February 29, 2016

Spring Ahead

The scene exactly one year ago.  We
had run out of places to put snow.
What a difference a year makes.  In early March of 2015 we were desperately looking for places to put snow around our house and driveway.  Our roof groaned under more than three feet of solidly packed snow (our skylights would reap our failure to take action).  Meanwhile, alongside the Convention Center in South Boston, a snow mountain 70 feet tall had taken up residence. Its lease would not expire until the middle of July. 
This year the ground
is bare and we are
days away from
having crocuses.
On the last days of February 2016, Betty and I created a stupendous pile of broken pine and oak branches from the month’s twin storms – rain- and wind-driven rather than snow – while treading carefully to avoid sinking into mud on the paths around our home.  In picking one branch I uncovered the dark green of crocus foliage; with flowers to follow by mid-month.  Snow?   Yes, we remember it snowing this winter.  Vaguely. 
This El NiƱo winter is giving us a much-needed head start on completing the landscaping we began last summer.  Then, the later-than-expected completion of our home and unplanned requirement for replacing a quarry’s worth of loose rock with usable topsoil meant that, by the time we were ready to start landscaping, the “good” trees we wanted were out of stock.  Rather than put in second-choice saplings, we left empty spaces.
You can still see the carnage caused
by a mid-February storm.  This is
our neighbor's property.
Now the problem, naturally, is that the nurseries we favor won’t have in their stock of trees and shrubs until mid-March.  We have a shopping list.  (Boy, do we have a shopping list.)  Betty spent the winter reading up on recent introductions of native plant cultivars.  As a result, what was once a quest for the perfect forest pansy redbud (cercis canadensis) has broadened into wanting to inspect a gold-leafed variation on that hardy native tree before settling on the one that will occupy a place of honor in front of our house.  Multiply that example by four trees, 40 shrubs, and an army of perennials, and you get a sense of what is our future by way of choices – and work once the choices are made.
Our "lawn" is a parfait of
chopped leaves and mulch.
There is also a “small” question about what surrounds those trees and shrubs.  The default choice at most homes is, of course, a grass lawn.  We’re holding fast to our principled decision regarding a lawn-free property.  Last summer we spread a thick covering of bark mulch over our topsoil, with packed-soil pathways separating beds.  At the end of autumn, we begged fifty bags of leaves from our neighbors and mowed those leaves into a fine mulch.  This spring, we’ll rototill those two mulches into the top few inches of soil, then top that parfait with leaf mold.  This is what comes from adhering to principles.

But early spring is also for dreaming.  If you're reading this and you live in New England, your best way of kick-starting those dreams is to head for the Boston Flower & Garden Show.  If I’ve learned one thing over the years, it is that no two editions of the Flower Show are alike.  Each one brings new ideas, new gadgets, new things to gawk at.  You'll come away with some new vision of how to make your garden a more interesting place.
Oh, and if you're at the show on Friday, March 18th, I'll be speaking at 11:30 a.m. on the lecture stage with 'Gardening Will Kill You'.  Betty follows at 1:30 p.m. with her 'Dirt on Your Hands, Soil in Your Garden' talk.

February 2, 2016

Seeds of Expectation

Before I get carried away, let me be clear about one thing.  We’re talking about packets of seeds.  Seeds that cost about a buck fifty for a paper packet containing somewhere between a dozen and 500 seeds.  Starbucks would not swap you a tall decaf mocha latte for four packets of seeds, no matter how you declaim their virtues.
Our 2016 seed order arrived last week.
Double-click for a full-screen view.
But virtues they are.  After you consume that latte, all you’ll have to show for it is an empty cup.  Plant those seeds and you can harvest a season’s worth of Parisian carrots or Tom Thumb butterhead lettuce.  And, talk about bargains, the value of that $1.50 seed package multiplies tenfold, or even a hundredfold.  Case in point: Butternut squash is going for $1.59 a pound at my local supermarket this week.  We’ve been eating our 2015 crop of squash since October and still have a dozen specimens in the basement with a current retail value of more than thirty dollars.
I offer that prologue because, last week, two boxes arrived in our mailbox.  They contained our vegetable and flower seeds for the spring of 2016. 
Betty began poring over seed catalogs in late November (their arrival coincided with the last turkey sandwich made from our Thanksgiving dinner).  We receive more than a dozen such catalogs each year; the ones from which she might order is a small subset of what arrives in the mailbox.  What the semifinalists have in common is that their seeds are grown for a northern climate.  “One size fits all” seed companies need not apply.
The mark-up of the seed
catalogs is a wonder to behold
Betty’s markup of these catalogs is a wonder to behold.  There are bold “X” marks through descriptions that, to my untutored eye, look like great choices.  What, exactly, is wrong with Crosby Egyptian beets?  Some varieties are circled once; others, like Maximillian sunflowers, have multiple bold rings.
Looking through the seed packets now on hand (there are more than 50), there are a few surprises.  For example, we will grow five kinds of beets this year.  Why five?  Flavor, days to maturity, and an interest in trying some new introductions without jeopardizing the main crop.
This year will also mark a momentous turn in our gardening practices.  For more than a decade we have been part of a community garden in our town.  We have had a 600 square foot plot, tilled by the town and overspread with composted manure.  All we had to do was fence and plant our little bit of horticultural heaven.
Our new raised beds give us the option
of gardening at home.
We’ll still have that community garden space but, this year, we’ll augment our real estate by ten percent.  This past autumn I built a pair of raised-bed gardens in the sunniest part of our property.  Each is four feet by eight feet for a total of 64 square feet.  The nifty part of the beds is that when I say ‘raised bed’ I mean beds where the soil line is 30 inches above the surrounding ground.  Most raised beds are up about a foot.  Ours can be worked while sitting on the wooden rail around the garden – or even standing.
And the beauty of a raised bed is that there is not a square inch of wasted space.  There are no ‘aisles’ with a raised bed.  We will plant from board to board and start as soon as the soil is warm enough to germinate early spring crops.  We can even artificially warm the soil with row covers.  Perhaps best of all, picking lettuce for a lunch or dinner salad now will mean a quick walk outside rather than a two-mile drive.
Those seeds are a harbinger of the coming season.  The days are lengthening.  Those seeds are tangible proof that winter’s end is within sight. 

Well, at least it’s a glow on the horizon.