gardeners

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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The Garden Goes On… Not Sure About the Gardener

Readers may have noticed an absence of garden-related posts recently. Well OK, it’s been winter, but here on the Fortunate Coast you could have been fooled into thinking spring came very early — or winter cancelled itself soon after Christmas. For the past three weeks I have been checking for emerging blue poppies (looks like 10 or 11 of the 16 plants have survived) and pruning shrubs. The cotoneaster, ceanothus, one of the barberries and the magnolia have undergone well-intended amputations. I’ve cut down old perennial stalks left over from last summer and pulled up some of the invasive grass from the perennial bed that is slowly being taken over by it.

But I feel disengaged from the garden and I’m not ready to embrace spring. Part of me would be happy enough to have a couple more months of winter. The reasons for this are clear — some challenging family issues and the presence of The Dog. I have less time and energy for the garden. Moreover, I’m still coming to terms with sharing the space with a large, bouncy puppy who chews sticks and fallen branches and occasionally does some unauthorized digging. Fences around the beds protect the plants but are visually jarring.

Nelly the Newf

Nelly the Newf

 

The New Look

The New Look

I have no ambitious plans for the coming season. Maintaining the status quo will be the name of the game, and I’ll be quite pleased if things don’t deteriorate. No new beds will be dug (except by Nelly), no exciting plants introduced. I may even skip the long-established ritual of growing tomatoes. The fewer pot-confined plants I’ll have to water every day or two in the dry months (May or June through September), the better.

This is one of the dark secrets that garden writers don’t reveal — a garden can’t be put on “pause” while the gardener takes a time out, unlike a hobby using inert materials. Plants will grow and seed and die quite happily on their own, unsupervised by the gardener. But many of the features the gardener values will be lost or diminished — integrity of plantings, clear edges around beds, and survival of delicate or fussy plants. One reads of the disheveled charm of abandoned gardens, but it’s different when the garden is your own and you get to witness the dishevelment creeping in.

So I hope the 2015 gardening season isn’t one where chaos reigns and the gardener (that’s me) throws in the trowel.

 

Hellebore "Ivory Prince"

Hellebore “Ivory Prince”

 

Zeke the Cat

Zeke the Cat

 

Rosemary flowers

Rosemary flowers

 

Blue is the colour of hope.

Being Aware

A red-leafed barberry bush in my front garden has grown larger than I expected it would (even though I took the cutting from a huge bush — such is the self-delusion of gardeners). I was planning to prune it next spring, cutting out one or two of the oldest branches at the base. This, I reasoned, would reduce the overall bulk of the plant. Last fall, after the barberry’s leaves had fallen, I took a look at the bush in order to decide which branch or branches to remove. I never got to that point, because I discovered a bushtit’s nest in the middle of the bush. It’s hard to see in the picture, but it’s that brownish clump of stuff among the thorny branches. (The white berry near it belongs to a snowberry that has grown into the barberry).

Bushtit's Nest in Barberry

Bushtit’s Nest in Barberry

Bushtits are tiny grey birds with long tails that hang out in groups, flitting through the garden at times through the summer. Their nests are woven of things like grasses, lichens and spider silk, suspended in a shrub, with holes near the top for the birds to come and go. I was surprised to find this nest, but now that I know it’s there, I’ve decided to postpone the pruning job until I know whether bushtits re-occupy nests from one year to the next.

This is one of the great things about being a gardener. You have to know what’s going on in your little paradise, and you have to accept that it is the domain of creatures besides yourself. The gardener can’t go along in happy ignorance — or at least the responsible gardener can’t. Yes, I have every right to prune “my” barberry bush, but I’ve decided not to exercise that right until I know whether it will harm the creature that was using the bush as a nesting location.

Gardening is in large part a matter of observation. Almost every day during the growing season, I walk around the place, just looking. How is plant X doing? Is plant Y spreading too quickly? Have the raccoons dumped the rocks into the pond again? (They have. Every time). Along with all those details, I make a multitude of other observations. Aphids on roses, sparrows in the lilac, moss spreading among the rocks of the paths, different sorts of mushrooms in various parts of the garden. Some of these things demand action, but most are simply interesting. After more than twenty years of gardening on this patch of land, I have come to expect certain phenomena to recur.

When you know a place in detail, you enter into a relationship with it that is deeper and more complex than when a piece of land is merely “real estate.” Which is why, as Henry Mitchell said, “Compared to gardeners, I think it is generally agreed that others understand very little about anything of consequence.”

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.