October 22, 2009

The Contumacious Gardener

The bulbs put into the ground for the fall planting season over the last couple weeks: dark purple Dutch iris; windflower anemones; double-blossom mixed yellow and white narcissus; cherry vanilla double-blossom tulips; Thalia snow-white narcissus; and hyacinths. All these bulbs enlarge upon the existing colonies of their species already in place in the garden, building its repertoire for a broader, bolder and longer yield next spring. The anemone and tulip bulbs, which are to deer, rabbits and squirrels what hot fudge sundaes are to the gardener, once placed in the ground and before covering over, got sprayed to soaking wet with garlic and egg liquid deer repellent, to improve their chances of staying in their beds and not being precipitously dug up for a critter dinner.

The garden has three large round mats of dianthus plantings which have increased their diameter annually and resemble a plush green carpet all spring, summer and fall. They're aged approximately four to five years, and this past spring, for the first time, produced only a scant smattering of flowers during bloom time in late May and June. With these, and the creeping phlox whose spring display also was diminished this year, composted cow manure was dug into their root stock and layered around their crowns. Hopefully the fresh, rich soil will feed them up over the winter sufficient to bring back their profuse bloom habit.

After cutting down the yellowed, floppy leaves of the Siberian iris and daylillies, the long leaf blades were sheared into lengths of three inches or so, and layered back around the plant cores. Thus do the leaves get put to use as green mulch, warmth, and protection to the soil and plant roots from erosion by the rains, or freezing and thawing and heaving from winter temperature fluctuations. The chrysanthemums, some of which are still doing their beautiful work of fall flowering, are not going to be cut down to the ground this year. Several gardening professionals have mentioned in recent writings that mums do better through winter in cold climates with their leafy, woody stems left intact to shelter the plant crowns from the weather. As they finish flowering, I snip off the dead flower heads, and trim the leafy torso of the plant down only half way, leaving it three or four inches above ground until next spring's advent of more gentle fahrenheits.

Other trimming, tidying up is ongoing, but the bulbs no doubt mark the last gardening (as in actually planting something) to be done this year. There is an old saying that one can bury a lot of troubles by digging in the dirt. Certainly that is true for me, heaven knows the soil of my garden is laden deep and wide with truckloads of troubles, worries, melancholia, and fears worked out and into it over the years. Gardening is the most potent, immediate and efficacious treatment for unhappiness I've ever come across. Getting the hands dirty out of doors and sowing possibility and hope, witnessing and tending to the physical fruits of one's labor, beats the pants off any pharmacopoeia or counseling on offer to the sore of heart. And so it is with sadness and feelings of dread that the gardener downs tools and watches the inexorable advance of the season of dormancy and death across the meadows, hills and forests.

The trees are emptying of leaves, autumnal gales and rainstorms rudely tumble the afternoons away. Frost falls down at night, the sun offers only a cold shoulder to the days. Any gardener who claims to like the wintertime is surely, at the least, disingenuous. Yes, the woods boast wonderful hot-coal colors in late October, shiny chestnuts and sweet, beanie-capped acorns can be gathered, but to the gardener, all this brown, gold and flame-orange means death is coming creeping, gnawing relentlessly away at the green, the alive. As autumn marches on toward a frozen, still-life tomorrow, the gardener can do nothing except bundle up self and garden against the walloping cold a northwestern Michigan winter invariably delivers.

Preparing the garden to withstand the slings and arrows of another winter, and laying in bulbs to better clothe it in resplendent color and output next spring, hasn't been enough, this year, to tranquilize my discontent and woe that summer is finished, another year of gardening has ended, winter is nigh. The turning of the seasons is part and parcel of living in a northerly climate, and necessary to the existence of many of my favorite garden dwellers – the lilacs, the peonies, the forsythia and high bush cranberry. And yet, and yet, maybe it's the too short, too cool summer we were allowed this year; maybe it's the bittersweet knowledge that the penny-candy pink and pale apricot mum flowers sitting so prettily in china jugs on my tabletops are the very last flowers I will be able to cut from the garden this year; maybe it's that the top third of the quaking aspen tree has already been burgled of all leaves by the windstorms, even as the leaves hold their shimmering gold final fling with color – but I do not, this year, go gladly into the long garden goodnight of winter. I don't want it, I don't like it. I go to the Lake Michigan shore, take off my moccasins, and wade defiantly up to my knees in its pellucid 50-degree waters. I contemplate going for another swim (insane idea), and exhort the temperature gods to go against all odds and rise, rise.
It will probably take nothing short of the first big blizzard to put a halt to this feckless, childish, contrary behavior. Until those furbelows of snow come swooping into the garden, the gardener will probably persist in impotent resistance to Mother Nature's procession down the ancient, necessary pathways of the seasons, in all their tempests, wisdom and power.

