June 19, 2009

Just Sit a Spell

One of the more challenging things to do in the garden this summer is to repose at complete ease in the Adirondack chair or on one of the rustic benches. The gardener finds this challenging because whenever spending time in the garden or merely passing through, weeding takes place. Whatever purpose brought the gardener outdoors, be it watering new seedlings, having a whack at the grass with the push-reel lawnmower, heading to the garage to wheel out the bicycle for a ride, or intending to take a seat in the sunshine and read a book for a spell, bet the farm on it, weeding will occur.

Whatever it is I meant to be doing on exiting the house, and whether sitting still or walking around the yard, my gaze will keep returning to ground level, scouring the borders and woodchip pathways for errant weeds, mostly blades of invasive grasses and the hairy stalks of chicory. My feet will keep tracking these intruders, my body will keep stooping over, my hands reaching to yank out the ungainly offenders. Even with a lovely new novel on my lap approaching its crescendo, or a cup of Darjeeling tea in hand to toast a new morning, my eyes keep getting drawn into examining the ground and the next thing you know, I'm frenetically zigzagging around the garden without plan or pattern, filling my hands with pulled weeds.

In part this is true because the garden is a bit of a ragamuffin. Try as I might to keep it designed, shipshape and neat as a pin, it really doesn't fit this description in any of its quarters. It's blowsy, boisterous, likes to take frequent walks toward the wild side, and very much has an undisciplined and tatterdemalion mind of its own. However many weeds are disgorged and dispatched, there are always more shooting up, sending out branchlettes and explorers in every direction, pitching tents in yet more sections. The weeds grow like, well, weeds, with a wildfire speed and joie de vivre that far surpasses any such characteristics in the cultivated plants. And if one species of weed or wild grass gets successfully eradicated, before you can say Rumpelstiltskin, two or three newcomers of another variety will quickly arrive to replace the banished one.

So far this summer, the weeds (or wildflowers, if you will) identified in this one little garden, in addition to the ubiquitous common lawngrass and little bluestem, include dog fennel, lesser stichwort, milkweed, various types of snakeroot, chicory, hoary alyssum, common mullein, dandelion, yellow wood sorrel and bladder campion. Something the Sleeping Bear Dunes park botanist identified as ground pine, a creeping evergreen, has fanned out its vine-like growth of green needles across about a third of the woodchip-covered back yard. Queen Anne's lace also claims space here and there, maybe having heard on the wild-plant grapevine about the benefits of residing on this little lot, and there are lots of others I don't recognize nor know the names of.

The British garden writer Lewis Gannit aptly summed up a gardener's malady of compulsive weeding. “Gardening is a kind of disease,” he wrote. “When visiting friends for a garden party, you interrupt the serious cocktail drinking because of an irresistible impulse to get up and pull a weed.” Exactly what happens to me in my garden (except, more's the pity, for the serious cocktail drinking), and frankly, I'm a little fed up with myself about it. The realization came upon me, while lunging after yet one more cantankerous rhizome the other day, that not nearly enough time was being spent simply enjoying the garden, or truly relaxing in its presence, or appreciating all its fine and gorgeous cultivated specimens, which do vastly outnumber the scraggly uninvited guests.

Unless one is the happy possessor of a crew of assiduous groundskeepers and a formal, exactingly managed landscape, the fact is that a garden is never going to be perfectly groomed. If it is a healthy garden, it's always going to be kicking over the traces and dashing about in unbridled abandon. It's going to encompass surprise visitors who may be a bit riotous, even slovenly in style, and lacking in self-effacement or deference. A garden with any vitality doesn't know how to demur, and is messy, independent and irrepressible.
And part of the gardener's duty, I've decided, is to stop fretting over the garden's untamed heart, and take pleasure in it. Resolutely raise the eyes from weed level to the blooming flowers and lush, many-colored foliage, to all the keen and gleeful effervescence that is the benefaction of the garden in June. A contented gardener must accept imperfection, and let the correction and addressing of it be kept in the proper time and place, chore time, where it can't encroach upon the hours for simply savoring the bountiful and too fleeting garden goods. Is not that the desideratum of all garden toil?

