Thursday, April 24, 2014

Trouble Sleeping?

The gardening season has now officially begun for me.  When I closed my eyes to sleep the other night I saw weeds. 
Some insomniacs count sheep.  I relax by visualizing vegetation I don’t like (e.g. dandelions) that is growing where I don’t want it  (e.g. my lawn).  For the past several weeks, as I cleared my perennial beds and the first signs of green life began appearing, my sleep has been somewhat restive – due in part to uncertainty about all those spots where I didn’t see signs of growth, and concern for the weather conditions that could destroy those sprouts that were beginning to emerge.  But now that the evil invasives are back for me to do battle with – a one-shot operation with no “will they make it?” type of worries – I can once again rest peacefully.
It isn’t just my own weeds that can generate these soporific perceptions in my mind however.  This time it was the plethora of pervasive plant pests that percolated up from the depths of the Frank WestonRose Garden, and presented themselves for our gardening pleasure earlier in the day.
“Our” is the assemblage of plantsmen from the Men’s Garden Club of Wethersfield who had gathered earlier in the day to “open up” the town’s rose garden. The MGCoW has been caring for this public recreational area since 1983.

Rocco, Ernie, John, James, Prez Tony, and I arrived at 8:00 a.m.  Club member Richard had previously done some of the work.  Our tactical plan was to clean up winter debris; spread composted cow manure (which had frozen last autumn before we were able to “winter-over” with it); evaluate the rose bushes’ health and cold weather survival status; cut away some deadwood; and do a little incidental weeding.  This last task turned out to be our major occupation for the morning.
The abnormal cold and snow pattern of the past winter appears to have played havoc with the floribunda’s wellbeing – we will know more in a few weeks.  But the strange weather clearly was a godsend for the unwanted groundcover vegetation (chickweed, etc.) that vies for space with the fragrant perennials for which this planting area is intended.
 This unexpected enemy was fine with me since I had passed up my usual Saturday morning at the health club for what I was hoping would be a comparable, but purposeful, workout.   Part of which would consist of carrying the 40-pound bags of composted cow-patties, and strategically dumping that dung around the bases of the plants.  And now the war of the weeds would complete my exercise program.
Although somewhat taken by surprise, our band of “Rose Warriors” was nonetheless up to the challenge – using cultivators, shovels, and gloved hands to rip the unwanted miscreants from their wrongful places in “our” modest, man-made attempt at Eden.
Unfortunately, being out of practice, I had not brought my all-time favorite garden tool – the fork-tongued weed remover.   No gardening job is more rewarding to me than duck-walking along a weed-stricken piece of land and plunging that tool into the soil to undercut the culprit’s last earthly connection. So instead I ripped them out the old fashioned, manual way – with some improvised help from my pruning tool as up-rooter.  The bending, kneeling, standing, lifting, twisting, stretching and tugging was a great complement to the aforementioned heavy lifting.
 I did however remember to bring my second favorite gardening toy, a Japanese pruning saw – which Rocco and Ernie discovered the joy of when they grappled with two patches of orna-monster grass which, uncut in the fall, had turned to stubborn, eye-high, vertical straw stacks over the winter.
In the end it was time well spent and much fun – as evidenced by the resulting look of the garden, the fatigued feeling in our muscles, the collective sense of satisfaction, and the long-awaited images of unwanted plants that appeared to me when I settled into bed that evening. 
Plant growers in arid places like New Mexico, who struggle to cultivate anything floral, find it difficult to believe that I spend even more time and energy removing unwanted greenery than they do nurturing it – and that I get as much, and sometimes more, satisfaction out of acts of extermination than of those of germination.  They may even question how I, an inveterate destroyer of plant life, dare to call myself a gardener.
To which I reply, “How do you people sleep at night?”

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Spineless Gardening

You may remember Marsha’s and my intention to “New Mexico-ize” our perennial beds (February Planters Punchlines).  Well, it is not going to happen.  I am just too spineless a plantsman to deal with all the spines on cactus.  “No pain, no gain” may be true in the gym, but not in my garden.

Botanically, "spines" are different than "thorns": the former being leaves that have strayed from the path of righteousness, whereas thorns are modified branches that have gone over to the dark side. 

Initially I was hoping for a crowded, overflowing, “Monet Garden” of various cacti varieties mixed in with the more conventional New England perennials that already are in place (asters, bee balm, lilacs, and various bird-attracting berry bushes) plus some other t/b/d stuff.  Then Marsha reminded me of the need for access to these other garden bedmates, and what my arms and legs looked like after even a brief workout at the Weston Rose Garden – as if I had been subjected to involuntary acupuncture by the Spanish inquisition.

I Googled “spineless” cactus and discovered that between 1907 and 1925, Luther Burbank (remember him from elementary school biology) introduced more than 60 spike-free varieties– all of which are on display at his historic “Home and Gardens” in hot ad dry Santa Rosa, California.  Not quite the climate within which we were planning to cultivate them.

So we went to Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society’s 31st Annual Show and Sale in Waterbury hoping to find some examples of the disarmed succulents suitable for the Connecticut climate.

And we happened upon the lecture “Hardy Cacti for the CT Garden” delivered by John Spain, a founder of the Cactus Society, and the man who literally wrote the book on the subject – “Growing Winter Hardy Cacti In Cold Wet Climatic Conditions”.

John Spain, it turns out, is to hardy cacti what Alan Lomax was to folk music.  “During the New Deal, with his father, famed folklorist and collector John A. Lomax and later alone and with others, Lomax recorded thousands of songs and interviews for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress on aluminum and acetate discs.” (Wikipedia)  Without Alan Lomax, there would be no American songbook, no Bob Dylan or Joan Baez – and definitely no “Polk Salad Annie”. 

Forty years ago John Spain saw his first non-southwest cactus growing in Detroit Michigan.  (Actually it was in a nearby suburb, but the idea of a desert plant growing in the motor city is just too cool an image to ignore.)  When he moved to New Jersey and then Connecticut he gathered and  grew similar cacti in his new home environments – lots and lots of them.  There is, Spain says, at least one cactus variety native to (or suited for) every state east of the Mississippi River other than Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.  With one small exception – almost too small to be visible in the garden we were contemplating – none of these cacti are spineless.

Thus ends the grand scheme to convert our property to a mini New Mexico.  It hurts, but not as much as the alternative.


Monday, April 07, 2014

Rites of Spring

An oniony aroma announces the chives’ presence
before I clear away the limp, tan stems and heaped winter leaves  
to catch sight of its eager green sprouts.

One foot to the left, my whisk-rake gently culls debris
from low-growing sedum – its coiled leaves an eager chartreuse
even in near-total absence of sunlight.

 For us all it is the beginning of the end
of the odorless, colorless, coldest part of the year.