September 20, 2009

Garden Schooled

Water, water, water. So has read the garden duty roster over the past few rainless weeks, thereby countermanding one of the core tenets of my gardening philosophy. Water is a cherished and finite resource on this green planet, and a guiding belief in building a garden has been that its plant life shall be capable of becoming, upon maturity, largely self-sufficient, self-propagating. A garden should co-exist harmoniously with nature rather than combating it, harming or depleting it. Yes, well – chance would be a fine thing!

The reality, of course, is that aside from maybe a prairie wildflower meadow or a desert cacti bed, there's no such creature as the autonomously thriving, no-maintenance garden. Whether it be taking measures to fend off omnivorous deer, rabbits, aphids and other critters who view the garden as their personal banquet hall; or schlepping and shoveling mulch, compost and other soil-enriching and protective materials; or broadcasting runnels of fresh water up and down the garden when clear skies rule the heavens for days on end; or any of the score of other cossetting, supportive, laborious chores that perforce must be completed – a healthy, lively garden can be sustained only with the continual attention of and intervention by the gardener.

All the 25 shrubs and 11 trees planted over the years in my garden are native to Michigan, supposed to be well-suited to growing robustly in the particular kind of environment on offer here. They also number among the more feisty, hardy contenders of the plant world, rather than hailing from the squads of the fragile and easily perishable. The lilac, forsythia, American high bush cranberry, red maple and oak, aspen and river birch, and the other species are, indeed, often found growing old and going strong in deserted farmyards and untended forest land throughout the state.

While I celebrate whatever happy circumstance of micro-ecosystem maintains such wilderness dwellers, the fact remains that none of the trees or shrubs in my garden came here by choice or natural selection of just the very spot where they could flourish into a ripe old age. All were brought to their garden location by my hand, all are still in the childhood of their possible lifespans. And although it contravenes my desire and intention, goes against the grain of how I believe one should garden in the best of all possible worlds, these youngsters need watering when it doesn't rain.

I feel responsible to and for the trees and shrubs in the garden. To leave them to their own resources come hail or high water, after purposefully adopting them and bringing them home to new lives in the garden, does not seem right nor fair (not to mention being spendthrift foolish). The trees and shrubs would likely survive without supplemental water, but if they get less than a couple certain inches per week, they will toil and gasp their way through winter, their viability will be weakened, and I'm persuaded they will never thereafter be as strong or as capable of longevity and fullness as they could have been with a modicum of gardening care. Evidence of the dangers of benign neglect is currently on view in most of the (unwatered) curbside trees throughout the village, whose leaves are already largely dry, curling at the edges, and burnt reddish brown, while those in gardens and by watercourses hold their vibrant green over 95 percent of their foliage.

For as many years as I can recall (back to around the mid-1900s), a reliable annual component of Michigan's weather calendar has been the onset of a brilliant course of Indian summer weather on or about Labor Day weekend. It generally persists for at least a couple of solid weeks, and some years holds its ground right through the month of September. It features flax blue skies, hot sunny days that bring the crops in the fields and orchards to harvest-ready perfection, and scant to no rainfall. Occasionally the odd early frost or sudden deluge breaks this annual pattern (as well as the corn, pumpkin and apple farmers' hearts), but that is the exceptional year, not the rule. Indian summer in Michigan can be counted upon probably nine years of out each decade to usher in a wonderful hiatus to the onward march of autumn toward winter, a bonus few weeks of summer weather wherein the gardener gladly swaps weekly hours of watering for the opportunity to bask in sunshine, warmth and a few more swims in the untroubled lakes and rivers.

Weather means a lot, means more to you when you garden. This heightened mindfulness and cognizance of weather is but one of the sundry ways that cultivating a plot of earth connects the gardener closer to the natural, living world. To garden conscientiously makes one a student in the lifelong curriculum of nature. It is a course of study that can never be completed, but always has new lessons and a further wisdom up its sleeve. Gardening is a kind of schooling in which the door never closes, the mind keeps getting the gauntlet thrown down to open wider and take in more knowledge, and no final bell of dismissal ever rings. And thank goodness for that!