June 12, 2009

As Summer Begins

It's now the middle of June (even if the weather for the last few weeks has perversely behaved like mid-to-late October), the garden is in rampant, early summer flush of growth, so let's take a step back and review. After six years, which of the many flowering plants and herbs sown upon this sandy northwestern Michigan garden lot can be deemed successes? Nurseryman Dan Heims of Portland, Oregon writes, "Anywhere there is light, moisture and a bit of soil, there is life." Indubitably, those conditions pertain in these country parts with moist Lake Michigan air currents and silky, sunny summers, but which of the plants chosen and fostered don't merely live, but rock and roll?

The rollcall of standouts begins with the lavenders and thymes, who take to the sand-based soil like ducklings to water, and have needed only hard trim-back each late autumn to grow denser and spread further each summer, with an extravagant harvest of flowers every year. Even in the most parched summers, these herbs never received watering to supplement the rainfall, a hands-off approach that has suited them to a tee, as well as making the gardener's chores much easier.

Hollyhocks and peonies likewise needed only to be given houseroom in a hole, tucked roundabout with chocolate-cake texture composted cow manure, and watered weekly their first summer to infuse their roots with get-up-and-go. Now they bound up and shake out very full tail feathers each spring, each one adding their particular green hedging to the borders. The only quibble here is with the dark red peonies, as unlike their pastel sisters, they don't develop very many flower buds, some years only one flower or even none per plant. This is the second summer the dark reds have grown thick, healthy leafage, but minimal flowers, I've no idea why. Perhaps the "eyes," those reddish shoots at the bottom of the plant, didn't get enough light under their winter mulch, this fall we'll try leaving them less covered-up.

The dark plum and the butter-and-cream Siberian iris are doing excellent, filled with tightly furled flower heads. If the sun actually consents to shine for a few days in a row, the iris will be blooming by month's end. Likewise for the vigorous beds of mixed poppies, lots of round, full buds on those, as well. The poppies took a couple years of leading by the hand to get themselves in growing and blooming gear. All were started from seed, some package and some from friends' gardens. The first year planted (whether sown in spring or fall), they barely put up stalks and leaves, with a sparse or no show of flowers. They've come on nicely and multiplied their numbers each year, however, this summer bearing more flower buds than any prior year.

Another entry that took a couple years to hit their stride are the lupines. Also brought along from seed, the two lupine patches are now in their third year and absolutely brimming with the tall, columnar, purple and peach flowers, with their ferny leaf bracts as wide around them as a debutante's tulle ruffles. The lupine flower is handsome, distinctive and somehow mysterious in its shapely form, and compensates very well for the absence of its somewhat similarly shaped cousin, the foxglove, which has repeatedly, politely declined to flower or perennially or biennially return to the garden, despite having been given numerous handmade invitations to do so.

The echinops globe thistle have filled and spill over a section of a flower bed where globe amaranth gomphrena were tried, struggled, fared poorly, and were ultimately abandoned as a bad cause. Another plant that takes virtually no watering to raise their proud and dapper lakewater-blue heads, the globe thistles will bring welcome color to the garden in July and August, when many of the other flowers are flagging or spent. They are kept company in their bed by penstemons, enthusiastically fanning out in only their second year in residence, and a mountain bluet centauria, which has flowered like there's no tomorrow all through this month and is still going gangbusters, setting up new flower buds.

Chives, snow-in-summer, snow-on-the-mountain, delphinium, the half-dozen rose bushes, lilly-of-the-valley and day lillies, phlox, muscari, crocosmia lucifer, daisies, rock cress, violets, stonecrop sedum, baby's breath, verbascum, and pretty, frilly little veronica waterperry, one and all have found their way back to the garden again this year, in greater size and strength. The dianthus pinks can also be said to be here to stay. They annually push the edges of their carpeting green foliage farther in diameter, but this year, for the first time, they haven't flowered very profusely, offering only a smattering of blooms. Lashings of composted cow manure, the richest natural fertilizer available, are definitely in store for them, come the autumn. Some of the creeping phlox swatches, especially the paler pink-shaded and variegated, also managed only a weak flower display this May, perhaps due to the colder-than-normal temperatures and rather niggling number of sunny days, or maybe because fallen birch and pear leaves weren't sufficiently cleaned off of them last fall. This autumn, fingers crossed and hand on heart, they will get a thorough raking over and fertilizing. Please may this return them next spring to their normal mad fandango of brilliant flower display.

