February 24, 2009

Garden Ease

Maybe to an observer it looks like a lovely dalliance to collect baskets of fat, ripe tomatoes or snip bouquets of pastel blushing roses, but in reality gardening is hard work. It can be expensive enough to carve craters in the bank account if the common garden affliction of “plant lust” infects the gardener. And it requires a long-term commitment of resources, toil and time similar to, but much more labor-intensive than adopting a pet. A garden is never a finite task with a start, middle and completion, but rather a work-in-progress the gardener must continue to tend, tutor, define, discipline and support for all of the garden's lifespan.

Nonetheless, for those who'd like to like to harvest some of the rewards a garden brings without having to devote every fair-weather free hour to its care, or who are daunted by the seeming complexity and cost of cultivation, or discouraged by a big, empty, wildly needy arena of yard, there are approaches that will let the novice or the skint wade in the refreshing shallows of gardening, and avoid plunging headfirst into its subsuming depths. Let simplicity and thrift be the guiding principles behind nascent forays into gardening, and its pleasures can be realized by one and all.

Start small. If you have a whole yard without so much as a single crocus growing, or with unattractive landscaping like the drab, ubiquitous, evergreen shrubs that so often flank a house foundation, pick just one area to begin to remedy the emptiness and neglect. Make it a spot where you like to spend time outdoors (around a patio, in front of a porch), or that will enliven the view from windows (the borders of the front walk, the center of the back yard), or where something hideous needs to be removed (patches of weeds, dead or old, woody shrubs). Define a modest, limited area, such as a circular bed in the lawn, a half-moon bed by the front door, a foot of border along a walkway, and dig in. Don't be intimidated by thoughts of having to dig out the ancient roots of trees or shrubs that need to go, these can simply be sawn off at the ground and carted away. The roots will die out over time as long as any new shoots that appear are cut down.

Flower bulbs. For the sweetest, longest-lasting payback to the most minimal cost and effort, bulbs are the ticket. Just put them in the ground at the depth and season recommended and for years to come they will give the garden flowers. Replace the dirt from the hole dug for the bulbs with composted cow manure, cheap garden gold at about $3 for a 40-pound sack, and they will have all the natural fertilizer they need. Watering isn't needed except during lengthy drought. The only caution here is that most tulip bulbs, which are some of the pricer species, generally only flower well the first year, after which all they put forth are leaves. In addition, woodchucks, deer and rabbits love to feast on tulips. If you want tulips, look for the reputed naturalizing, multi-year types (though I haven't found these to live up very reliably to the claims of repeated bloom), and be prepared to spray the emerging plants with wild-forager repellents. Choose daylilies, windflowers, alliums, snowdrops, crocus, or any of the thousands of exuberant daffodils and narcissus on the market, and the wildlife will be less intrusive and your plantings will flower and spread farther every year. Add a few or a lot of bulbs -- depending upon time and budget -- each fall, and eventually the flower bulb gardens will expand into a Wordsworthian field of flowers.

Tight quarters. When fashioning a garden bed, stock it up with bulbs and plants to completely fill it out. If it gets too crowded for the plants to breath and stretch, it can always be cropped back, but a full bed will reduce the vacuum which nature abhors and always rushes to fill with weeds. A full bed will also shade the soil surface and thus preserve moisture in the soil. Thus will the maintenance time and chores of weeding and watering be reduced.

Container gardens. To truly limit garden labor demands, or if available space is very sparse (an apartment balcony, a condo sidewalk verge), put the garden into pots, barrels, window boxes, old watering cans, enamelware or biscuit tins, whatever takes your fancy. Just make sure the container has a hole or two in the bottom to drain off excess water, toss some pebbles or crystal rock into the pot to help retain moisture, and water regularly to offset the faster drying-out that occurs in an enclosed pot. You can plant pretty much anything from petunias to pepper plants in containers, and succulents, with their low-water requirements, do especially well. Scatter some mulch wood chips or pine needles on the top of the soil and the drying out will be slowed.

