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.
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.
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.
I’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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.