Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Older and wiser

I was pretty much new to gardening when we moved out here to Mucky Boots. There was one small vegetable garden a long time ago that my house mate was mostly responsible for, and I remember a few failed planters on decks and balconies. At our house before this one we had quite a bit of landscaping, but all it really needed was maintenance, and so I learned something about how to weed, cut things back, and spread mulch.

So I think I don't need to tell you what a steep learning curve I have been on in our three years here. I have learned a lot about growing vegetables, and a bit about growing perennials, but I think the best lessons, the most important ones, have been about the graceful embrace of imperfection and the ebb and flow of the seasons. And about the acceptance of enough. Enough food grown. Enough work done.

And so here are a few of the lessons about life and about gardening I have learned.

Don't push the season. When we first started I was determined to get as much food from the garden as I could, and that meant starting almost everything in the greenhouse. I have learned that a lot of time and energy - and money, for all those heat mats - go into all those early starts, and a lot of it can be saved by just paying attention to what the plants really need. By starting winter squash in the greenhouse, for example, I had it in the ground earlier than I would have if I had just seeded directly, but by the time the early birds had recovered from their transplant shock, their direct seeded cousins had caught up. Or take beans, as another example. They really need warm soil to germinate, so there is no point seeding them before the soil is ready - they will just rot, or at best sleep until the conditions are right. This can be applied to my life, too: sometimes, when I'm trying to force something to happen right now, what I really need to do is step back and wait. I'm not so good at that, but I'm learning.

Be satisfied with enough. Sometimes ten tomato plants are enough, and I don't really need twenty-four. Sometimes one bed of blueberries is enough - three would mean lots more blueberries, but also lots more work. Sometimes stopping to admire one gorgeous tulip is enough, without leaping to thinking I need to plant a whole bunch more. Sometimes it's enough to stop after two of three hours of work, even though it means leaving a lot undone. Being satisfied with enough is about getting off the treadmill of more, more, more, and sitting on the porch with a cup of tea and enjoying what is instead.

Enjoy the first blush of spring and don't be sad when it's gone. There is a magic week or two in May when tulips, and iris, and columbine, and perennial corn flowers, and lilacs, and wisteria are all flowering. Everything is lush and green, and all is right with the world. Then I notice that ants have got at the climbing hydrangea again and those corn flowers are looking slightly mildewy, and the tulips fall over and look blah. I've learned not to worry - the hydrangea will survive, and the hostas are already growing in leaps and bounds to fill in the empty spaces, and soon the poppies and lilies will steal the show, and then the glorious fall colours will start, and then the quiet of winter will come, and then it will be spring all over again.

Choose your battles. Creeping bellflower. Some of my beds are full of it. I briefly tried to eradicate it, but there's a reason it's classified as an invasive species in some districts: you can dig and dig and sift and think you've got every last root and rhizome, but an inch further down are some you missed that are already planning their comeback. Here's how I look at it now: in the early spring it forms a lovely, lush green ground cover. A few weeks later, once the stalks are about a foot high, they are easily pulled out to give the other plants more room. Of course that's just the stalk, and all the roots are left behind, but I wasn't ever going to be able to rid of those anyway (see above) so now I mostly don't bother unless I am planting something new and want to give it some breathing room. I see it as a perfect example of the 80-20 rule: in 20% of the time I can deal with 80% of the problem, but to finish off the remaining 20% would take 80% of the time. Get it?

Poppies growing in the thyme patch.

Give poppies special dispensation. Our first year here I spent a long afternoon ridding the rhubarb and blueberry bed of what I thought were dandelions. Turns out they were poppies. I love poppies. They are a perfect example of a beautiful thing that can't be controlled or owned: they grow anywhere and everywhere, and you have to appreciate them in situ because they make terrible cut flowers. Now poppies get a free ride here at Mucky Boots - I'll leave them in any bed they appear in except where I'm trying to grow carrots. It's good for me to have something in my life that doesn't follow rules or plans or schedules, something that can't and shouldn't be controlled. That's the gift poppies bring me.