October 5, 2009

Think and Think Again

This year the foundation border under the front living room windows flagged around mid-summer, taking on a peaked and slightly famished appearance. Every season one or another spot in a perennial bed or hedgerow grouping or flowering border will do this, suddenly becoming anemic or revealing under-populated areas, plantings that are growing more feeble instead of more fecund, and calling out for re-invigoration. Once the columbine, bleeding hearts, delphiniums and bee balm began winding down in late July, this south-facing border sported more vacancy than arresting occupants.

Much of the blame for the under-employment of this very visible sunny patch falls to the holly bush. Meant to anchor and fill up the back of the border with high gloss, leafy, spreading branches and clusters of red berries, the blue-girl and blue-boy holly couple had not grown above knee high in six years of residency. More distressingly, despite the arranged match-up of a male and female of the species for pollination purposes, the missus had never grown even a single berry.

The location is a hot one, getting sun nearly all day long, although the river birch and Cleveland pear centered in the front yard have matured enough in the last couple years to alleviate the sunbath somewhat with shade. Still, the strong summer light, heat and dryness seemed to be undermining the holly's prospects for vigor and expansiveness, and forcing the conclusion that it was simply uncongenially sited. So more accurately, the gardener who placed the holly there because she wanted green and red bushiness splayed picturesquely against the front house wall, is in fact really the culprit who must bear the blame.

Unwilling to give up on the mistreated holly, and the capacity I am sure still lurks suppressed within its woody loins for putting forth a bird-feast of red berries, a remedial relocation was undertaken forthwith. A new home along the east side of the house, shady and cool in the afternoons, was chosen. A day before the move, a trench was dug with a shovel down two feet or so, in a circle around the shrub and a couple feet out from its trunk, to sever the roots and telegraph to the holly that changes were in the offing, thus giving it a day to get used to the idea and to ameliorate the physical trauma attendant upon being dug up out of the ground. The following day, a large hole was excavated in the new domicile, thoroughly soaked with a couple gallons of water, and lined with bedding bottom and sides of composted cow manure. The holly was then gently unearthed and moved, with as much of its root ball intact as possible. Well watered in and kept watered bi-weekly since then, to all outward appearances it seems to have taken quite blissfully to the transplantation, even after just two months shining green and glowing and, methinks, more flush with health.

The gaping wound in the front border was sutured up, the same day, with a new clethra summersweet ruby spice shrub. This newcomer is an upright, fan-shaped bush, that flowers from mid-July through summer's end with bottle brush candles of flowers in soft pink. The flowers give forth a rich, incredibly sweet fragrance, which one hopes will waft through the front windows and infuse the rooms of the house with one of summer's headiest perfumes. Flowering occurs on new wood with a clethra, so future pruning for shaping can be done at will, spring, summer or fall. Butterflies and hummingbirds find its nectar irresistible, and in a conducive setting, it can grow six to eight feet tall.

A summersweet shrub is an augmentation to the garden I have specifically coveted for quite some time, since being introduced to its munificent flowering talent and almost decadent, intense scent in other gardens and along country lanes and creeksides. The garden can always use more summer into autumn bloomers, as well. This shrub makes an excellent foundation plant, according to the information sheet printed out from the Ohio State University extension service website, after the clethra was installed in its new dwelling and I decided to do a little investigation into the finer points of its personality. For preference, the information sheet went on, clethras incline to moist and shady soils. Uh oh.

And hence begins another campaign by the gardener to encourage and raise up an adoptee in a less than optimal, poorly thought-through situation. Maybe the annually widening, deepening shade of the birch and pear trees will offer adequate, compensatory canopies to offset the gardener's shortcomings in advance planning and research. Maybe – no, certainly – the gardener has dimwittedly consigned herself to hours of auxiliary watering down the next few years of hot summer months to come. Maybe the shade and extra watering, taken together, will be just the ticket to stimulate the clethra to live up to its name, and be a big, bushy helping of summer sweetness in the front border. If not, then yet another re-think and revision to the border will, one future day, need to be done.

The garden is never entirely what the gardener envisions and wishes it to be. Plants don't always like their placement. Pest deterrents are never one-hundred percent fail-proof. Weather isn't always kind, seeds are not always fruitful. With even the best will, intentions and assiduous labor, not all garden components will prove their mettle and grow up well and successful. Reinvention, rejuvenation, relocation and other forms of change, flexibility and adaptation are unavoidable concomitants of the pursuit of a bountiful garden. The gardener's lot in life is to be a constant copy editor of her creations. Especially when, as with yours truly, garden design is directed more by desire and impulsiveness than careful, cross the t's and dot the i's forethought.