November 13, 2018

Racing the End of the Season

The end of the gardening season is always abrupt.  One day you have a thriving vegetable plot.  Then, via the simple expedient of an overnight frost, it turns to mush.  Your annuals succumb to frost and old age.  Your perennials look fine and are in flower.  Then, for no ascertainable reason, they’re brown.

Mother nature has wreaked havoc
with our garden clean-up schedule
As conscientious stewards of the land, Betty and I strive each year to put each of our gardens to bed in an orderly fashion.  This year, Mother Nature has been mucking with the calendar.

What do I mean?  Let’s take pine cones as an example.  We had a wet summer and the pines at the borders of our property rewarded us with a bumper crop of cones.  We picked every last one out of the garden – more than a thousand cones – in late September.  Why do we bother?  Well, for one thing we don’t want a pine forest sprouting in our garden.  Just as important, though, pine cones are food for squirrels and other unwanted rodents.  But then came a surprise nor’easter.  The pine cones re-appeared in the garden as if by magic.  We picked them up again.  Last week, a storm with gale-force winds blew through.  Another pine-cone-picking party.

A nor'easter brought us a second
plague of pine cones
We took down our vegetable garden as plants ran their course.  The stalks from three squares of corn, for example, were taken out as the last ears were picked.  But, in the absence of frost, some plants kept producing (we had zucchini and tomatoes into late October).  The ogre who runs our community garden requires plots to be cleared by the end of October.  As a result, much of our final vegetable garden cleanup was hurriedly done on the last day of the month.  A week later, in our capacity as overseers of the community garden, we were back out to clean up the detritus of three abandoned plots.  Naturally, it rained.  Fortunately, seven volunteers made the work go much more quickly.

In addition to clearing our own plot we
cleaned abandoned ones... in the rain
Our first hard frost (October 20) took out our container gardens – twelve ‘major’ ones and another twelve ‘minor’ ones.  Each container had to be emptied, the vegetative matter taken to the transfer station, the potting mix added to a low spot, the miscellaneous bottles and other ‘ballast’ in the containers cleaned; and the containers themselves bleached, washed and put away in the basement.  That was a three-day process.

On October 21, UPS came calling with our fall bulb order – 500 of them.  We set it aside.  The trick with bulbs is they must be planted early enough that they can still generate roots, but not so early that they’ll produce greens.  If the ground begins to freeze, it’s likely too late to plant and you’ve just wasted beaucoup dollars.

Racing to get bulbs planted
We began taking down the multiple-hundreds of perennials that form the heart of our garden in late October… which is also when it began to rain in earnest.  We would cut back amsonia, baptisia, eupatorium and the like for a few hours; then watch as the clouds darkened.  This hide-and-seek with the rain went on for the better part of a week.

Finally, last Saturday, we could wait no longer.  Starting just after dawn, and with a forecast of heavy precipitation for the afternoon, we began digging out six large spaces for our new bulbs.  Everything was excavated to a depth of five to seven inches, bulbs were placed, then a parfait of limestone and soil layers were added and topped with mulch.  The rain started just as we patted down the last bulb patch.

We've had triple our normal rainfall
Yesterday afternoon, we limed the garden because our soil test came back showing a calcium deficiency.  The trick to putting down lime is to do so when there’s no wind to blow it away, but also near to the time when ample rain is expected.  We nailed the timing perfectly.  Our rainfall total overnight was more than an inch, and it’s still falling as this is written.

November 2, 2018

Be Careful What You Wish For

Be careful what you wish for.  It will all come back to bite you in the fall.

All those containers had to be
taken apart and cleaned
This spring I encouraged Betty to plant container gardens… lots and lots of container gardens filled with glorious annuals than allowed us to place points of color all around out landscape.  In all, she planted up a dozen ‘major’ containers and that many ‘lesser’ pots.  In mid-October, a killing frost wiped out those containers.  It took half a day to empty them, separate out the spent potting mix from the bottles and such we use as ‘ballast’, and clean and bleach the containers and store them in the basement so they’re ready for next year.

We left a dozen pine trees standing at the edges of our gardens because I wanted tall evergreens with deep green needles to contrast again the snows of winter, or dull browns when the snow has melted.  The late October nor’easter deposited several thousand pine cones from those trees onto our garden.  Sticky, sap-drenched pine cones.  Each one had to be picked up by hand and transported to a far edge of the property.  Elapsed time?  At least two hours.

Both for ecological and esthetic reasons, I demanded a driveway that would be asphalt-free and allow water to percolate through to replenish the groundwater, rather than adding to what goes down our town’s storm drains.  This past weekend, I spent two hours raking an inch of leaves and pine needles from the aforementioned nor’easter off our 90-foot-long stone driveway.  In the next few weeks, I have to attach skis (quite literally) to the bottom of our snow blower so I can remove the white stuff this winter without picking up buckets full of stones in the process.  And, does it take longer to clear a stone driveway than a macadam one?  It does, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Stalks of perennials have been cut
down, stuffed into bags, and taken
to the transfer station
Betty said she didn’t want any grass in our new garden, and so we planted the half acre that is not wetlands in native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  I not only agreed with her on the subject, I encouraged it.  And I keep urging her to fill in the ‘holes’ in the landscape with yet more perennials.  This fall, I have spent several days cutting back the now-dead stalks on those perennials, bundling them up in tarps, and transporting them to our transfer station for disposal.  Betty has spent even more time trimming back shrubs.  I get to bundle up and remove those as well.

I refuse to pay Whole Foods prices for fresh, organically grown vegetables and so we have a plot at our town’s Community Garden.  The garden has to be tended several hours each week, but it’s a small price to pay for placing food on the table that we have, ourselves, grown.  However, come October, plants stop producing and fruit stops ripening.  There’s an arrogant, overbearing ‘ogre’ who runs the garden and he sends out obnoxious emails telling everyone that must have their plot cleared by the end of the month.  And so, on multiple days, Betty and I have taken apart the garden, cleaning and storing the fencing and cages we’ll use next year, and taking everything else to the transfer station (the corn stalks alone filled the back end of our Prius to its limit).

Everyone loves our driveway
The magic question is, of course, why?  If it’s so much work and backbreaking labor, why not just pay someone to do it for us?  Or, more sensibly, stop doing it at all – dispense with the containers, plant some grass, cut down the damnable pines, and pay Whole Foods their extortionate prices?
The answer is that I wouldn’t change it for the world.  I love those 50-pound containers and the unusual plants Betty finds for them.  Those pines do look majestic against the snow and brighten up our cold, New England winter.  That driveway has a distinctive style all its own that further sets our property apart from the ‘usual’ suburban home, and that all-native and grass-free garden draws compliments that no flower bed out front could possibly get.  And pay Whole Foods prices?  Never.  I’d stop eating first.

Oh, and I’m getting serious exercise doing all this.  People ‘my age’ are supposed to be slowing down and becoming sedentary.  I carried 60 pounds of metal stakes in my arms last week and unloaded tarpaulin after tarpaulin filled with plant debris at the transfer station without resorting to pain-relieving drugs.  And, on top of that, it’s fun.  If all those wishes are, in fact. coming back to bite me, I’ll just put it down to the price of having a good time.