Monday, May 30, 2011

Garden, and Life, Renovations

One of the greatest joys in my life is getting up on fine summer mornings, loading the wheelbarrow with shovels and rakes and implements of destruction and spending the day whirling around the garden like a mad dervish. There is always something that needs to be done – moving or dividing plants, mulch to be spread, weeds to pull. Sometimes the work is steady but light; a day spent weeding or deadheading the roses. Other times, the shovel is out and the dirt is flying, usually when new beds are being built, which is often.
It has lately been brought to my attention that my habit of putting in 10 hour days amongst the greenery may be coming to an end.
When we bought our home in 2001, we had a little over an acre of bare land. My husband, Brian, and I felt we could build garden beds indefinitely. And over the course of 7 years, we did just that. A new bed each year seemed reasonable; except each year’s bed got bigger. Still, we had plenty of room and the work never seemed to get overwhelming for 2 people. Aching muscles and stiff joints were the norm during the gardening season, but the joy I had in the garden made it worth every twinge. Even after 7 years of expansion, at the beginning of the summer of 2008, we had barely a quarter of the acre converted to garden beds. It was obviously time to get serious.
That was a banner year in our garden expansion. We hired a contractor to clear out the northwest side of our property which was overgrown with sumac, poplar trees, honeysuckle bushes and bittersweet vines. There was also an old foundation, left from a house fire 20 years before, that needed to be pushed in and buried. Other junk was scattered across the countryside, including a fire pit made of 2 layers of cement traffic dividers in which we could have roasted a bison had we been so inclined.
 Unfortunately, most of the summer was spent arguing with the contractor over where the property line was located, which trees to keep and what the actual budget of the project was. In the end, we were between 10 and 15 feet over onto our neighbor’s woodlot (they were understanding, especially when we replanted a few nice trees on the edge), every tree was cut down except for 2 enormous maples which were simply too big to remove (thank goodness) and way over budget. It took over 3 months.
It was too late in the year by then to move more dirt or plant green things so we spent what little was left of the season planning out the space. We agreed that a patio in the shade of the 2 remaining maples was a must as the existing patio next to the house had no shade at all. A veggie garden, herb plot and assorted flower beds were designed and garden catalogs were amassed.
The list of plants I ordered during the winter of 2008 – 2009 was . . . impressive.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Plants are Telepathic

Plants are telepathic. Not all of them and only certain thoughts, but I’m convinced it’s true. They know, for instance, when you are planning their demise and can respond accordingly. How else can you explain my ‘Golden Zest’ rose?
Last year, in preparation for major renovations, I was reviewing all my plants to get a jump on those I would be removing. The list was actually more draconian than I intended to be and several plants landed on it more as ‘watch’ than ‘remove’. ‘Golden Zest’ was one of those and I was quite upset over it as it was a lovely, yellow rose and had performed quite well previously. While I am not one to talk to my plants, my mental message could not have been clearer – shape up or ship out!
Fast forward to this spring. With no further intervention than my mental admonitions, this rose now has multiple healthy new canes and new growth on the one cane that survived the winter. I wouldn’t dream of ripping it out now.
Coincidence? I think not.
I’ve noticed over the years that this phenomenon only occurs when the gardener is genuinely considering mayhem. The attempt was made once to influence a perfectly healthy plant to greater performance and you can imagine the result. Bupkiss.
No, you must be in earnest in your intention to shovel prune the pathetic specimen before it picks up your vibe. And it doesn’t always work. Some plants are simply done and ready to shuffle off this mortal soil. Let them go; there are stronger-willed plants waiting to take their place.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Talented or Just Stubborn?

“You must be a very talented gardener to have such a huge and lovely garden!”
“Why, thank you. You are very kind!”
This exchange occurred after one of my continuing education classes at our local high school a few years ago. I had given a talk on growing roses in upstate New York and shown several before and after pictures of my garden. A few students had stayed behind, some asking questions about more specific issues, and this comment was made in passing. At the time, I gave it little thought; it seemed just a pleasant remark. Over the years, though, this remark has resurfaced in my musings, usually with a self-deprecating smirk.
What that person could not have known was I have never considered myself talented at gardening. Dedicated, yes; obsessed, absolutely. Talented? Not so much. I have always bought plants I liked and put them wherever I found room for them – no talent required. Space requirements were occasionally followed but not religiously. Zone information was noted but only in passing. Soil and water recommendations were unashamedly laughed at. So why did I have an admittedly huge and, to me, beautiful garden?
I think what has made me a successful gardener is not talent but pure cussedness. Gardeners, as a species, seem to take it personally when things go wrong and will go to long lengths to make it happen anyway. In fact, stubborn doesn’t begin to describe it; we can be downright mulish when it comes to what we want in our domains.
Several years ago, I found a rose I absolutely adored in a catalog. This rose was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. The petals were ivory and blushed in the sun to a rich pink; the flower form was perfection. Aptly, it was named “Color Magic”. The description said it was hardy to zone 6, disease resistant and had a lovely scent (a blatant lie, by the way; rose porn . . . er, catalogs should be perused with a salt shaker handy, especially when they are describing fragrance). Needless to say, I had to have it. Zone 5 and zone 6 are almost the same, right?
Into the garden it went, in a large planting hole with a modest dash of Rosetone and a good drenching with the hose. It was spectacular the whole season, covered in flowers and only the faintest touch of black spot. Everyone ooh’d and aah’d; a few exclaiming what a shame there was no fragrance (I was one of those but my language was somewhat stronger).
Come the following spring, after an average winter, it was dead. Well, said I, I must not have protected it sufficiently or maybe the local varmints chewed up the roots or maybe I got a bad plant. There is always some excuse the first time you kill a plant and it’s never because you ignored one of its cultural requirements. Ergo, I ordered and planted another one. This plant, too, was gorgeous all summer and I was extra careful to mulch it for the winter with branches pruned off our Christmas tree. Sadly, history repeated itself and the second one was also dead as a doornail the following spring.
The gardening gloves were now coming off. I wanted this rose in my garden and that was final, darn it!
I tried planting the third one in a massive pot. Another extravagant show graced our patio rather than the garden but it was still a sight to behold. That fall, the pot went into our unheated garage (with some minor and good-natured grumbling from my husband, Brian, He of the Strong Back) and emerged alive and well the next spring. Success!
After spending two winters in the garage, the rose succumbed to a combination of black spot and one missed watering too many during the season. Also, Brian was grumbling less good-naturedly about moving that pot again; understandable, as it must have weighed 60 pounds. At that point, I decided it was more trouble than it was worth and gave up.
Cold zones matter and fighting them is hard. It took me 3 dead roses, 5 years and a mildly disgruntled husband to come to that conclusion.
I have learned a few other lessons over the years and try to avoid making the most egregious errors more than two or three times, no matter how much I want them to work this time. I learned to pay attention to cold zones and cultural requirements. If you are gardening in zone 5, you really can’t grow tender roses without a great deal of fuss. Really.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other roses out there. I don’t have the rose that I was besotted with anymore. I did however find another, not quite as breathtaking but a lot hardier, and if I squint, I can pretend they are the same. It too has no scent, though to their credit, the supplier described the scent as “light”, which in catalog speak means “non-existent”; most rose gardens understand that little fiction and don’t feel cheated.
I think if you are stubborn enough, everything eventually does come together into a beautiful garden, if only because you’ve already tried all the wrong things, usually more than once, and all that is left is the right stuff. If you’re really lucky, other people might even mistake that perseverance for talent!