at the planning stage are gone.

If the neat, newly-planted or strictly maintained look is wanted, there are only a few solutions — rip everything out and replace it all at regular intervals, say annually or every two or three years, or choose a few plant varieties that lend themselves to regular trimming, plant them in masses and hire an outfit to keep them in shape.

But is that gardening?

Gardening is more than just keeping things orderly in the “outdoor living space.” Gardening is entering into a relationship with the plants and other living things in the garden, and negotiating with them to achieve a result that is visually and spiritually rewarding. The gardener learns what a plant does through the course of its life, rather than ripping it out when it loses its juvenile charm. Years of successes and failures, experiments and happy surprises, all of that gives a garden a history and makes the person who acquires plants and works with them into a gardener.