What have you learned from your garden?


Rae said...

I've discovered that foxglove here is a pretty flower, though back home, it was a horrible weed. I've taught the fiancée to recognize the soft leaves that come up in early spring, so he doesn't take them out with the weed eater.

I've learned to not feed the birds, at least during the windows of time that I reseed the lawn and chicken/geese yards. Definitely don't want to draw more birds to the area around then. Also, a light layer of straw over newly seeded soil keeps the juncos from eating all my grass seed, as well as helps keep the soil from drying out too much.

Last, but not least... If you don't want the chickens to eat it, fence around it. Twice. Lol.

Doc said...

In our thirty six years at Menagerie Manor the garden has done a terrific job of training me. There are some things that will never grow here and so I have stopped trying so hard and let the garden show me the path, which includes long contemplative periods sitting on the bench just looking at it grow. Oh I still plant the entire packet of tomato seeds but now I only plant a couple of each variety and the rest get handed out to the entire neighborhood….that’s the other lesson learned….gardens make good neighbors.

Charade said...

Life lessons well learned - and shared. I first learned about poppies from your blog, and now I've gotten to know them a little better. Thanks.

Lindsey at NW Backyard Veggies said...

Oh, my god, girl. Halle-fucking-lleuja.

I totally agree and just pasted a huge smile on my face reading this post.

I tend to think mother nature will just take care of herself and all we can do is bend things a little to get more out of it than we would if we left her alone.

I have learned that I have no patience. To not put fresh manure in root crop beds (Derp!) and that lettuce seeds won't germinate in warm soil.

I've also learned that I give less than 1/5 of a fuck about grass. Much to my neighbors despair.

Alison said...

Lol, Lindsey, I think you and I should move in next to each other. We'd be the despair of the neighborhood!

I absolutely learned the "Don't Push the Season" lesson this year. Every year I get a little further in understanding that my garden is not going to be perfect. Ever. I love seeing pictures of weeds in other people's gardens--it's like reality therapy for my perfectionism.

Paula said...

I've learned that no matter what time of year I start seeds, it will be the wrong time for them; that I will never shake the feeling of being late with everything, and that the saying should be 'time, tide and garden wait for no man'.

Anonymous said...

We are So with you on the poppies. They self-seed everywhere, and we leave them as much as we can. Columbines too--I really had to work to convince myself to take a couple of those out of the onion patch, even though the bed is surrounded by the same flowers!

I think I have some lessons to learn about the tomatoes, though. I thought I was doing well going from 80 plants the first year to 60 plants last year, to just over 40 this year...and I wonder why I keep feeling like I don't have enough space for veggies! :) Sadly, the pressure from the Skipper to "leave no tomato seedling behind" is hard to ignore sometimes...LOL. I'm learning!

Shim Farm said...

I've learned "when in doubt, rip it out". We've got a lot of overgrown junk from previous owners that we're still mowing around, and this weekend, we're taking the backhoe to a few shrubs.

At first, I tried to be sympathetic to previous owners' gardening ideology, but it doesn't match mine, and I live here now. That took me a while to realize.

I also learned that I despise roses. I tore so many overgrown roses out, that only now, 10 years later, I can look at a few remaining bushes and not have palpitations.

I've learned to be ruthless. I have mature fruit-bearing trees, and the fruit from said trees is virtually inedible. It took a while to wrap my head around the concept that those trees need to go!

Thanks to previous owners, I'm also careful with invasive plants. I've been trying to eradicate elecampane, horseradish, Jerusalem artichoke, Angelica and Goutweed for many years. Some of those battles I will not be winning, unless Napalm comes back into vogue.

I've learned to mulch, mulch, and mulch some more. I've learned to edge, edge, and edge some more. It's a work in progress, but we're getting there.

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