Saturday, April 20, 2013

Renovating a garden

How  I ache to be out in the garden instead of sitting at this computer.  Such a long cold winter! I’m looking out at my dreary dead-looking border buried in brown leaves with not even a daffodil in sight.

I wrote  this column a week ago when Spring had still not shown its warm sunny face,. I'm so happy I did, as  it's supposed to get up to a a blissful 65 degrees today, and I'm headed out to the garden instead of sitting at this computer. 

Last year in March I read a book titled “Gardening for a Lifetime” by Sydney Edison, all about how to make your garden less work. Since I had reached the point where I knew I could no longer keep my 100 foot long border in shape I eagerly read Ms. Edison’s suggestions and then spent most of the summer renovating the border, a monumental project. 

The book was full of wonderful ideas which I described in one of my columns, but because they are such sensible ideas,   they are worth repeating.  I suspect many of my readers no longer have unlimited energy and  probably have forgotten most of the things they read more than a year ago. 

Since Ms. Edison’s first recommendation  “Get some help!” was not one I wanted to pursue, I turned to her second,  “Get rid of the plants that require constant work.”  That included  pruning, staking, dead-heading, self-seeding or spreading to unwanted places.  Well, I had plenty of plants that fit those categories.  I might not want to give up my delphiniums that always require staking, or my irises  which need dead-heading to look their best, but I had plenty of other misbehaving plants.

Phlox was the worst culprit. As you can see, its white or pink blossoms overpowered the August garden.  Because eliminating its stalks each fall requires a clipper, a tedious time-consuming job,  for many years I left them alone until spring when they could be easily broken off by the handful. That solution, however, meant newly self-seeded plants popping up in the wrong places the next April.

I soon discovered that digging up a
large, well-rooted clump of phlox 
was exhausting, and there were at
least a dozen or more in the border.
Fortunately I own a "Nurseryman's
Shovel”  which is hard to describe. 
I was about to take a photo of it when daughter Bridget appeared.  Claiming 
my readers would love my ridiculous pink work pants, she grabbed the camera and took this one. 

That shovel is at least 50 years old, and its long 14 inch blade has the ability to lever almost anything out of the ground.  When I saw one of these marvelous shovels in the Tractor Store last year I bought it.  Unfortunately the first time I tried to pry lose a large stone with it, the blade bent right in two.  I took it back, and once I’d explained the purpose of its long blade and how useless it was if it couldn’t be used to lever something, the salesman agreed and gave me my money back.  A long story, but a necessary warning in case you decide to buy this type of shovel. 

My old shovel is still working well, but what was I to do with all the phlox plants I’d dug up with it? None of my friends seemed to want them, but it turned out that the Douglas Library in Canaan was planning to have a plant sale in May. They were even offering to provide pots to anyone who would fill them with plants for the sale. What an incentive!  I spent the next two back-breaking weeks digging and lugging pots of phlox to the library, but it was a joy knowing they would find new homes.

Ms. Ellison’s book recommended replacing unwanted plants with flowering shrubs, especially those that would grow slowly and not need a lot of pruning.  Since by June the border was full of gaping holes, I realized it was time to go shrub shopping. What a shock!  For someone whose garden was chuck full of hand-me-downs and freebies, I couldn’t believe I would have to spend at least  $40 for each shrub I bought to fill a hole!  

I am not some poverty-stricken old lady, but their price tags made me shudder. I went from nursery to nursery just looking.  Then one day I was thrilled to see a small shrub with a $25. tag on it! Then I saw it’s name – burning bush -  and my excitement vanished, knowing that I already had several of these shrubs in the border which I was planning to get rid of since they needed constant pruning. 

I finally bit the bullet and bought about 6 or 7 shrubs - potentilla, azalea, laurel, hydrangea. By then it was late June and I was in such a hurry to get them planted in those empty holes that I didn’t spend a minute thinking about which color or shape or bloom time any of them had.  I just planted them in the holes, one after another.