Seeds. Seeds are yep, dirt cheap, and aside from needing daily watering until they sprout (usually one to two weeks), can be easygoing, non-demanding garden dwellers. Go for the hardy, old-fashioned, readily-sprouting types rather than the fancy, hybrid, new-fangled princesses. Good choices include sunflowers, cosmos, bachelor buttons, bee balm, black-eyed susan, poppy, hollyhock, larkspur, lupine, morning glories, snapdragons, veronicas and yarrow to name just a few of the most strapping. Many of these will return and multiply year upon year.

Ground covers. Say goodbye to the infernal machine of the lawnmower, and don't trouble with watering cans after the first year. Many ground covers are soft and sturdy enough to walk upon, do just fine with miniscule amounts of rainfall once established, and bring flowers and fragrance in their bag of tricks. Some favorites which will stretch out farther and fuller by the year include creeping thymes, creeping phlox, creeping jenny, periwinkle, ivies, stonecrop sedums and chamomile.

Garden art. Another way to create still lifes and vignettes in your grounds while eschewing all forms of travail is to turn to garden art. Statues, antique furniture or housewares or farming tools, gazing globes, birdbaths and houses, pinecones and acorns, culled willow and grapevine-branch pergolas, boulders and beach stones and shells, water fountains, fairy houses, rustic furniture from tree stumps, and so the list continues of objects which can be scattered decoratively upon your landscape. Thrift store houseware sections, yard sales, junkyards, recycling centers, forests, riverbeds and your imagination will provide you with free or low cost objects to re-purpose as garden art.

Free plants. Lots that are slated for development bulldozers, neighbors who are dividing overgrown beds of iris, lilies, tradescantia, mums, and wild unoccupied public lands can all be sources of free shrubs, sapling trees, flowers and wildflowers. Carefully dig up with as many roots intact as possible and with dirt from the growing spot, ladle into a bucket of soil and transplant to your yard. Keep them moist for a few weeks (or twice weekly waterings for two summers for shrubs and trees), and a mostly free garden will ensue.

Gardens can become bossy, pricey, exhausting mistresses if allowed free rein. With wily forethought, keeping a ready eye out, and setting and sticking firmly to practicable ground rules, the gardener can remain in charge (for the most part and excepting the occasional weather temper tantrum) of purse strings and garden pursuits.

February 13, 2009

Moonlight Becomes Your Garden

In the early 1950s, a young German biodynamic farmer/researcher named Maria Thun decided to investigate the legendary belief present in many agro-cultures all the way back to Babylonian times, that the phases of the moon affect gardens and crops. She began by sowing underground crops (potatoes, carrots) according to lunar cycles. Based upon initial results which demonstrated the powers of the moon, over the next several decades Ms. Thun extended her experimentation to many other kinds of plants.

Her body of research and that of other agricultural scientists who followed her lead documents that the moon and other heavenly bodies and events do indeed impact earthly plant growth. Understanding how and why this is so allows gardeners to enlist the divine intervention of the heavens for the good of their enterprises, and to avoid incurring the heavens' wrath (as it were) upon their gardens.

The orbit of the moon acts upon and moves the rise and fall of tides, the air currents that flow constantly over the earth's surface, rainfall and drought and thunderstorm occurrences. Tides in seas, lakes, rivers, and the waters contained in and beneath the soil, follow the same daily cycle as the rising or subsiding moon. Most of earth's rainfall comes just after a full moon. For the garden, this means that phases of a full moon are most auspicious for speeding germination of seeds in the soil, as well as survival and success of tender young plants, particularly during periods of drought. The waxing (increasing) moon greatly assists the ascendance and absorption of moisture.

Likewise, periods of a new or waning moon are generally the worst times to start seeds or seedlings, and can blight their prospects. If, like me, you have ever bedded in seeds and young plants assiduously, watered them religiously, and seen nary a sprout nor healthy, dancing plant yielded by your labors, perhaps the explanation may be that it was just the wrong time of the month for Mother Earth. A time when she had, so to speak, a celestial headache.

