April 29, 2017

Sleep, Creep, Leap

The gardening world is rich with mnemonics; simple rhyming catch phrases that help you remember an important rule.  How much sunlight does a vegetable need?  “Leaf, root, flower, fruit” tells you everything you need to know.  ‘Leaf’ vegetables like lettuce need the least light, ‘fruit’ ones need most.

April 29, 2017.  The bulbs look great.
The one I’m coming to terms with at the start of the 2017 gardening season is “sleep, creep, leap”.  It’s a powerful truth: there is no such thing as an instant garden.  If you plant a tree, shrub, or perennial, expect that its first year will be one of little apparent growth.  Whatever you put in the ground is busy establishing a root system and acclimating itself to a new, alien environment.
This is the 'creep' year
In the second year, that yearling plant creeps.  It almost grudgingly displays a modicum of visible growth, but there is still a painful, yawning space between it and its nearest brethren.  Nothing happens fast enough to suit an impatient gardener.  It is not until the third year that the plant begins to fill its appointed space, and a garden begins to look like, well, a garden.

It is in that second year that Type-A-personality gardeners fall into the trap of overbuying.  If a rhododendron’s tag says to plant specimens four feet apart, the gardeners shrinks that to three or even two feet.  For a year or two, the homeowner achieves the illusion of an ‘instant garden’.  By the third year, plants are getting in one another’s way.  By the fifth year, shrubs that ought to be healthy are instead dying of diseases that should be collectively be labeled, ‘impatience’.

Betty and I moved into our new home in early April 2015.  Our intention had been to immediately install some 200 perennials lovingly divided and potted up from our ‘old garden’ and bring in a full retinue of new trees and shrubs perfect for the site.  Long before the first frost, we would have the elements of our new garden on the half-acre (of our one-and-a-half acres) we planned to cultivate. 

Instead of soil, we had
builders crud
Instead, in mid-April, we discovered we had no viable soil in the area we intended to make our garden.   A year of construction vehicles on the site, the dispersal of ‘spoils’ from digging the basement, and the removal of some 40 end-of-life pines meant that gardening would have to be preceded by the removal of 950 cubic yards of what we came to call ‘builders’crud’ and replace it with a like volume of loam

It took until late June to prepare the site for the new garden.  Nothing was planted during the critical April through June period.  Because of the late start that first season, we focused on locating and planting trees, a few dozen shrubs, the fifty or so perennials we divided from our old home that survived the winter and, that fall, roughly 1800 bulbs.  Our garden didn’t even get to the ‘sleep’ phase; most of the plants we wanted were still in nurseries.

Our first anniversary in our home – April 2016 – commenced the ‘sleep’ year.  We added more trees and several dozen shrubs.  We began planting ground covers and built a raised-bed vegetable garden.  Those first 1800 bulbs bloomed beautifully.  By August, the outline of what we planned was plainly in evidence.  In late October, we nearly doubled the number of bulbs planted in the first year.

A tiny, second-year dicentra is all
we can expect for 2017
That glorious autumn was what has made the spring of 2017 all the more difficult to bear.  This is the ‘creep’ year.  The patio off our back porch has been planted with more than a hundred primarily native perennials.  I keep thinking that, by now, this ought to be a riot of color and texture.  Instead, it is a series of discrete, small plants.  Nothing touches, nothing overlaps.

Our Virginia bluebelles
doubled in size, but still
don't dazzle yet
Plants are not only smaller than I expect, but are emerging later.  It takes a perennial with a deep web of roots to push up greenery in early April or to flower before the end of the month.  Only the ‘ephemerals’ – especially the Virginia bluebells – are of both a size to be noticed and flowering; and they will disappear in mid-May.  Everything else is Lilliputian.  The hostas are just unfurling their first leaves.  The dicentra are compact little mounds; their flowers are weeks away.

The good news is that those bulbs we planted in the autumn of 2015 are veterans.   They form lush borders and rise majestically.  Cyclists and walkers give us their ‘thumbs up’ and shout their approval. 

Even without those accolades, we have been diligently planting the new crop of shrubs and perennials.  These will not ‘leap’ until 2019 or 2020, but that’s fine.  We’re in this for the long haul.  For us, ‘leap’ is just another inflection point.

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