Autumnal Ruminations

(OK, that’s a silly title for a post, but I like it better than the others I thought of — Fall Bits & Pieces, Autumn Thoughts, etc.)

I was actually stumped for a topic this week, so decided to ramble on about the state of the garden at the end of the 2011 season, and my plans for next year.

I can’t say that this was a spectacular year, garden-wise. The spring was rather cold and damp, the first part of the summer also.  After the middle of July the weather dried out but remained cool, which was fine with me, since I’m not a heat-lover. I got a good crop of tomatoes from my potted plants, and two HUGE crops of apples. Today I made apple crisp with the last of them.

The blue poppies? Not so good. A few of them bloomed, but not much. Late in the summer, most of them succumbed to crown rot. On the plus side, I do have a couple of dozen seedlings coming along for next year (if they make it through the winter, that is).

The single word that best describes the garden right now is “overwhelmed.”  Trees and shrubs have grown too big and are taking up too much space on this modest lot (50 by 120 feet). The wall of rose-and-clematis-overhung maples and vigorous hollies on my western boundary has become oppressive, and a magnolia in the front garden is now wider than it is tall.  It’s a dark pink, lily-flowered variety called “Ann” (or maybe “Susan,” I can’t remember which). In any case, the lady is a thug. Something Must Be Done, specifically removal of at least 3 large limbs near the bottom of the trunk, a process I’m somewhat apprehensive about, because I have read that magnolias really should not be pruned.

The vegetable patch is a lost cause — not even scarlet runner beans do well any more, due to maple shade and maple roots. Herbs, even sun-lovers such as lavender, are quite successful, so I intend to repurpose the space into a herb garden. At some point this winter I will read Henry Beston’s Herbs and the Earth once again, to develop enthusiasm for the project, which I fear will involve improving the narrow brick walkways and other efforts requiring digging and lugging.

In the meantime, there are the maples. Eventually one or both will have to be removed, as well as the Ailanthus in the northeast corner. Not just yet, however. Maybe some judicious crown-thinning will do the trick for another couple of years. This year all that remains is the business of raking up the fallen leaves, something that won’t happen for a few weeks, it seems, because 90% of them are still on the trees and a good many are still green. Altogether it’s been a rather peculiar gardening season, with just about everything happening later than expected.

Foliage of fireweed (Epilobium) turning colour

My Less-Than-Perfect Patch

This winter I will have to decide whether to keep my vegetable garden (actually more of a vegetable patch) or re-purpose it. It has become too shady and infested with tree roots to be a suitable piece of ground in which to grow vegetables, apart from peas, lettuce, spinach and scarlet runner beans (which are surprisingly tolerant of difficult conditions).  Tomatoes, cucumbers and anything else that requires full sun and fertile soil have been a total failure the past two or three years, despite dutiful digging-in of compost, manure, lime and other goodies.

It’s such a bad time to give up on growing vegetables! What with the “hundred mile diet” and the craze for locally grown food, vegetable gardens have become fashionable. (Garden fashions — a topic for a future post). Having had a vegetable garden — or at least a patch — for the past 25 years, it’s hard to throw in the trowel.

The trouble is that there are few things sadder than a sad vegetable garden. It’s a total contradiction. Vegetable gardens should be orderly, prosperous and lush. A perennial or mixed border grown in less than ideal conditions can be attractive despite its lack of perfection (I know this because I have such borders), but a vegetable garden of runty, struggling, unproductive plants is an offense to the eye.

I have two exemplars of perfection when it comes to vegetable gardens, both featured years ago in Horticulture magazine. The first is (or was) the garden of Peter Chan, in Portland, Oregon. The article’s title is “Peter Chan’s Perfect Patch,” (Horticulture, May 1985) and perfect it was, although clearly more than a “patch.” The garden was framed by wonderful paths made from stones dug up in the course of its making, and the raised beds were separated by narrow walkways of packed earth. The rows of plants were arrow-straight, weedless and healthy. Bean and pea trellises were solidly constructed, not shaky makeshifts cobbled together from assorted oddments. The whole place was groomed and managed to perfection, practical and beautiful in its orderliness.

My other ideal when it comes to vegetable gardens is that of Rosemary Verey, as written up in the July 1987 issue of Horticulture. Influenced by the jardin potager at the Chateau de Villandry, it features stone walls and an intricate layout of square and triangular beds separated by paths of brick and tile radiating from the centre of a 60 by 60 foot square. The vegetables were grown in blocks, artistically combined with herbs, espaliered fruit trees and the occasional clipped shrub. Details such as alternating red- and green-leafed lettuces and ripening onion tops arranged in parallel lines put the final touch on perfection.

I had a better situation for growing vegetables in my first garden, in the 1980s. The soil was a fat clay loam, difficult to dig but richer than the lean sandy loam of my current garden. Shade and tree roots were not a problem. One year I had a wheelbarrow full of carrots and every year a freezer full of green beans. Tomatoes brought indoors before frost lasted until Christmas. Those were the days.

Here I did at least attempt a layout of my 15 x 30 foot patch a la Ms. Verey, dividing the space into two diamond shapes and six triangles. But my brick paths are too narrow to be practical, due to a shortage of bricks. Then there’s the awkwardly placed apple tree and all the volunteer and spreading plants that I have failed to discipline over the years — various mints, mulleins, violets, Corydalis lutea and Echinops ritro.  There just isn’t a lot of space left for vegetables.  And I use part of the patch as a temporary storage area for finished compost. The shade and tree roots are the final blow.


Less-than-perfect vegetable patch


This year I grew my tomatoes in big pots parked in a number of sunny spots around the place. This was a success (or would have been if not for a late, cold spring and cool summer) and I intend to do it again next year. I will probably grow peas, lettuces, spinach and the tolerant runner beans again, but I admit that my vegetable growing aspirations have been considerably scaled back.