Sunday, November 15, 2009

Avant Gardening

This year I've decided to do nothing to prepare our perennial gardens for the upcoming winter -- not a thing, zilch, zip, nada, diddly-squat, squat -- or something pretty close to that anyway. And once again my seeming act of lassitude can be rationalized as being out ahead of the gardening curve.

For example:

Thirty years ago when I first began my horticultural hobby we bought some blueberry bushes. My only previous experience in the planting biz was two months earlier when, under the guidance of my father-in-law (an inveterate plantsman), I put in my first-ever vegetable garden. So I simply repeated what I did then -- what else could I possibly need to know? I turned the earth, separated out the dirt from the sod, mixed in a bunch of peat moss (to which I had already become addicted), stuck the shrubbery in the ground, and occasionally watered.

The next year there were sweet, edible fruits some of which I converted into a Blueberry Teacake for a celebration at my workplace. I proffered a piece to my colleague Kwame who declined it saying he was unwilling to eat any of the fresh fruits of our area because of the pesticides, etc. that came with them.

"I don't use any of those things," I said, in a tone that implied moral superiority rather than apathy, laziness and a total ignorance of proper plant care.

"Oh", Kwame replied, sounding impressed as he gobbled down the pastry, "I didn't know that you were an ORGANIC GARDENER."

Neither did I. But I definitely went along with it.

Exemplar 2:

For years I have ground up the vast majority of my yard's autumn leaves and spread them back onto the lawn with a mulching lawn mower. It was, I quickly found out, way easier than raking hundreds of thousands of crispy pieces of dried vegetation into temporary piles and then herding the resultant wind-blown mounds into non-compliant, wind-blown plastic bags.

This, it turns out, is also actually good for the grass. Not that I knew that at the time.

But my newfound lack of attention to my winter garden doesn't stem from unwillingness to do the work. It's just a matter of when.

In years previous I would have by now chopped down just about any perennial that had turned even the slightest bit brownish, and consigned its remains to either the winter compost pile or the big green trash bin. The decimation would occur on the first warm sunny day after the initial rush of plant-deadening cold weather.

I gloried in the feeling of sunlight heating the back of my red flannel shirt, and cool air brushing my cheeks. And I deluded myself into thinking that this act of destruction in some way prolonged the gardening season -- when in fact it ended it prematurely and on a negative note.

The next day I would survey the barren wasteland I had created and complain to myself that the fun part of the year had ended -- only perking up when I espied some hidden hostas or undercover rudbeckia whose stalks and leaves I had missed, and whose eradication I could use as an lame excuse to prolong my time in the garden.

Then, several months later, with the advent of the growing season I would desperately search the landscape looking for any chore that would get my hands back into contact with the living things of the earth. Finally it occurred to me to defer all of that lopping and chopping until spring.

So this year I decided to convert the symbols of termination into emblems of emergence.
So far it's going great. I am seeing a lot of orange and yellow garden foliage in what would have previously been barren areas. And I'm looking forward to the winter snow and enjoying the three-dimensional patterns and shadow designs that will be created by my still-standing stalks.

And sure enough, that part of the garden writing community that actually knows what it is talking about is espousing the values of hands off autumn landscaping.

Tracy DiSabato-Aust, in her book "The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting & Pruning Techniques", says that many plants benefit from the layer of protection provided by their dead tops during the winter. And any leftover seeds provide food for the birds.

Stephen Orr writes "Think of yourself as the curator of your own winter sculpture garden." (New York Times: "Time to Tidy Up the Garden, or Is It?")

Who knew it was this easy to be an avant gardener?

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