September 8, 2009

Best of Autumn

In ancient China, where the earliest known chrysanthemums (called Chu) were cultivated as a flowering herb as far back in the mists of time as 1,500 years before Christ, the plant was believed to hold the power of life. The flower petals and sprouts were eaten as salad greens, the leaves brewed as a tea, and an infusion of the roots championed as a cure for headache. Brought to the western world many centuries later in the mid-1700s by Swedish botanist Karl Linnaeus, he it was who christened the plant with the name chrysanthemum, from the Greek words for “golden flower.” Golden and one of the most glorious forms of life in the autumn garden it assuredly remains in the present day.

If springtime means the portal to the garden is swinging open upon the magical, tantalizing cornucopia of all the wonders to come, in autumn the doorway is slowly narrowing toward its close. The sophisticated, finely tailored, stately-paced chrysanthemum places a well-shod foot into the garden doorway and holds it firmly ajar for another month or two of color, scent and bloom, when nearly all the other plants are discarding their bib and tucker, and turning with drooping eyelids towards the long winter sleep.

Because chrysanthemums keep us in the company of flowers during September and October, they number high on my fairly brief list of favorite features of the autumn season. Their sedate, regal progress through the cycle of growth and bloom mirrors the slowing, more peaceful pace that is a second gift of the season. The garden ceases the mad dash that characterized it in spring, as well as the busy, dawn-to-dusk endeavors of summertime, and grows more quiet, contemplative and serene. Resting on the laurels of its high season accomplishments, it envelops the plants, the birds, the bees, and the gardener in welcome respite from continual toil. In autumn the garden folds us to its ample bosom, encourages repose and reflection among its languid and leafy bowers, whispers and hums lullaby-style in place of its bravura choruses of spring.

The colors autumn dons are another of its treasures. Jubilant pink, exclamation-point white, buttercup yellow and bold-boy blues give way to warm, firelight, harvest tints, the tawny garments of the garden wardrobe. Autumn is the color of honey, of burnished copper along the fringes of the peony and red oak leaves, and lavender-mint shading in the bird's nest baskets of the closing Queen Anne's lace flowerheads. The colors of spring are youthful exuberance which cannot wait to flaunt itself before our gaze, the colors of autumn are mature, mellow, gentle on the eyes, and reveal themselves in a long, decorous meander across many dappled weeks.

Spring bestows heady rejuvenation in the garden, autumn gives us time. It takes our hand and strolls us unhurried along its dense banks of stippled dune and fountain grasses, rust-red cattails and cabernet sumac, and day by day, layer by measured layer, it delicately paints the deciduous forests through months of sumptuous, molten color. The tree color tour in the northern Midwest is never an event of a single day, weekend or week. It isn't one of nature's all-in-an-instant, cataclysmic occurrences, such as a volcano, earthquake, tornado. The changing of the leaves takes place as a gradually developing acquaintance, beginning with just a brushing of the tree's fingertips at the outermost edges of the crown, then moving downward and inward at a snail's pace across the limbs of the tree. Each day the friendship with color advances by wee increments and deepens, until the ultimate culmination is reached in the tree's full-flung love affair with autumn's brushed reds, golds and chestnut browns.

Weather is the last best facet of autumn for the gardener. Once St. Bartholomew's “cold dew” comes falling nightly round about August 24, even in drought years the garden reclaims a green cast to its foliage and is refreshed. Cool nights averaging in the forties typify September and October, perfect for sleep and windows left open to the freshening air. The days awaken misty, with thin shawls of fog on meadows and hillsides, then warm rapidly into hot, sun-filled afternoons exactly right for dawdling down the shady rows of an apple orchard, plucking the ruby-ripe fruit.

Autumn brings regular, dependable, sometimes quite spectacular rain showers and lightning storms, nature's unequalled fireworks that burn across the long, open horizon of the big lake. Few pleasures can match that of a Great Lakes mighty thunderstorm rolling in, its waterfalls drumming against the rooftop and windowpanes whilst the gardener sits snug and warm at the hearthside, knowing the trees, shrubs, and flora are drinking their fill, soaking up the fresh water that is the garden elixir of life. Autumn weather is the gardener's able assistant, recharging life in the garden and refueling its stores for the months ahead. Thus in its unassuming, slow, lustrous way, autumn returns like a comfortable old friend, bearing its special gifts and making itself very welcome.

