The Case of the Accidental Gardener
How to avoid murder in the garden!
… Look out for murder in the Garden this year …
Death in the flower beds, shrubbery and even the veggie patch …
It will all begin innocently enough through a little spring seduction. (I am already yearning for spring and we have not even officially begun winter … sigh.) But before you call out Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes … this is more in the realm of green fingered problem solvers like Helen Chestnut and Des Kennedy!
There are reams written on the classic seduction of gardeners by their picture book seed catalogues. At the moment with cold and crunchy minus 10C weather, in officially late autumn, those pretty seed packages hold no charms for me. I miss working the soil; I miss planting something, any plant, with visions of what delight they will grow into … Let alone missing that tasty row of fresh Mr Basil for dinnertime.
Seed catalogues are for the brave and adventurous, those that yearn to gamble with a handful of seeds like Jack the Giant Killer. Starting from seed also requires a dedicated space and a working knowledge of balancing light, heat and moisture for success. For the novice, these daunting bits of fore warning or advice are not visible in the pretty pictures of those perfect results. Even faithful Sunflower and Tomato starts do not perform their best when slender and three foot tall and still in the egg carton starter pack.
Enter the nursery explorer, the “Accidental Gardener”; just browsing in the moment, believing the secret is to simply let someone else start those babies! Look out: this is big time temptation with Lady Luck and Mr. Black Thumb joining you down the garden path! “Take me home” … cry the enchanting pots full of buds and promise, displayed in eye catching colours and cascades.
I have done my share of seduction buying; sometimes it is a calculated risk, and sometimes plant death is the final outcome. Oops. Take the Himalayan Pleione Orchids; they require dry winters/wet summers: “I could fake that.” … Or the Mexican Salvia gesneraeflora “Tequila” for hummingbirds, usually listed as California Zone 10: “That is close enough to home!” (Zone denial) … or subtropical vibrant papery Purple Bougainvillea; “I know it is Zone Hawaii 1 but I have a greenhouse?” … Well, the reality of our minus 10C winters, heavy wet coastal snow or even something as simple as soggy soil during the winter dormant time usually reduce this exotic selection plant stock drastically. The Pleiones and I have thrived with a bit of Lady Luck ~ Yahoo! The Salvia is toast already this year; black limp leaves and frozen flower buds, if I am lucky it may come back for the rootstock. But those hopeful hummingbirds are never going to be able to dine on its famous fall blooming, nectar rich and orange-red lobster claw style blooms with striking purple-black calyx at this rate. Oh yes, the last confession: the Bougainvillea has “drowned” … sigh.
Your experience with spring sales fever does not need to be this dramatic with a little “research” done now while it is gardeners planting down-time. Select just one section of your Dream garden plan, so you get time for the beach before now! Or choose an area or project that has a theme to set guide lines. Most spring seduced gardeners only have the fever from Easter to school summer break, so day dream a little smaller. You can still live dangerously; take a fresh look at your patio area and pots and, with a little homework, they can be planted with perennials bypassing the default of the same old common red Geraniums and blue Lobelia. There is an amazing world of plant material out there that will take you out of the ordinary into the sublime: with success. Maybe that is half the problem for the “Accidental Gardener”; it all looks so easy in the magazines, in the shops and in the neighbour’s yard. What fun to dabble at gardening, sort of fall into it accidently!!! It looks so peaceful, can taste and smell so great … Grow all your own food! Success all depends on the time you wish to invest, the money invested is determined by the degree of “instantness” you wish as mature specimens cost more and we still haven’t touch the reality of soil, fertility, drainage … site orientation. Romantic gardening may cost you a hired gardener to actually pull it together in the hard physical work department … The easy part is the serious bewitching by those darn plants ~
Rule#1: Join a local gardening club whose members may talk your ear off with their successes but also generously share their plants and knowledge. Beware of gifted plants that arrive in a wheelbarrow donation size: these may be plant thugs in disguise and you the unsuspecting novice recipient. There are cases of too much plant success, with usually a bad horticultural behavioural reason as to why they are offloading so much … Take time to look up that clumsy Latin name: it may save you years of cursing particular plants in many >#%^&*}#@%< languages!
Rule#2: Shop where real gardeners shop, nurseries that have knowledgeable staff not just a super store express cashier. Seasonal local markets will carry less exotics yet more tried and true varieties, especially for veggie starts.
Rule #3: Plants die. Even the healthiest, most vibrant purchased plants in pots are not immortal when doomed to wait and wait and wait, to be planted in that perfect spot. So get them in the ground! I have seen trees rooting through the pot drainage holes in desperation to survive …
Rule number #4: You will move plants around your garden seeking that perfect spot, this is normal. Besides who thought that little three inch pot grew to seven feet in one season??? Perennials you theoretically get more than one chance/season or year. Trees: three or four chances before out growing your lifting power. Annuals: it is a one time shot. It is so sad to see flats of babies dying before they get a chance to really strut their stuff. Try and buy only what you will seriously plant THIS weekend. More is not better, or cheaper, if you throw half of them away …
Rule #5: Those newly purchased babies were on a millionaire’s diet before you brought them home, they will at least need a basic nutritious diet from you to perform. Even Lavenders need water and food to settle in for the first year regardless of the “drought tolerant/low fertility” mantra…Please remember there is a difference between surviving and thriving!
Rule #6: Short of taking your electronic notebook out in to the world of dirt and water, (“Google is your friend”) … Sleuth second hand book stores for reference gardening books. Sunset Western Garden Book explains all this “Zone” business to help choose plants that thrive in our temperature seasonal ranges, plus the tempting “zone denial” seductions and why you might be able to convince them to thrive here … For plant picture ID, look for the Random House Book series by Roger Phillips and Nicky Foy. They specialize in separate books with beautiful real photos for Herbs, Roses, Trees & shrubbery ~ even Vegetables. For the gourmet gardener, look for any book by Emelie Tolley and Chris Mead; they are a fantastic inspiration as they cross North America and Europe photographing gardens and food: with the recipes! Leslie Bremness is another favourite author that specializes in Herbs and edible flowers. All these books have been out for a while and it is my hope in this computer age, lots will show up in the book stores and be reasonable for you. They are the best gardening friend, always available there on the shelf, just waiting for a stroll in your garden!
Lucky Rule #7: Build a compost pile. Get your purchasing “investment” back in the form of re-energized soil for those next projects! Can’t toss an ailing plant? Think of it as an offering to the compost goddess and hiding failures from superior gardening pals! In some municipalities, they have a bin program. You fill the bin with garden waste, they haul it away every 2 weeks AND give you bagged compost in return. No questions asked about the history of the contents!
Maybe it is a wise pause to have winter to think this out; rest the garden from our endeavours this past year and rest our bodies, before spring returns and the garden beckons … I never feel as alive as when I am caught in the passion of gardening outside. It is no accident that Des Kennedy’s books makes me laugh at common misfortunes and day to day gardening adventures --- I’ve done just about all of them myself! Meanwhile over winter, I am going to reread all those beloved books I dragged out to list for you … I can always learn new tricks to outwit death in the garden or be gently reminded where those plants originally came from compared to my gardening at “home”.
Beware: it is only the degree of success that divides “Accidental” and “Aficionado” gardeners!
PS: There is no cure for the bewitched gardener: my daughter just sent me seeds from New Zealand … (No I am not telling you “the Zone”!) … Meanwhile I am doing my homework on what they like: hmmm … not necessarily what they will get. I did get great results from her Kangaroo Paw seeds from Australia last year …
Wish me luck ~ Happy New gardening year … here we go again!
Originally published in the January 2010 edition of the Metchosin Muse