Imperfection In The Garden

Fine Gardening recently asked in its online newsletter, “Is Lazy Gardening A Thing?” Their answer was emphatically a “Yes!”

Similarly, as post in the Lee Valley Newsletter (Vol. 9, Issue 8) talked about how being a “lazy gardener was quite an advantage sometimes. Specifically, that post was about saving lettuce seeds.

But I was surprised to even see the question asked.

Back when I worked 30 plus hours in retail gardening, plus at least that many hours in my law practice and lectured (in other words, 7 days a week, including nights and weekends), I would smile when people at the garden center would say to me “I’m SO busy I don’t have time to garden!”

I would simply tell them that of course they had time to garden–everyone has time to garden–they just had to be a “lazy gardener” like I was. And I would simply explain some of the things that I did–things that are now being written up in the magazines as brilliant, creative new strategies. Unfortunately, that was one of the things I did not do–write an article–or multiple articles, or even a book–about all my tips. Oh well. Steve Silk probably wishes he had trademarked that “Spiller, Filler, Thriller” concept too!

I think all gardeners learn tricks and techniques as they start to garden and then, the more they garden, they learn to adapt what works for them and to discard the rest. So my next few posts will share with you what I’ve struggled to learn over the years.

One of the hardest things for me to learn to discard was the concept of perfection, particularly when I was working all those hours (and even now). I haven’t read a lot of articles, books or blog posts about it, but I’ve seen a few that say it’s okay to just do the minimum necessary, particularly to keep the weeds at bay.

I call it weed triage and there’s specific method to my madness. First, weed out anything with flowers on it. Anything that’s about to set seed has to go.

Next, get anything that’s really thirsty. Even if you don’t live in a drought prone climate, you don’t want weeds stealing water from your precious plants. So here I’m talking about thinks like large weeds like pokeweed, and perennial weeds like brambles–things like that (unless you have a purpose for them)

And, by the end of the season, weed out anything perennial. That’s it. Other than that, I weed when I can.

That’s just one of the ways I fight “imperfection.” On Monday, I’ll talk about some of the ways I’ve tried to make my life easier as a gardener.

The Kindness of (Gardening) Strangers

On Monday I talked about how we were all inexperienced gardeners once.  It’s a theme I often use in my gardening lectures–“We’re not born with this knowledge,” is one of my two favorite gardening sayings (the other being “plants can’t read.”)

And still, some of us may be more experienced than others.  While I write this blog, write for a local glossy magazine, review books for my State horticultural society and speak on numerous different gardening topics, I know that there are a lot of things I can still learn.  I’m delighted when I do learn something new.  I reviewed a book just recently where I was able to learn several new things and I was overjoyed–because, quite frankly, at my level, there’s not a lot gardening books can teach me anymore.

But where and how do we get our gardening information?  These days, it can be as easy as turning on our computers or our smartphones–but as always, with the internet, you need to be very careful about a lot of the information out there.  A lot of it is unsuitable for everyone (wrong zone, out of date information or simply inapplicable answers) and some of it is just plain wrong.

If we’re lucky we have a trusted friend, relative or neighbor we can rely on for help.  In many cases this person is older so we can benefit from years of experience without having to go through the “trial and error” ourselves.

On the other hand, one of the things I was constantly saying to my customers when I was in retail gardening (at least to those who were anywhere near my age) is “You know, all the rules that we learned when we growing up gardening have changed: the names of the plants have changed, the names of the birds have changed, and the way we do certain things have changed.  So what we thought we know–we now have to learn all over again.”

And they’d throw up their hands and then listen to what I had to say about not cutting back certain plants in the autumn, for example (the woody sub-shrubs).

So trusted advice does change.  And the place to go for the “latest and greatest” up to date advice can vary.  It can be a gardening magazine you enjoy, or a web site affiliated with the same, or it can be one of the great extension service web sites (just check the dates on the posting to make sure they’re relatively recent.)  Almost every state has an extension service affiliated with its local University and most of those have web sites now.

These can be invaluable for “breaking news” too like if late blight has been spotted in your state that might affect your tomato or potato crops (and what to do) or, in my state’s case, the fact that the Emerald Ash Borer (an invasive beetle) has just recently been found and that new quarantines are in place for the movement of wood.  They’re also great for lists of invasive plants to avoid.

But all in all, a good gardening friend or neighbor is still one of the best resources you can have.  That–and some compost–will get you far in the garden.

Fall Gardening Chores

Since for most of us across North America this is a long weekend, I thought it might be a good time to talk about fall garden chores (of course that doesn’t mean that all of us are getting fall–some have already had an early taste of winter and some are still hanging on to summer.)  But  a strange list that was “tweeted” by the Farmers Almanac earlier this week got me thinking about the concept of fall chores and even the different philosophies of fall clean-ups.

I believe I did a post about this last year so I’m not going to get into it in detail again but I’ve always been a “more is less” sort of fall  clean-up person.  I follow the Native American principles in gardening where I can about respecting the Earth–although this year with all the molds and mildews in the garden I am going to have to do a lot of cutting back and carting off because I won’t want that stuff overwintering in the garden.

Normally I leave almost everything perennial to winter in place.  I believe it better protects the crowns of the perennials, it might leave some interesting seeds for winter birds, and it definitely leaves some winter interest.

With annuals, rather than “pulling them out” as is suggested in the article, I cut them off at the surface and leave the roots to decay in the soil to enrich it.  It’s sort of the same principle as “no-till” gardening.  The less I disturb the soil, the better off the soil food web will be.  I’m  not pulling out all those beneficial microbes that I’ve worked hard to build up.

The article also suggests mulching with peat.  Now to my mind, that’s another no-no and it was a non-sustainable practice in 2009 when the article was written.  But we all have different ideas about sustainability of course.  The better practice would be to mulch with leaves or pine straw–and since I have a border of white pines I never lack for pine straw.

She also suggests fall pruning.  Lots of folks in my area do this but I am not one of them.  With the wild swings of temperatures we have in the fall–and even into January in some years–I’m not one to prune roses, trees or shrubs. Pruning is likely to stimulate new growth if we get a warm enough spell and of course any new growth will just be killed of by the eventual winter.  Why set yourself up for that heartbreak?  Prune in the spring when you can also prune off any winterkill.

Finally the oddest thing she says is that the heat in the house is going to spark new growth on the house plants so you should begin to feed them.  That is the surest prescription for insects and disease that I’ve ever heard.  This is why greenhouses are always battling bugs and fungi–because they are overheated.  Houseplants normally go into a dormant state in the winter because of the lack of light and unless you are supplementing that light with grow lights I would not feed them.

Another place where conventional gardening wisdom has changed: newly planted trees do not need to be staked–in fact they should not be.

So it’s interesting that in the two years since that checklist was drafted, much of the “wisdom” is outdated.  I wonder how much will have changed two years from now?