September 27, 2013

Little White Lies

Do you want to hear someone tell a lie?  Just ask any gardener how much time they spend maintaining their garden. You can be absolutely certain that the answer they give – no matter how large or small the number – will be understated.  The actual time may be ten percent longer or twice as much as they tell you, but it will never be less than what they say.
We tell these fibs for three reasons.  First, we may genuinely think that gardening takes less than five hours a week.  That’s because the gardener is thinking about April or November when chores are light.  Or, they may be averaging in the winter months when, at least in New England, the only gardening is indoors.
The second reason is that gardeners aren’t looking for pity, brownie points, or convoluted looks when the honest answer is, “Oh, twenty hours a week in season, five or six at the beginning and the tag end.”  The gardeners I know are proud of their work and they don’t want to be seen as having some form of mental illness for devoting so much time to making things look really good.
The third reason – and the one that causes me to write this – is that gardeners forget about the ‘big push’ activities that come at the beginning and end of the season. 
The list above (double-click on it to see it at a larger size) is not contrived.  It has been posted to our refrigerator door since September 21.  On that date, Betty and I did a walk through the property and she called out things that need to be done as we get toward the end of the season.  I was the scribe and, because my handwriting is barely legible under the best of cases, I typed up the list after the walk.
This yellowing daylily foliage makes
the garden look ragged
New England gardens at the end of September show their age.  Most annuals are shot, as are perennials like hosta and daylilies.  There are also plants we put up with during the growing season – such as allowing milkweed to run rampant in places – that now look like poor gardening now that the birds, bees and butterflies that fed on them have decamped for warmer climates.  Performing this end-of-September cleanup greatly improves the look of the garden and extends its season by several weeks.
With the daylily foliage cut back.
Manhattan bed shows off the
still-blooming sedum and asters
The list consists of both things that can be done in a few minutes (‘cut hosta flowers in white garden’) and tasks that are backbreaking (‘turn 5-bin composter’).  There are chores that can be done in pieces, such as taking apart those leggy containers, and ones that are best done in one fell swoop, like cutting down daylilies.
Some of the chores are Trojan Horses.  I cut the dozen or so branches that overhung our forest pansy redbud (cercis canadendis) and a Rose of Sharon (hibiscus syriacus).  But taking down those tree limbs brought to light a similar number of ‘problem’ branches that were heretofore hidden.  And, allowing those two cultivars to get adequate light started me thinking about the fate of the shrubs in out Long Island bed that are starting to ‘lean out’ because the copse of trees behind the bed is also sending out intruding branches.
And, some chores only seem simple.  One bed had both bee balm (monarda) and black-eyed susans (rudbeckia) to be cut down.  But the monarda is prone to diseases.  It must all be taken out at once and clippers cleaned with bleach afterward to prevent the spread of the powdery mildew that affects it.  Only when the monarda has all been cleaned and bagged can the balance of that bed be worked on.
I am not doing this alone; Betty is dividing hostas and moving grasses.  She’ll also take on the ‘skilled’ work on the list.  But it is the undergardener’s job to plow into the stands of daylilies and get rid of their now-yellowing foliage.  (See the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos to understand why this needs to be done.)

So, all in all, how long will it take to complete this list?  I don’t know, probably half a day.

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