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Friday, December 2, 2016

A Gardener's Diary: Chillin' in the winter garden

I've always maintained that gardeners are God's original optimists.

Take Adam and Eve. They had a sweet deal. Life completely off the grid, and everything they needed there to be pickd. Sustainability out the ying-yang. And when the Lord dropped by to check on progress with the herbaceous borders, He wasn't there just to accept the forelock tugging of the tenants and repeat, "You're all doing very well!" He was the Creator of the Universe, somebody who could say, "I am the author of all things, but I have to admit, that is a color combination I never considered. I've been working on an idea: would you like to try a little more greenery? Close your eyes....OK, look! Hosta!"

Gardeners have to plant things on faith, and then wait to see if it will be rewarded.

Sometimes that takes a while. These Christmas cacti are reaching their first peak only after two years of tending, and it has certainly been worth the wait.

One must also, sometimes, endure the slings of armchair gardeners like another neighbor, for whom I toiled three summers retrieving the garden her parents made over four decades, and that she, on her watch, turned her back upon.

Unable to distingish poison oak from azaleas, she accused me of killing her mother's roses, which- as she explained, she had been trying to keep alive by ignoring them for seven years- are covered in blossoms today, just as I promised her. I am a radical pruner, and one of my subjects- which made me the subject of her ire again- turned out to be, in November, a huge peony, covered in pink blossoms the size of softballs. Vindication is sweet.

December arrived yesterday, and overnight the temperature fell twenty degrees. I got the mower out and mulched the front yard yesterday; we'd had three nights of rain, and one with high winds- so high, in fact, that a tornado cut a 70-mile-an-hour swathe through a mile and a half of the better neighborhoods in south Charlotte. I've never seen so many leaves brought down in so short a time: It took most of an afternoon to blow the yard partly clear, and even after that one four-sided circuit of the grass filled the mower bag.

I emptied ten wheelbarrow loads of chopped leaves and grass into my new compost bin. After searching what seemed like forever, reading one elaborate, expensive last-forever hipster design after another, I finally found my model:

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This version took me half an hour to assemble, and less than a month to fill with 64 cubic feet of mulch. Today- when it warms up a bit more- I will add three pallets to one side to make a second. I expect to fill it up with the accumulation in the back yard by dinnertime.

The National Wildlife Foundation says leaving leaves be is a smart idea, and I agree. They give a number of perfectly sensible reasons for not spending hours every week making sure everyone can see the pristine, brown expanse of our winter lawns as they drive by:
Just let leaves stay where they fall. A leaf layer several inches deep is a natural thing in any area where trees naturally grow. The leaf layer is its own mini ecosystem!  Many wildlife species live in or rely on the leaf layer to find food and other habitat, including salamanders, chipmunks, box turtles, toads, shrews, earthworms, many insects species. 
Many butterfly and moth species overwinter as pupae in leaf litter. If you rake up and throw away all of your leaves this fall, you’ll be getting rid of these beneficial and often beautiful insects too. Remember, butterfly and moth caterpillars are a critically important food source for birds in the spring when they are feeding their babies. If you remove of all the pupae with your leaves in the fall, there will be fewer of these insects in and around your yard in in spring. 
From a gardening perspective, fallen leaves offer a double benefit. Leaves form a natural mulch that helps suppress weeds and at the same time fertilize the soil as they break down. Why spend money on mulch and fertilizer when you can make your own?

If you must rake up your leaves, don’t throw them in the trash.  Compost them or drop them off at a municipal recycling center so they can be turned into compost that you and other members of your community can use in the spring. Some communities even offer curb side pick up of leaves specifically for municipal composting operations. 
Avoid leaf blowers. They are loud and create noise pollution and rely on fossil fuels which pollute our air and contribute to global climate change. Use a rake instead. You’ll be able to hear the chirping of birds and other natural sounds while you’re working, plus you’ll get some good exercise! 
If you just want a tidy look in your yard, or need to maintain one to comply with Home Owners Association rules, you can rake leaves off the lawn but still use them as mulch in your planting beds.  Put them in a big trash can and then shred them with a weed whacker to break them down into a finer textured mulch.
My yard is an outlier in a neighborhood of vast, half-acre expanses of grass with, at best, the occasional ornamental tree and pro forma plantings around the houses. It's so unfair, as the president-elect likes to say: one of the reasons I've been able to record forty species of birds in this little half-acre is because of the leaves and mulch, the profusion of nuts and berries, and the trees. The red-tailed hawks wait, on alert, for hapless rabbits, squirrels, Eastern chipmunks and other tiny quadrupeds trying to cross those vast expanses of lawn all around me. You can hear them up there, trading spotting notes and cracking jokes. One likes to mimic Rocky & Bullwinkle's Natasha Fatale: "Mice und squerrel moost die."

