Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Rose By Any Other Name...

...would still need pruning.

Allow me to say, before I go any further, that I don't know how to prune.  Really, I don't.  I know that it needs to be done.  I've seen how a good pruning can make plants healthier and more lovely.  Every time I try to prune, I read as much as I can find in the library about pruning that particular plant in an effort to do better.  I feel like, when I have to prune, I end up hacking off branches at random.  Fortunately, most plants seem more than capable of surviving a bad haircut.

A few years ago, home from college on spring break, I noticed that rose bushes in my girlfriend's parent's backyard.  They had, apparently, been planted by the house's previous tenants several years ago and had since lacked the attention they needed.  They were massively overgrown, sprawling up onto the roof of the house, a dense mess of  bramblous branches.  How I wish I had a photo of that wild mass of twisted branches.

Wanting to impress my future in-laws, and having just assisted my aunt with her masterful pruning the week before, I offered to do what I could to tame these rose-beasts.  Despite it being rather late in the year, I armed myself with welding gloves and my trusty bypass pruners and lopped off branch after branch.  I was terrified that the severity of my attack, combined with it's less than surgical nature, would send the plants into shock and kill them all.

It did not.  The roses sprung back, stronger than ever, in a profusion of blooms.

Last week marked the third year that I have picked a fight with those prickly plants.  Each year they seem more like rose bushes and less like a horticultural horror.  This year I filled three trash cans with the waste cuttings and the roses are already sending out new growth, preparing for the coming season.

The moral of the story: prune with enthusiasm!  Don't be afraid of butchering your plant.  Odds are good that it will survive your ineptitude, as the plants in my care continue to survive mine, and you can attempt to fix any mistakes next year.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Birthday Planting

I have a friend who lives down in Aid, an hour south of Duke City.  Much like myself, he has a fascination with growing things and regularly plants gardens.  He also tends to move frequently, abandoning his gardens before they can provide him with much.  Last weekend I got a chance to go visit him, just after his birthday.  I thought a nice present might be a pot planted with a small tomato and herbs.

When I brought the idea up over lunch, he was enthused, but didn't show a particular interest in the pot.  Instead he wanted his plants in the ground.  We took a look at his place, evaluating it's potential, and at the selection of seeds and plants that the small city's stores could provide us and came up with a plan.

There was a deserted flower bed in front of his house which he wanted full of flowers.  There was an empty side yard he thought should be full of produce.  There were also some trellises affixed to the fence bordering his backyard that he thought needed adornment.  The soil, of course, was little more than sand.  Having one afternoon, no tools besides a folding shovel and a broom handle, and a small budget, this present had become quite a challenge.  At the local Walmart we grabbed some seeds, a flat of marigolds, as many bags of soil amendments as I thought I could buy, and a seed starting kit for the vegetables that couldn't be planted yet.

We dug up the flower bed in the front, weeding and turning in bags of soil as we went.  Marigolds were spaced out and planted, as was a packet of Nasturtium seeds.  The Marigolds looked looked like the best plants for taking some heat and neglect.  I've never grown Nasturtiums I've been wanting to try them (since I've read that they're edible) and their color matched the Marigolds.  The bed looks a little sparse right now but I hope that once the seeds sprout it will fill in and look rather cheery.

The side yard had a small circle dug up and lettuce seed broadcast into it.  I surrounded it with some stones so that my friend would know which part of the sand pit to water.  The trellises along the back got some blue morning glory seeds planted beneath them.  My last apartment had some Morning Glories climbing up the fence during the summer, which I though were very nice until I visited the Botanical Gardens and saw their bright blue variety.  They were stunning and hope these do just as well for my friend.

Inside, drinking water and cooling down, we prepared the seed starting tray.  Twelve peat pellets were planted with Garlic Chives, twelve with Sweet Basil, and twelve with Flat-leafed Parsley.  A full thirty-six got divided between Roma Tomatoes and some slicing hybrid that I can't recall.  I've never had much luck with those seed starters so I can't hazard a guess at how many plants it will actually produce.  However, my friend says there's no such thing as too many tomatoes.  I would love to see him in August if all thirty-six reach maturity.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Gardens I Have Known: Part 2

After a year in the Frozen North, I transferred to the state university down south in the City of the Crosses.  My grandparents live there and maintain a large garden that occupies the lot next to their home.  I learned a great deal in that garden, while taking weekend breaks from my studies.