In addition to the phase of the moon, the moon's placement in the sky and in constellations also determines whether the heavens will be smiling upon and lending a helping hand to the gardener, or tossing down scowls of bad weather and curses of ill-starred energy. Plants carry electrical charges, as do all life forms, which can promote or depress growth. Because of this, plants are extremely sensitive to fluctuations in energy fields, to changes in earth's air currents, and to alterations in the air's ionization caused by thunderstorms. Plants actually favor and respond best to the moon's placement within constellations depending upon the type of plant and the physical/astronomical environment its type requires in order to go forth happily and flourish.

Underground root crops, for example (carrots, garlic, potatoes, onions), like to be planted when the moon is dallying within one of the earth signs of the astrological calendar, those being Taurus, Capricorn and Virgo. Above-ground leafy plants (lettuce, celery, alfalfa, chard) enjoy the best chance of settling in for a productive residence if planted when the moon visits a water sign, Pisces, Scorpio or Cancer. Flowers (flighty creatures) want to get started when the moon is ruled by an air sign, Gemini, Libra or Aquarius. And seed plants (apple, tomato, nuts, pomegranates, raspberries) prefer to get their game on with the moon headquartered in a fire sign, Aries, Leo or Sagittarius.

The constellations also can aid or hinder other garden undertakings. If you're thinking of attacking, chopping out and attempting to defeat weeds or other unwanted growth in the garden, your efforts will be most effective when the most barren signs of Gemini, Leo and Virgo rule the heavens. Harvesting ought to take place during the dark of the moon (from last quarter to new moon) in the signs of Aries, Aquarius or Sagittarius. To gather fruit, grain or vegetables during water signs may invite unwelcome decay or sprouting. If there's a shrub or tree that's getting a little too big for its britches, pruning done in the signs of Aries or Sagittarius will discourage new growth. If pruning is employed with a view to stimulating and bringing on new growth, put the secateurs to work in the signs of Cancer or Scorpio between the full and new moons, as this is when wounds heal best (also good to know if you're planning a spot of elective surgery). Maria Thun publishes an annual biodynamic planting and sowing calendar with very detailed cosmological planting guidelines, and these can be located by searching her name at www.alibris.co.uk.

The writers Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson took the garden/moon dialogue to another level by creating a moonlight garden at Sissinghurst Castle, meant to be visited and enjoyed by the light of the moon rather than in daytime and sunlight. Moonlight gardens feature white, cream or yellow flowers, and those which look and smell their best under the dewy touch of nighttime and the gentle beams of the moon – calla lilies, pale roses, jasmine tobacco, clematis, four o'clocks, stocks, snow-on-the-mountain – pretty much any plant with vanilla shades of flowers. Silvery, mint and sage foliage, such as found on lavendar, lamb's ears and dusty miller, also look magical by moonlight, as does white-toned tree bark.

What underpins the overall horticultural science of being guided by the moon and stars really comes back to a fundamental principle of good gardening, namely, don't fight nature. Flowers wish to unfurl, corn strives to bound upward, grasses are bent upon growing long tresses to toss in the winds if the gardener but abides by the ancient wisdom of heeding the earth's tethers to her heavenly consorts. Thus can the moon become your garden, and the gardener become, in the words of Reginald Farrer, “the reverent servant of nature, not her truculent, wife-beating master.”

February 4, 2009

Childhood Gardens

The best, most distinct, most numerous memories of childhood often involve gardens, trees, waterscapes and other natural world phenomena. From infancy, children seem to possess a very close connection with nature and inexhaustible enchantment with her offspring in all their permutations. A surefire method of quieting a crying baby is to hold it before a window, where it will quickly become enthralled and speechless watching the light, the branches of any visible trees, even the nighttime sky, stars and shadows. Take a child to a lakeside, riverside, ocean beach or creek, and only with difficulty will she or he be persuaded to stop exploring, splashing, collecting stones and shells, minnows and crabs, and come away again. Rare is the child who isn't regularly trying to escape from buildings to the much preferred environs of the outdoors.

