Our recent snowfall is almost a memory. We’ve gone from this…
It’s still unseasonably cool. The therapeutic effect of warm temperatures and sun hasn’t arrived, although the patient plants are trying to pick up where they left off in January. The garden has that battered and squashed look produced by two bouts of strong northeast winds, days of below freezing temperatures, and almost a foot of the white stuff.
Today I went looking for photo-worthy sights in the garden and didn’t manage to find much. The old stuff looks tired and beaten-up, and the new stuff hasn’t really started.
Now back to making lists of things to do: cut down old stalks, tidy up beds, prepare mulch, distribute mulch, seed tomatoes, foxgloves, and verbena, set out new plants, work on the soaker hose revival project, finish pruning… Rush to get it all done before summer arrives.
I’ve been a gardener for thirty-five years, during which I’ve learned a few things. These thoughts recur regularly as I work in the garden, so I decided to write them down, in case other gardeners may find them helpful.
When in doubt, clip the lawn edges. Nothing spruces up a garden (at least the lawn-plus-perennial-beds kind) faster than this. Even a “yard” with a lawn and a few sad shrubs can be made to look like a garden in the making by defining some edges and fluffing up bare soil. Spreading compost around is the finishing touch.
Before stepping into a bed or planting, decide exactly where to put your feet. Those size 8s can snap and squash innocent plants. Pick spots where they’ll do the least damage, both to plants and your body, especially if you need to hold a position while tying, digging, or pruning. Balancing on one foot while twisting yourself into a pretzel shape is not recommended.
In summer-dry places, delay watering as long as you can, to encourage plants to grow deep roots. Once you do start watering, make a schedule and water each area regularly, abiding by local watering restrictions. Keep a record of what area was watered and when.
Learn how to deadhead the plants in your garden and do it regularly. Deadheading extends bloom time and prevents excessive self-seeding. It also forces you to pay attention to the forms and structures of your plants.
Learn how to propagate plants from seed, cuttings, and divisions. These are cheap ways to increase desirable plants, and doing this stuff is a great way to really know plants, way more than buying nursery-grown specimens.
Learn how to prune. It’s not brain surgery (since plants don’t have brains, and you do). If in doubt, cut less. You can always cut more, but once you’ve cut something, you can’t stick it back on. When in doubt, stop, look, and think.
If a newly-acquired perennial or shrub shows suckering or vigorously spreading tendencies (I’m looking at you, Mahonia aquifolium!), decide right away if that’s okay with you. If not, either remove the plant and get rid of it, or make an effective management plan. Hoping the plant will change its ways isn’t an option.
Don’t try to change your garden into something it isn’t. You’re stuck with the fundamentals (climate, soil, topography), so you may as well live with them. If you’re determined to turn your sandy seaside garden into a mountain meadow, be prepared to labour endlessly. (Gardening involves enough labour as it is.)
Accept that the garden will change, no matter what you do, and not always as you intend. That 2010 picture at the beginning of the post is a good reminder of this truth. Some plants will die out and others will thrive. Not always the ones you want, of course.
Don’t believe all the advice you read, even this post books and articles by writers you esteem. Every garden is different, and gardening is a hands-on business. Learn by doing. On the other hand, reading about other gardeners’ thoughts and experiences can be a comfort and a joy.
Keep in mind that your garden is a place in which to engage in gardening (i.e., digging, planting, weeding, deadheading, edging, watering, and gazing in wonder). It’s not a status symbol, contest, or race. But your garden is also a home for various creatures — birds, squirrels, insects, etc. Think about that before making drastic changes, such as tree removal.
Cultivate the habit of noticing beauty, no matter what happens in your garden. Even in the bleakest, deadest, driest seasons, even after the windstorm, there’s something beautiful to be seen. You just have to find it and recognize it.
Calendar spring has arrived, but the real thing is still peeking around the curtain, trying to decide when to make its appearance. We’ve gone from cold to cool, but haven’t arrived at warm.
And that’s fine with me. No, really! I’ve always found spring to be an anxiety-producing season. So much to do and not enough time in which to do it, never mind savour and observe. Weeds to weed, plants to plant, seeds to seed. And grass to mow.
Last spring — my first as a job-free (i.e., retired) person — came on fast and hot. Right from the start, I felt I had missed the garden bus with no hope of catching up. The weirdness of leaving my years-long work routines, combined with hot (30 C, 86 F) days in May threw me off balance. I found myself shelving ambitious plans for the garden and improvising.
