May 29, 2019

"January, February, March, March, March, March, July..."

Iris cristata and Trilliums
at the end of May?

This morning I paused a moment to admire the trilliums and iris cristata blooming at the edge of our back patio. I sniffed the perfume of the lilac in full glory along the driveway.  And I admired the tenacious hellebores that have continued to flower since the snow melted in early March.
The problem is, I did all these things this morning, and this morning is May 29. The iris and lilac should have ceased blooming three weeks ago. The hellebore should have gone dormant by now. 
Yes, I know I'm lucky...but 49 degrees?
Oh, and the temperature outside is 49 degrees.  And, according to this morning’s Globe, it has rained 22 out of the first 29 days of the month (and more rain is expected today).
There’s a cute joke about the weather on Cape Cod: that monthly calendars have headers that read, ‘January, February, March, March, March, March, July…’. And, it has the ring of truth: the cold Atlantic waters keep the region’s spring weather cool and damp.  But I live in the temperate Boston suburbs, 60 miles from Cape Cod.  What’s going on?
The lilacs ought to have passed by now
The meteorological explanation is a persistent high-pressure system that keep giving us Canadian-grade weather, coupled with a recalcitrant jet stream and brewing El Nino.  Two hundred miles south, Pennsylvania and Maryland are being rocked by thunderstorms, and further west and south, there are tornadoes and flooding.  So, we ought to (and do) count ourselves lucky.
But then I go visit our vegetable garden… or what ought to be our vegetable garden.  By the end of May we should be up to our knees in lettuce and spinach.  We should be picking peas and coaxing green beans. Instead, our garden looks like we planted it last week – which is also not too far from the truth. 
Phlox at the end of May?
Thus far we have picked exactly nothing from a 600-square-foot plot, because everything is too cold and too wet.  This past weekend, when the temperature briefly got above 80 degrees for an afternoon, we planted the tomatoes we purchased three weeks ago. Now, I fear the plants will curl up and wither from the cold.  Neither the corn nor the squash seeds we planted ten days ago have germinated.  ‘Knee high by the Fourth of July’?  We’re not holding our breath.
I realize these are ‘high-class problems’.  “Awww, your garden isn’t producing.  Would you like to come bail out my basement or cut up the tree on my roof?”
The old saw is that ‘If you’re not killing plants, you’re not gardening’.  I guess I’d prefer to see my plants croak the usual way: because I over-watered them, stepped on them, or failed to give them the proper nutrients.  Freezing to death at the end of May?  Now that’s just cruel…

May 6, 2019

In Our Garden, 2019 Is Leap Year

The gardening world is rich with mnemonics; simple rhyming catchphrases that help you remember important rules.  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.

The daffodils we planted by the road
at the front of our house have doubled
The one I’m pondering at the start of the 2019 gardening season is “sleep, creep, leap”.  It’s a powerful truth: yielding to the desire for ‘instant gratification’ is never in a gardener’s best interest.  Instead, cultivate patience.  If you plant a tree, shrub, or perennial, expect that its first year will be one of little apparent growth – it sleeps.  Whatever you put in the ground is busy establishing a root system and acclimating itself to a new, alien environment.

Twelve months pass.  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.  It is not until the third – or even fourth year – that the plant begins to fill its appointed space, and a garden begins to look like, well, a garden.

The leucothoe, heuchera,
and azalea now fill the bed
It is also in that second year that Type-A-personality gardeners fall into the trap of overbuying and over-planting.  If a rhododendron’s tag says to plant specimens four feet apart, the impatient gardeners shrinks that spacing 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, ‘willful ignorance’.  (Several decades ago, we acquired a house with such a landscape.  A year into our ownership, we pulled our hundreds of dollars of yellowing shrubs with underdeveloped roots starved for space.)

Betty and I moved into our new home in early April 2015.  Our intention had been to quickly 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. 

Magnolia 'Elizabeth' went
from a few dozen blooms
to more than a hundred
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 foundation and 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.  Moreover, moles and voles had consumed the roots of three-quarters of our transplanted stock.

It took until mid-summer to complete the site preparation; nothing went into the ground during the critical April through June period.  By the end of September, we had planted just eight trees, 50 or so perennials, and perhaps a dozen shrubs.  We added 1800 bulbs in late October.  Our start was so late that 2015 didn’t even merit being called the ‘sleep’ phase; most of the plants we wanted were still in nurseries.

The hyacinths we planted along the
sidewalk emerge stronger each year
In the following two years we added more trees and several dozen shrubs.  We began planting ground covers, added plants –primarily native perennials – to the spaces between trees and shrubs.  And, yes, more bulbs went into the ground, bringing our total to more than 4,000.  Those were our ‘sleep’ years.  I remember looking out on our back patio where we had planted more than a hundred native perennials a year earlier.  I kept thinking that, by now, it ought to be a scene of riotous color and texture.  Instead, it was a series of discrete, small plants.  Nothing touching, much less overlapping.

Our ‘creep’ year was 2018.  The ‘ephemerals’ – especially the Virginia bluebells – flowered and proliferated.   Our hostas unfurled their first leaves before the end of April.  The dicentra grew vigorously and bloomed into July.  Our shrubs – notably the small iteas and fothergillas – put up exuberant spikes of white flowers, and our leucothoes nearly doubled in size.

The individual plugs of
bearberry have merged into
a mat, helping prevent weeds
This spring we are seeing the telltale signs that 2019 is our ‘leap’ year.  The dozen plugs of bearberry we planted in 2016 merged over the winter into a continuous cover that will help keep weeds under control in one section of the garden.  Eight, gallon pots of chrysanthemum daisies planted on three-foot centers in 2017 will merge this season into a continuous mass of long-blooming color.  A handful of native asters we planted in 2016 to help keep soil in place at the edge of our wetlands have proliferated to the point we now need to stop their plan for world dominance.

It is the trees and shrubs, though that provide the greatest satisfaction.  Only a year ago, our yellow magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ had scarcely two dozen blooms in late April.  This morning I stopped counting at a hundred.  We planted many of our native shrubs in groups of three, typically on four-foot centers.  As they begin greening up this year, it is growing difficult to know which branches below to what shrub.

The best news is that the ‘leap’ phase is not just a one-year event.  Rather, it is the first tangible – and continuing – evidence of our land’s evolution from a ‘collection of plants’ into a coherent garden.