Great gardens only make it look easy
This was a great summer for basil. We had so much beautiful basil that we were able to share it with friends and neighbors, and they loved it. One neighbor asked me if basil grew here easily. He recently moved here from New York City, a place where vegetable gardens must represent mysterious realms.
Oh all right, I know we are just talking semantics, and I really don’t want to be the curmudgeon here, but in fact I would honestly have to admit that basil isn’t easily grown here. In reality, nothing grows easily here, except for a few weeds I can name. Yes, the basil in our garden grew very well this year. But that was only because a host of factors came together to make that happen, creating that aromatic symphony of basil. And none of them were easy, except perhaps for the weather, over which no gardener has any control.
The hot and dry July was but one of the reasons our basil thrived. Even more importantly the garden in which it grew has had repeated applications of compost, seaweed (more details on this next time), woodstove ashes, lime spread upon it, gets a soil-conserving and nutrient-boosting cover crop each fall and on and on. All through the year we tend the compost pile, recycling yard and kitchen waste. Periodically the pile must be turned to inject air into the contents to keep them working to decompose. It is a constant task,sometimes arduous, but one that yields free soil supplements, and it keeps a lot of things out of the landfill — one little way we can help our environment. It also means we don’t have to resort to chemical fertilizers to grow our food. This is just part of what it means to garden.
I start the basil seeds in flats long before the ground is even ready to be turned in the spring. When the seedlings get to be about 3 inches tall, I transplant them into six-packs for their root systems to develop before they are eventually planted in the garden. While all those little plants are growing in flats and pots, we mow the cover crop short; turn the cover crop under; then a couple weeks later turn the soil one more time; and then put up the electric fence to keep the woodchucks and deer from staging a banquet at our expense.
When the time is just right, the seedlings go into the garden, and the real work — and worry begins. There’s watering, and in July when it simply did not rain, watering was frequent. Our garden’s water supply is what you might call “handy,” and I do mean handy. We use barrels filled by collected rainwater, and we dip our watering cans from those. And don’t forget the weeding, a back-breaking task at best. Weeds compete with plants for nutrients, moisture and sunshine. Leave them and they can spread and multiply the problem. Weeds must be removed early on. The same goes for insects.
Every bit as disastrous for a garden as a grazing deer or a munching hedgehog, a tomato worm or two can undo a season’s worth of work in a day. This summer’s Attack of the Killer Tomato Worms featured more than one skirmish with the results something more like a draw than an out-and-out victory. The best way to combat them is simply to get your reading glasses and start searching. My but those little buggers are hard to see and even harder to pry from the plants. The moral being that it is important to nip insect invasions in the bud, and that is best done by hand.
In those years that the weather does not cooperate and the plants do not thrive, we often have to start the process of planting seeds all over again, and hope we can get the crop to produce before it is too late. Then of course there is the best part, yet it is still more work — the harvesting of the crops. Most need to be harvested frequently, sometimes every day to keep the production going. That’s what it takes to get things to thrive.
Would you call that easy? When everything comes together and the vegetables are growing and flowers blooming, the results certainly make it look that way. But easy it isn’t. Great gardens don’t just happen. Physical work isn’t enough. A good gardener, a successful gardener must strive to learn about plants and what they need to flourish.
Living proof of that is the degeneration of an ornamental border nearby that I have observed over the years. The person in charge was not the one who originally planted it, but rather this person “inherited” the garden. And although having “worked on” it for several years now, the sunny border garden is much the worse for wear. Simply observing a garden, what works and what doesn’t can mean all the difference, but that has obviously not been the case here. Clearly gardening isn’t high on their priorities, nor an enjoyable activity for them either. Early in the tenure of the garden they would come over with a handful of bedraggled plants that had been pulled from the bed, asking if they were weeds.
“Oh no, you’ve pulled all your columbines!” I’d say with dismay. Or another time it would be, “That was a really nice perennial poppy, a pale pink as I recall,” I’d sigh. Next it would be, “Those were Shasta daisies, you really shouldn’t be puling all your prized plants.” Or it might be, “That’s a Heuchera, also called coral bells, and no, it is definitely not a weed.” Explaining which plants were weeds and which weren’t seemed to fall on deaf ears, and so thus being unable to distinguish the common weeds from the perennials, the victims were usually the ornamental plants. Learning to identify weeds, especially when they are small and easily removed, is one of the most important lessons to be learned from gardening. Whether in a vegetable or ornamental bed, if left to grow, weeds can quickly become a big problem. Let them go to seed and the trouble multiplies.
In addition for some inexplicable reason, the person overseeing this poor little garden has not yet realized it needs to be watered, and so it has been left to rely on the heavens for irrigation, not the best of conditions when there is little rainfall. Knowing when and how much to water is another important part of keeping a garden. A quick misting of water may perk up some plants, but most shrubs and perennials require a good deep soaking at regular intervals, either from adequate rainfall or from the gardener’s intervention. Good soil with plenty of organic material can go a long way to holding moisture. But even though this particular garden does receive a thin veneer of mulch each spring, by mid-summer when the temperatures ramp up, it is gone. In time the thin soil in the little garden has gotten even thinner without the regular addition of compost. Remember that a shallow cover of mulch isn’t enough to keep a perennial bed in good condition. Yearly applications of several inches compost are necessary to keep the plants healthy and replace soil lost to erosion and other factors.
A more compassionate approach might have been to put the poor little garden out of its misery and mow over it a long time ago. Over a period of several years, they systematically pulled or killed (this person is a great fan of herbicide sprays) everything of value in the garden. The result is a garden that is basically a few vigorous stands of rather showy weeds and a couple bullet-proof perennials. Yes, there has been a good deal of work put into this garden, but the real work of learning what a garden needs to thrive is missing, and it shows.
There are a lot of things that can be said about gardens. Some gardens provide beauty, others can produce a bounty of foods. They can bring us satisfaction, feelings of accomplishment, pride and give us good exercise in the process, but one thing that cannot be said about a successful garden is that it was easy. Good gardens require work and thought and learning and understanding. That last element is what often separates the true gardener from someone who merely plants things.
Indeed, this has been a great summer for basil and beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and the ubiquitous zucchini and pumpkins, for blooms and berries galore and much, much more. I have once again enjoyed my summer of gardening, learned a bit more about plants in the process, and I hope you feel the same way about your garden too. As we clean out the garden at the end of the season it is good to reflect on those gardens, and give our thanks for our success, even if we are the ones responsible for the lion’s share of it. Kudos to you and your great gardens.
Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement for 2012, National Garden Bureau's Exemplary Journalism Award. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: gardeningonthego.wordpress.com or “friend her” on Facebook.