This year is different. I’ve worked through most of my Things to Prune list and made good progress on the Plants to Move one. I’ve seeded half a dozen perennials (inside) and of course the tomatoes. Most of them are starting to sprout. Tomatoes aside, it’s been years since I bothered growing new plants from seed.
Finding literally hundreds of hellebore seedlings around one of my mature plants, I potted up a few dozen. Hellebores do quite well here, so my plan is to make them more of a feature in a couple of beds, replacing plants that are struggling. The parent plant is a rather dark, smoky purple; it will be interesting to see what colours its offspring produce.
These cool, often cloudy days are perfect for doing strenuous stuff in the garden, such as digging up perennials and moving them to new, supposedly better spots. Preparing the new spots, of course, usually involves cutting and removing part of the network of tree roots that lurks just below the surface.
I also have a lot of compost to distribute — shovel into wheelbarrow, shovel out over the ground. (When I think about it, compost is an awful lot of work — rake up the leaves and stuff, pile it up, poke it and turn it, and finally shovel as above, probably returning much of the material — in a decomposed state, of course — pretty much to where it started from. Nature probably laughs at gardeners).
In between all these efforts, it’s good to wander around and see what the plants are up to. That, after all, is the reward.
Gardening is a “genteel” pastime only if you have someone doing it for you. It can be quite demanding physically, and I don’t mean only brute labour type activities such as stripping sod or digging new garden beds.
Zeke the Cat, exempt from all garden work, loafing in a perennial bed
Take the matter of tying up plants that are apt to slump, lean or break off in windstorms. This often involves climbing right into a perennial bed, feet and all. The gardener must insert bamboo or other stakes, wrap twine around them and secure it so it stays put — all without crushing or otherwise injuring plants. Well-organized gardeners place stepping-stones in their perennial beds for just this purpose, but more often than not, there is no stone where the foot must land, or if there is, it’s very likely invisible under a couple of inches of mulch and plant debris.
Lean-prone Thalictrum staked and tied
I’ve often thought how useful it would be to be able to hover above the ground while carrying out garden operations such as pruning, hedge trimming or staking and tying. Someone should invent a little jet pack for gardeners, painters, window-washers, etc. It wouldn’t get you anywhere, you understand — just get your feet off the ground and keep you suspended until the job is done.
Lacking that, gardeners need certain physical qualities and skills — for example, the ability to balance and hold an awkward position, to spend a long time bent over or to get down on the ground and back up again — repeatedly. Then there’s the ability to work a pruning saw while doubled over or on tiptoes with arms raised and sawdust falling into eyes.
As well as assuming complex contortions while balancing on one leg, a gardener must be capable of hoisting a lot of weight, e.g., 10 liter watering can (full of water), or moving a lot of material, e.g. compost, gravel and plain old dirt. Why bother going to the gym? You can get a full-body workout right in your own garden. The other day I shifted a ton of compost material, from last week’s iris stalks to last fall’s leaves, in varying stages of decomposition. I certainly didn’t need to hoist kettle bells or do squats after that.
Rebuilt compost pile
Desirable physical features for a gardener: long arms, short legs (telescoping legs would be even better), a strong back, a good sense of balance. In preparing for a season of gardening, yoga might help, or working out with weights. Psychologically, a tolerance for the tedious and repetitive is an asset. Masochism might be a handy trait as well, and an infinite capacity to delay gratification (sometimes forever, depending on what you’re trying to grow).
Returning to the matter of staking and tying, it helps to be familiar with a few knots. The ones I use most often in the garden: square (reef) knot, clove hitch, double half-hitch, overhand knot. The square knot is used to tie two pieces of twine together or to join the ends of a single piece, as when tying a plant stem to a stake. The clove hitch anchors a long piece of twine to a stake. The twine is then wrapped around other stakes, thus surrounding a slump- or lean-prone plant. The twine is secured to the final stake with two half-hitches (unless it proves too short to complete the job, in which case the handy square knot is used to attach another piece of twine).