When all's said and done, and with the tiny sprouts emerging of seeded rudbeckia, sunflowers, cosmos, bachelor buttons, chamomile and asters, the garden is full of vim and vigor, and looks pretty darn marvelous to me. In every direction there is color and enterprise, zeal and coquetry, energy and finery for the eyes to feast upon. The garden in June, after the long pewter and slate of a relentless Michigan winter, opens a crayola box of hue and possibility, life indeed, life aplenty.

June 2, 2009

Throwback Mowing

Propelling an old-fashioned rotary hand mower through the lengths of volunteer little bluestem and rye grass, chicory and milkweed, stinking chamomile and sundry other unidentified weeds that have set up housekeeping in the garden is pretty tough work. It takes a deal more elbow grease and leg power than steering and trotting behind an infernal combustion-powered mower. It necessitates more hand-clipping of the opportunistic weeds that cluster self-protectively close to the trunks of shrubs and trees. And the end result is a longer, looser, less tidy mop than the symmetrically close-sheared result one gets from the much faster rotating, gasoline-muscled blades of a power mower.

With such a shaggy outcome, and the extra sweat equity invested, is it really worth it, or acceptable to the gardener's neatness fetish, to switch permanently from a carbon-fueled powerhouse scything machine to a pre-industrial hand tool? Granted, it was lovely and satisfying at the hardware store to march righteously past all the big, shiny, lawn-mowing machines with their price tags starting in the hundreds of dollars, and ferret out one of the two push reel mowers, from the American Lawn Mower Company of Shelbyville, Indiana, way at the back of the store, out of the marketer's premier sight-line positioning. You couldn't beat with a stick the reasonable and affordable bargain price of $85. The assembled push mower, deftly put together by a teenage clerk who had the good manners not to sneer even a little bit at the archaic purchase, fit as easily as a pea in a pod on the passenger-side footwell in the front of a Honda Civic, whereas a pickup truck or transport van would have been needed to ferry homeward any of the motorized machines.

Likewise, the push mower slots unobtrusively into a very small corner of the garage, taking up no more storage space than would a large person. When the time comes to put it to use, it is simply rolled out of the garage, onto the grassy patches, and you're in business. No fiddling with spark plugs, checking and replenishing messy, smelly oil and gas, no priming, no yanking over and over again on the starter cord, and struggling to untangle the wretched thing when it twists itself into knots. No tearing of the hair over the inexplicable recalcitrance and frequent outright refusal of power mowers to actually fire into life and work. The deafening roar of the motor is blessedly gone, replaced by a gentle swish, swish, swish of the reel that compliments, rather than obliterates, the pleasant summer sounds of birdsong and wind in the treetops.

Rather than inhaling the choking, dehydrating, carcinogenic fumes of gasoline for a couple of hours, the gardener wielding the push mower smells fresh cut grass and the soothing, ambrosial scents of flower blossoms and herbs brushed in passing. Running a gas mower for one hour puts out the same smog-forming particulates as running 40 new cars for one hour. A person on a riding power mower cutting grass for four hours puts the same toxic cloud of carbon dioxide into the air as produced by an automobile driving across the North American continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Using just one push mower versus a gas mower reduces the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 80 pounds per annum. Turning the job of mowing over to a manual endeavor is demonstrably a good afternoon's work for the air that we, the plants and the animals are trying to breathe.

Unquestionably the grassy segments of the yard do not have that clean, lean, high-and-tight Marine brushcut when the job is finished. The grass and weeds, not as closely shorn as with the mighty gas mower, pop back up to thumb their rude noses at the gardener a little more quickly, which probably means they will need to be cut more often this summer than the once-a-month they got when clearcut by a power mower. That means a few additional afternoons for the gardener of a real physical workout, putting leg and arm propulsion into the little push mower, up and down the yard, hearing and smelling the good, warm essence of a summer's day, building muscle strength and filling the lungs with regenerating fresh air. Being wafted in memory back to childhood days of dawdling and daydreaming beneath a cornflower blue sky and breathing in the earthy green fragrance as my father, in khaki workpants and Detroit Tiger ballcap, trimmed the lawn to the blithe susurration of the simple, brilliantly designed push reel lawnmower.

Maybe a smidgin or two of untidiness isn't a bad thing, in the big picture. Maybe it is good to relax, lighten up on the control and precision and everything-in-its-place style. Follow in Nature's footsteps as she drops her greenery-yallery garments here, there and everywhere in a slapdash, overflowing, peaceable and ebullient profusion of sweet summertime.