Two gardens make up the setting for nearly all the childhood memories remaining to me. Both happened to be located in the tiny village of Lexington, on the western shore of Lake Huron, where my family spent every summer, from school out to fall roundup. One measured probably half an acre in size and surrounded the large Victorian house of a great aunt, where the family resided each summer. The other was a village lot some 50 feet wide by 150 feet deep, around the cottage of a grandmother, and on a bluff above the lake shore.

The aunt's gardens, for there were many in that half-acre, had been professionally planted and were maintained by a gardener, Mr. Hupp, who resided in a tiny loft apartment in the old barn at the back of the property. Mr. Hupp mysteriously disappeared, without so much as a note or a fare thee well, at some point in the growing up years, and thereafter the gardens were tended by the aunts, grandmothers, cousins and other females of the clan. The grandmother's yard was sporadically mowed and its shrubs trimmed up whenever a village lad happened along looking for some simoleons, or occasionally by my father on his weekend visits from Detroit City. Both completely captivated me, all waking hours not consigned to mealtimes, chores or sheltering from summer thunderstorms were spent in their presence.

Here's what held me spellbound, and never satiated in my pleasures and fantasy life in those gardens. The aunt had six mature cherry trees, two sweet black cherries, two tart red for pie-making, two Queen Anne whites. Countless sunny hours, every July, were dawdled away in these trees, climbing to perch on branches where the best cherry eating was within reach. There were many fruitful apple and pear trees as well, an avenue of horse chestnuts that yielded carpets of wondrous shiny brown nuts, a sweeping stands of towering pines, and a magnificent copper beech whose silky grey bark invited caresses. Rows upon rows of a cutting garden introduced me to the gladness of color and scent with phlox, lillies, iris, stock, delphinium. A large ringed bed offered the ecstasy of some dozen pastel and wine-red peonies, a decorative circular fence surrounded a functioning firehouse-red, hand-crank water pump and was smothered in climbing roses. All across the screened front porch, a purple wisteria drooped heavy blooms. In the center of one of the side yards a 20-foot circumference field-stone planter shaped like an Easter basket was filled annually with a plethora of petunias and marigolds. And along the western boundary, a large field left to go wild sported tall native grasses and wildflowers wherein a child could lie on the downy breast of the earth and wile away whole afternoons in sun-warmed daydreams.

The grandmother's garden, though miniscule and manicured in comparison, also captured deep affection. An old, small, much gnarled apple tree with a wide-spread divided trunk provided the easiest tree climbing and most comfortable, gently angled branches for repose. This garden acquainted me with the inimitable glories of the lilac's perfume and delicate beauty in a tall hedge along the side porch, where chickadees nested and hummingbirds came to drink. The bluff down to the beach, all wild and rarely cut back, was a mythical, romantic tangle of self-sown hollyhocks, sumac and dune grass. At its foot, aged, weathered and stretching its lemony boughs to dapple the sand with shade, a matronly willow tree stood sentinel. And of course, the grandmother's property included the unbeatable, infinite fascination of the big lake, peerless location for picnics, swims, beachcombing, sand-castle building.

The time spent in these two very different Michigan gardens left an indelible imprint of true, bone-deep happiness. The companionship of the trees and flowers, the rabbits, squirrels, field mice, cardinals, jays, junkos, sparrows, outdistanced by far that of human beings in quality and quantity, in the spreading of imagination's wings, in the solace of solitary rambling, in the balm given to a child's senses.

Perhaps childhood memories hold such prominent, polished sway partly because the person to whom they happen has a mind like an unplowed acre, open, impressionable and without timeworn pathways and interpretations. When such memories are of outdoor settings and explorations, perhaps what sears them into the mind is the fact that they return the child to the embrace of it's fundamental origin, to the nature from whence all life so exuberantly springs. Perhaps in a garden, children feel the gentle tug of the earth, the sunbeams, the tides that pull toward yes and yes and yes, yes grow, yes live, yes flourish.