Twine wrapped around bamboo stakes and tied to support delphinium
The overhand knot, which is so basic I think of it as the “kid knot,” may be used to keep the ends of pieces of twine from fraying. I’ve done this for years, but in truth, those knotted ends are harder to pass through tight spots, thus making it harder to tie other knots. And in my experience, fraying ends aren’t really a problem. Standard natural-fiber garden twine tends to weaken all over after a season or two. Once it loses its green colour and starts looking thin and tired, I test it by pulling on it; if it snaps, it goes in the compost pile, usually with knotted ends intact.
It may be argued that knots aren’t that important in garden situations, unlike mountaineering, sailing or working with livestock, where disaster may ensue if the correct knot isn’t used. That may be, but in most cases the gardener eventually has to untie most of those knots, again holding awkward positions or balanced on one foot. A properly tied knot is easier and faster to undo than a carelessly tied “granny,” so it pays to do it right in the first place.
Rope adds a nautical touch to the improved dog fence around the back garden
Ah, September — maybe my favourite month. Some years, the best weather comes in September — warm but not hot, with just enough rain to start the “fall spring,” when some spring blooming plants put out a few last flowers, when leaves start to turn colour and the garden prepares to withdraw into the relative quiet of winter.
The last few days, instead of thinking up stuff like this, I have been busting my butt in said garden. Predictions of a major rain- and windstorm motivated me to mow, clip and rake, cut down stuff and get the compost heaps into shape. That means doing something with the finished compost to make room for the millions of leaves that I will rake up in October. Out come the wheelbarrow and spade. I shovel compost into the wheelbarrow and then re-shovel it out, spreading it among perennials and under shrubs. I’m most generous in spots beneath trees, where plants have to compete with tree roots.
While the body labours, the mind wanders, and throws out some fanciful notions — such as that the garden is like a world, with peoples and nations ebbing and flowing. What happened to that patch of Irish moss (Sagina subulata)? It was crowded out by colonizing Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), and is now only a memory. And these asters became refugees, fleeing the onslaught of sweet violets and snow-in-summer (Cerastium). Do plants tremble at the coming of the almighty gardener, in size 9 “duck shoes,” bearing a spade in one hand and secateurs in the other? Plants live or die by my will on this 50 x 120 foot patch (except for bindweed, that is). Legions of wood lice and centipedes flee when I come to destroy their compost heap empire. Ha!
In the end, the garden looks pretty good and the compost area is neat and tidy, ready for all those leaves. Bring on the rain and wind!
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.
I have mixed feelings about spring, even this year as we emerge from a La Nina winter. We had two bouts of snow here, one in November and another in February. There was a lot of wind and rain in the first part of March, so it’s good to see longer days (a few of them sunny) and temperatures of more than 10 degrees C. (50 F).
But I still find spring to be a challenge. For several months the garden has been quiescent, with last year’s memories preserved in pictures and vague intentions for the future. But with the coming of spring, it wakes up and makes demands. Or, to be accurate, plants in the garden emerge from dormancy and begin to grow. Seeing this, the gardener begins to make lists of Things To Do: prune roses and hollies, cut down old Epimedium foliage, edge all beds, seed tomatoes (indoors, of course), dig vegetable patch, and (as Henry Mitchell would say), zub zub zub.
In spring, the garden stops being theoretical and becomes actual.
Things that haven’t worked out can no longer be ignored. Six potted Meconopsis have sprouted out. The seventh has not, so must be dead, a possibility confirmed by judicious prodding around the crown of the plant. The hebes, which actually had a few blooms in January,now look dead, no doubt as a result of the snow and cold in February. A large portion of the front garden is a mess — full of unwanted grass and renegade Campanulas. It adjoins the Bad Neighborhood and is starting to resemble it. Something must be done, and soon.
That’s the thing — certain garden tasks are best done now rather than later (which so often translates to “never”). If the invading grasses are ignored, they will gain a few more yards and the weeding job will only get bigger. The soil will dry out, making it harder to extract the weeds, and the job will end up being done in warm weather instead of these cool, damp days which facilitate weeding. Or so I tell myself on the way to the shed to get the hand fork and dandelion tool.
Spring is like getting up after a long night’s sleep. You are rested and want to get going, but it’s still an effort to flap back the blankets, put your feet on the floor and head for the bathroom. It’s so easy to go back to sleep for another hour and dream about roses in bloom and a mist of blue poppies in summer shade. Those things won’t happen unless you, the gardener, overcomes inertia and participates in their making. So get out of that chair, put those boots on, get out and dig!