September 1, 2009

Two Tomatoes

Two tomatoes, four radishes. Therein is the sum total of fresh produce yielded to date by the small vegetable patch put in this summer. The patch was sown in early June with one row each of seeds of sweet green pepper, radishes and cucumbers, and two six-inch high Early Girl tomato plants. Then along came, according to weather records, the coolest, most rainy Michigan summer in about one hundred years.

The tomato plants gained only about six new inches in upward growth all summer, and each managed to generate only one tomato. These fruits are still smaller than a tennis ball and still green, though one began to show tracings of a pink blush this week, so they should ripen enough for consumption by mid-September. Truth be told, the minimal yield and growth probably cannot be blamed solely upon the weather, although that did play its inauspicious part. Three doors down the block, my neighbor's tomato plants stand a much healthier four-feet high, with lots of tomatoes, albeit also small and still stubbornly green. The neighbor fertilized her seedlings, I alas did not, mistakenly trusting in nature and composted manure to feed them sufficiently, and having a reluctance to introduce and use foreign chemicals, even organic ones, in the garden.

The bell peppers sprouted, and tiny sprouts they remain to this day, apparently having decided this was all the maturation they could or would accomplish under the cool, cloudy skies. The cucumbers initially showed great promise, sprouting within a couple days of seeding and developing into a leafy, healthy row of young plants with plenty of yellow flowers. Beyond the surge of those first weeks they simply stopped, and nary even a single cucumber has emerged.

As for the radishes, the plants bounded up, green and thick with leaves, put forth a sweet display of soft pink flower heads, and then bolted straight into seed production while the nascent radishes beneath the soil got no bigger than a fingernail and no wider than a pencil. My guess (and that's all it is since my agriculture know-how is obviously sorely lacking), is that the row should have been thinned rather radically at the sprout stage to give those left more elbow room, as it were, and as advised on the seed packet instructions. I'm cowardly and disinclined when it comes to culling eager young sprouts, and did not do so. The four little radishes salvaged, cleaned up and eaten had a great, pungent and pronounced flavor, but taken together added up to not even a whole mouthful. As far as this first foray into vegetable gardening goes, let's just say it's very fortuitous farmer's markets abound in these northern Michigan parts.

Every year without fail or hesitancy, Mother Nature redesigns the garden laid out for the summer, sometimes in ways to the gardener's liking, sometimes decidedly not. In the present season, besides stunting the vegetables in their infancy, her less favored, wholesale, scatter-shot propagation ran to invasive ground pine throughout the plot, from woodchip-covered unplowed ground to flower beds; the apparent assassination of half a dozen of last year's hardy (ha!) chrysanthemums; spotted knapweed, white campion, common mullein and tough-as-nails weed grasses everywhere; and the self-seeding replication of one variegated sage into a half-dozen new plants, volunteering round and about the flower bed that formerly housed most of the chrysanthemum victims.

On the plus side, to give her due credit, Mother Nature took kindly to the bunches of extraneous lavender flowers pruned off last August and spread about the yard as green mulch, giving the garden this summer a dozen or more new, surprise lavender plants now on the go, and viable enough for transplanting to any bed or container which could use filling out. Likewise, nature brought the garden random new outcroppings of pretty little snow-in-summer and violas; ten or twelve big, confident, flower-bedecked stands of the always beguiling, olden-times evocative Queen Anne's lace; a half-dozen or so plants of the late summer showgirl, black-eyed Susan; and a real plethora of decorative hoary alyssum and ox-eye daisies. A watchful eye does need to be kept on these wildflower volunteers, as given their breeding habits they are but the thin edge of the wedge, and allowed half a chance and a free hand, will gladly migrate and reproduce throughout the whole yard, becoming a bit too much of an otherwise mostly good thing.

The British gardener and writer Hugh Johnson has said, “no two days are the same in one garden.” To forestall disappointment, a similar expectation really ought to inform our approach to each new season in the garden, wherein the standouts and fond companions of last year may or may not return for another fine go-round in subsequent summers. The garden is, after all, just a microcosm of the beautiful, ephemeral, temporal Earth we inhabit, nothing here is permanent nor certain except constant change. Every summer surely brings losses to the garden, false starts and failures. Fortunately for the gardener, it just as surely bestows gains, surprise packages and unexpected success stories. And that's what keeps the gardener pulling on the tattered old straw hat, hitching up the dungarees, and heading out to get down, dirty and atwirl with nature, year after year.