The section nearest the road is occupied by a rock garden.  A few pine trees form a permeable barrier between the garden and the rest of the world.  Behind this is a small lawn, surrounded by flowers, where my grandparents hosted picnics and barbecues.  Lastly, at the back of the lot, are raised vegetable beds, fruit trees, and a compost pile.

I got my first taste of vertical gardening from the wall that frequently has small melons and pumpkins growing up it.  I also got my first look at the ingenuity of the gardener from the row covers and rabbit guards my grandpa devised to keep the brutal heat and rabbits away from his vegetable beds.  I gained an appreciation for mixed wildflowers from the sandy bed they let reseed itself.

More importantly, I began to learn the art of pruning (as opposed the simple necessity of pruning instilled in me by my parents) from helping my aunt tame the roses and fruit trees every spring.  I got a feel for drip irrigation from helping my grandpa repair his.  I began to think about the placement of gardens here, how it affects the garden, the gardener, and the community, as my grandparents garden was neither fenced off nor concealed behind a house.

If my parents' garden planted the seed of gardening in me, it didn't really germinate  till I spent time in my grandparents' garden.  Here, my ideas of gardening morphed beyond simply mixing soil, water, and seed.  If I enjoy pruning a rosebush or planning out gardens in my notebook, it can be traced back to my grandparent's garden.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Hardest Time of the Year

March is such a cruel month in Duke City.  It's still technically winter and yet the weather has turned beautiful.  It's sunny and breezy and warm enough to be outside in a t-shirt.  The trees are flowering and sending out new growth.  Every inch of my body screams to get outdoors and start planting.  And yet I have to wait to plant most of my favourite vegetables.  I know that, come Easter, there will be one last hard freeze that will wipe out any tender greens.

Still, I can't help but get something in the ground.  This year, that means two different plantings.  There are two pots on the patio that now have sugar snap peas planted in them.  And one flower bed that I raked black spanish round radish seeds and a rainbow blend of carrot seeds into, with the promise that they will be finished and gone before my mother-in-law wants to plant flowers there.

And they're starting to come up!  Oh, the optimism of spring. Peas are beginning to push through the potting soil and a full dozen radishes are sunning their cotyledon.  Maybe, if I'm lucky, there will be as much radish growth underground as above and the carrots will follow suit, unlike last year.  I have no real logical reason to suspect that it will be so.  Quite the opposite, in fact, but I can't help it when the weather turns this nice.  I have to believe in spring!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Gardens I Have Known: Part 1

My first garden was, and this may be typical of many gardeners, my parents' garden.  There were four large raised beds that were filled with vegetables during the warm months, a bed dedicated to herbs nearby, a decent bit of lawn with a good hill for rolling down, several fruit trees which occasionally produced, and some rather over grown flower beds.  It will probably always be, in my mind, a significant part of the way gardens are supposed to be.

Shortly after my family moved into a new house with a large backyard that I became involved in our yard.  You see, other than the lawn, there was no yard when we moved in.  Immediately my father began sculpting the weeds and dirt into the picturesque space it is now and from the start I worked along side him.  I learned about laying sod, breaking concrete, mowing and pruning from my father.

A few years later my mother allowed me to have one of the vegetable beds, provided I weeded and watered it.  Every year the idea that I could plant whatever I wanted excited me for a couple of weeks until the heat of the summer curbed my enthusiasm.  Usually a pumpkin vine would survive my neglect and produce a few puny squash to sit on our stoop during the autumn months.  While I may not have learned diligence or, really, many horticultural skills from those summer crops, I did develop a need to plant things, a positive addiction to getting my hands dirty each spring.

In this garden I butchered and killed a couple of rosemary plants as I tried to make "bonsai".  This garden provided countless beetles, lizards, and tomato worms that I tried to keep as pets.  In this garden I figured out how to crush  yucca leaves and strip the fibers to make rope.  The trellis, covered in trumpet vine, which I climbed up to hid and think about things was in this garden.

Of course, this garden isn't really in my past.  If I am over for dinner during the summer, I still get to sit in the garden and taste it's produce.  I acquire mint and oregano from that herb garden, daylilies from one of the flower beds.  I have a maple sapling rooted in one of the vegetable beds that, if it survived my absence and the winter, I will dig up and try to train into a bonsai with my brother later this month.  And I still get roped into doing some mowing or pruning occasionally.