This summer I plan to take my time and think about the aesthetics of the border – colors, textures, bloom time, all the aspects of a garden that were not in my head last year

 I hope you’re enjoying this longed-for warm weather as much as I am.   

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Garden Dividends

Have you done your taxes yet? April 15th is just a week away. Most of the people
I know use an accountant or a website like Turbo Tax for this tedious job, but I do
my own and actually got them mailed in March this year.

Way back in  1974 I got a job at  H and R Block. Whenever I  had free time
between customers, I spent it composing poems for a new garden club program
I was putting together. The poem below  already had a melody. 

Sing a song of Swiss chard, pocket full of peas.
Four and twenty vegetables, grow them with ease.
When I plant the garden, I fertilize it well,
Lots of rotted cow manure, and never mind the smell.
When I see the lettuce dancing down the rows,
I forget the sticky sweat that trickles down my nose.
Hubby’s at the office, making lots of money.
I prefer the garden where all is nice and sunny.
I’ve produce by the bushel, and I can just relax
Cuz all my garden dividends the government can’t tax!

Much has changed since 1974, but the greedy government has yet to tax our garden produce.  No tax men come snooping around counting those sweet peas, and delicious tomatoes, the  fresh broccoli and melt-in-your-mouth onions  you harvest each summer from your back yard garden. 

So, yes, this column is going to seriously encourage you to start a vegetable garden this spring, even if it’s just a  decorative row of lettuces in a window box, or a couple of tomato plants in a bucket on the back porch. How about a single zucchini  plant tucked beneath the lilacs by the back door?  Just one plant will produce zucchinis all summer long which can be served up in a dozen different ways.

If you have a full-time job I’m sure you’re shaking your head, but let me just point out some of the advantages of growing your own vegetables.  Obviously they taste better.  Store-bought vegetable are not bred to be tasty, they’re bred to tolerate the agonies of being shipped from the farm thru the various steps involved to finally  reach the supermarket. If you’ve ever wondered why home-grown tomatoes taste so flavorful compared to the store-bought ones, it’s because the varieties we raise are bred for taste and wouldn’t survive all that traveling. 

Lettuce is one of the easiest and most rewarding vegetables to grow.  It matures quickly and causes few problems unless you count the slugs who love lettuce. However,  slimy slugs also like beer, so if they become a problem, just leave a saucer of Budweiser (any brand will do) set level with the soil in the lettuce row. By morning there will be lots of dead drunk slugs in the saucer.

Buttercrunch is my favorite lettuce, but I also buy a seed packet of mixed varieties so I get some smooth, some ruffled, some  red and some green.  Burpee has some nice collections this year, even one called “Heatwave Blend” that should appeal to the global warming environmentalists.  

Another reason to have a vegetable garden is to educate your children or grandchildren about the excitement of watching plants grow, to see a bean seed push up from the soil and turn into a leafy vine that spirals up a pole and eventually drips with clusters of string beans.  Think of the magic a child can produce by pulling up a carrot from the earth or digging down to find  a new potato.

A vegetable garden can also help solve America’s obesity problems.  Kids aren’t crazy about vegetables, but there’s a world of difference between  fresh string beans picked from the garden just before supper and the tired ones bought at the supermarket  And how can a 6 or 7 year-old resist eating those sweet peas he helped Mom plant?

Not only are items like carrots and broccoli and tomatoes more tasty, they provide kids with an alternative to watching TV or playing video games. 
The government is making a lot of new rules to try and limit all those sugary drinks and junk foods that kids eat,  but  I think obesity is primarily caused by lack of exercise.  Instead of being a couch potato glued to the tube, when kids are asked to help keep the vegetable garden up to snuff, they get plenty of exercise --   spreading manure, rototilling, raking, planting, weeding, mulching, thinning, harvesting. 

I happen to love doing all of the above, but I realize there are many people who find such jobs anything but enjoyable. Nowadays almost every town has a summer farm market piled high with home-grown and freshly harvested vegetables., and it’s a fun way to spend a Saturday morning.