The first occupants of my house, thirty years ago, liked trees, God bless 'em, and long after their departure, we enjoy the fruits of their optimism:

They planted seven of these great oaks, and give us the gift of shade in summer.

Even in winter, they stand sentinel duty:

Colder weather is almost welcome after the perishing heat of the summer of 2016. It seemed like June, July, August and September were just an endless string of 90-95 degree days, with no rain. Tomatoes were thin on the ground- when you get sustained periods of nighttime temps over 72, they just won't set fruit. I planted dozens of pepper seedlings, and nothing- not shading nor endless watering- could save more than a handful from succumbing to the heat. My potato crop was tasty as far as it went, which wasn't nearly as far as I'd hoped.

My planting season turned out to be in October. Housemate, who loves machinery, got in a backhoe to dig up some original-planting boxwoods in the front bed; while he was at it, he dug up and overturned two feet of earth, and expanded an old kitchen-garden in the backyard by a third. I'd cleared the ground for another bed along the other half of the front of the house, and we moved a long-stifled azalea to become the centerpiece of that new, thirty-foot spread. Liberated from between the two old boxwoods, it is bound to flourish. Here's how it looked in 2015 after I pruned back the boxes to give it some elbow room:

I like boxwood, but these were old, misshapen from neglect, and two had already been cut down for suffering box blight. We also pulled out an anaconda-like mimosa root snaking around one corner of the house, in places as big as my calf from three decades at the end of a gutter downspout.

It took a fortnight to get the beds prepped and releveled, then I started replanting. I'm an old-school gardener: I trade seeds and plants with neighbors and collect from the right of way on the farm-to-market roads that now struggle to manage traffic in ,our increasingly suburbanized neighborhood. I've got a big pot of roadside lamb's ear, and some wild violets; I enjoyed some childhood nostalgia earlier in the summer when I pulled up some Queen Anne's Lace on a walk and replanted it outside the kitchen door.

Sorting and prepping the front beds' soils revealed over a hundred bulbs, which I replanted, in clumps around other plants I got from neighbors: calla lilies, what my neighbor Mildred calls "Sweet Bush", lantana (a stunningly beautiful flower butterflies adore), two varieties of hostas; a new discovery- found languishing over a gargantuan gardenia down the street, rose campion; several sorts of ferns; and- in the shady areas (the house faces northeast, so there is a lot of that after noon each day), and mosses. I got that idea from a tour of the marvelous moss garden at the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, Washington:

There's a long, narrow copse the runs the length of the east side of the yard here:

Winter means I can harvest a new load of fallen-limb firewood, free of entangling vines, hungry ticks, and the snakes who fret about getting tromped on in the heavy leaf cover on the ground. I'm hoping to pull out some larger rocks from a section of old stream bed on the far side, now dry. I've been messing about with building a dry stream bed where heavy rain runoff is channeled by the landscaping, using the smaller rocks and pebbles the ground is constantly heaving up. A few larger ones will anchor it, and after some planting next spring, will add a lot to a previously kind of dull, dead area.

The great Charlotte garden writer, Elizabeth Lawrence, starts her classic work, A Southern Garden, with Winter, lyrically describing how it starts and stops, and comes and goes. She reckons our local winter to constitute December and January most years, and sums up the particular pleasures of this season. 
In the South the progress of the season does not follow the accepted pattern of spring, summer, fall and winter. Spring, when spring should come, has already been with us at intervals throughout the winter. The garden year has no beginning and no end. There is not a time when everything is in bloom at once, nor is there a time when the box is wrapped in burlap and the borders covered with pine boughs. There is not time for the gardener to take a rest befor beginning again. To follow the tradition of bloom in three seasons only is to miss the full meaning of gardening in a part of the world where at all times of the year there are days when it is good to be out of doors, when there is work to be done in the garden, and when there is some plant in perfection of flower or fruit.
In this month of forced gaiety and isolation, being able to bundle up and work outside is the true joy of the season. I have been assured, for over twenty years, by family, ex-friends and televangelists alike that God does not hear me any more, and has no place for me.

For nearly forty years, however, I have always been pleased to cross paths with Him when I work in the yard (Genesis 3:8 reminds us, " And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day"), and find, that in matters of attending to the dot of creation let to me for a few minutes' stewardship, we are always in perfect accord.

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE your gardening posts! In reading them, I run across abiding loves, such as Rose Campion, and learn things and just generally enjoy the posting. I offer my thanks for the pallet compost set up. I've been doing "in ground" composting, i.e., scalping the ground and digging down a bit and using that as a compost site and then later on using the site as a flower bed. However, I need something more and pallets are usually easy to come by so that will happen within the next 30 days.

    I laughed about your pruning. Many years ago I read that the world is divided into two groups, people who prune hard and people who hardly prune. My late mother pruned hard and I would have to look away as I fall into the "hardly prune" group.

    The photographs are wonderful and I encourage more, more, more about your gardening!

    Old Jill in N.C.