mantras for a new garden year: be thoughtful, keep weeding
‘ORDER ANGELICA SEEDLINGS. Remove Lamiastrum. Continue Heuchera villosa along front border.” That’s how the shreds of what will become garden resolutions begin, each one scrawled on a clipboard of scrap paper during fall-cleanup time. Future planning starts while closing up shop for winter, though it’s taken until now to unearth and share the notes-to-self from the heap on my old desk.
But what does it all add up to, all those notations? And how did I do on past resolves?
“More mulch, no spray,” I proposed to readers a year ago (which is pretty much business as usual for me). Two deliveries of 8 cubic yards each were delivered and mostly distributed.
The only spray? I’ve tried some dilute bleach, and on another occasion some dilute ammonia, in a small spritzer bottle, applied to the legs of wooden furniture on my back porch, to try reasoning with a gnawing squirrel. (He and I are still in contentious, prolonged negotiations, in case you are wondering how it worked.)
I think “more mulch, no spray” is a good perpetual mantra, and recently “The Truth About Organic Gardening” author Jeff Gillman confirmed that notion in an interview we did, calling the bigger idea behind it, “More thoughtful organic gardening.”
He added a memorable punchline to the “more mulch, no spray” philosophy:
“Get yourself some exercise by kneeling down and actually—wait for it!—pulling weeds.”
Thank you, Jeff. Here are other suggestions I’m making to myself that you may want to consider:
1. Slow down, and lower expectations. Yes, really. Look beyond the big and typically elusive promises of “peak bloom,” or “nonstop color” and remember: It’s the little, fleeting things that are often most delicious to behold, like these (including a peony called ‘Golden Angel’ coming up out of the ground, above). Treasure them.
2. Be curious! Don’t just “Walk On By” (a great song, but not a great approach to gardening). Instead, explore. Make this the year you look closer, and ask questions: Why is the spring foliage of some plants pinky-purple and not green? What’s that caterpillar’s name, and what will he become? Why do some flowers smell so sweet, and others really stink? Why are tips of my ferns all rolled up, like someone’s living in them? (Because someone is!)
3. Listen more closely. The garden is alive with sound. With help from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I hope to get better at “birding by ear.” This year I want to learn more about nighttime sounds, too—my forays into mothing, in the summer darkness, alerted me to many voices I do not recognize (and let me see wonders like the Pandorus sphinx moth, above, on my companion’s shirt by mercury vapor light). And then there is the delightful sound of silence: not quiet, exactly, but the absence of noise, says acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton in his conversation with “On Being” host Krista Tippett, on public radio.
4. Welcome wildlife (knowing that some are less-well-behaved guests than others, like the bear in my frogpond, above). I always recommend adding a year-round water feature as the best tactic toward that end, though it isn’t just birds who use it as a bath. Creating more edge habitat enriches diversity, too. It’s technically called ecotone, said the inspirational entomologist and wildlife ecologist Doug Tallamy in our 2014 must-read interview—and can be as easy to foster as changing the way you mow. Go ahead: Get on a first-name basis with your local dragonflies, and some new birds.
5. Don’t be snobbish. Welcome the common, alongside the uncommon. There’s no such thing as a bad plant (just perfectly good plants used badly). Chats last year with old friends who use marigolds (above, at Untermyer Gardens) and also annual geraniums, aka Pelargonium, with a flourish reminded me of this bit of wisdom. While we catalog-shop hungrily for the latest and greatest right now, it’s a valuable idea to keep in mind.
6. At the same time: Think occasionally like a collector. When something appeals, get more of it—perhaps acquiring its botanical cousins, or different forms of the same species. I did this with my beloved pineapple lilies, or Eucomis, to pleasing effect. Same-but-different can be a strong design element, creating a repeating visual thought without actually massing the exact same thing. My begonia “houseplants,” grouped outside (above) in the garden in season, are another example.
7. Be critical (but not harsh). This thought stems from advice I give myself, and readers, every single year: to have a hard look around for “onesies” that are making the garden feel like disconnected polkadots. Think instead about repeating larger groupings of favorite plants. That’s where my, “Order Angelica seedlings” notation comes in, because my favorite biennial, Angelica gigas (above) needs some help from me to grow where I need it to. It’s also what, “Continue Heuchera villosa…” means: I’m massing up my best groundcovers to save on weeding and unify shrub borders. I’m mostly patting myself on the back for each improved area, rather than flogging myself for the less-successful spots still in need of a sterner hand. Hope you are, too. My expert friend Kathy Tracey says everyone faces this issue; more of her tips for garden-design self-help are here.
8. Where harshness is called for: with invasives. Some groundcovers that were highly recommended when I began planting here 30 years ago are in fact total thugs. I can claim past ignorance, but I do know better now and need to get to work. Gradually now the Lamiastrum, for example, simply must cede its territory. I shall prevail!
9. Speaking of unknown consequences: Every action, no matter how seemingly well-meaning, has consequences—but most important, perhaps, an event typically is not innately “good” or “bad.” We must simply do our best, being both considerate and contemplative–but not becoming frozen by overthinking. Sometimes the only answer is, “Maybe,” and we must just plod and puzzle onward, open to experimentation. We are all just puzzling out all the time how to best behave in our gardens, and lives, aren’t we? Happy New Year to all of you.