mantras for a new garden year: be thoughtful, keep weeding

2015 resolutions 2‘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:

paeonia golden angel emerging1. 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!)

pandorus sphinx moth on shirt3. 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.

bear in water garden4. 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.

10521910_720977761283158_1560836448680150921_o5. 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.

begonias outside6. 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.

angelica gigas detail7. 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!

(Credit for video, above: The Story of the Chinese Farmer from Sustainable Human on Vimeo.)

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.

  1. Kathryn says:

    Great ideas, all of them, and number 9 particularly spoke to me. I’ve been on the fence about a couple of big decisions (taking out a tree here, a bush there) for years because I’m afraid of making the “wrong” decision. It’s time to reframe my thinking. Happy New Year!

  2. Margit Van Schaick says:

    Wishing you all the best for 2015! Enjoy every moment. Thank you for your wise advice. I’m loving looking through the catalogs(spent yesterday reading Select Seeds Antique Flowers and Wild Garden Seed with its fabulous lettuce collection). So glad I was able to plant the garlic and shallots, as well as the tulips and daffodils I bought on sale, then got delayed by the weather and life events. They’re all tucked in. By the way, I adopted a wonderful cat this week, after enduring an 8-month silent house folowing my beloved tuxedo cat’s passing.

  3. tropaeolum says:

    I too hate Lamiastrum! It is taking over everything. Ugh. I’m glad I live in an apartment and don’t have to weed it out. :)

    Speaking of Pelargoniums. After visiting Germany this past fall, I decided to embrace their gaudiness and pack window boxes full of red Pelargoniums to overflowing like they do in Bavaria. The town won’t know what hit them when they look up at my apartment and see red red red. I can’t wait.

  4. Elizabeth Gall says:

    Angelica seeds and starts are so hard to find….Here’s hoping my self-sows worked….I have had luck with potted versions from WFF and Broken Arrow.

    Happy gardening!

  5. kathny says:

    My garden resolutions for this year are to completely rehab the flower beds around the foundation of my house that were invaded and overcome by poison ivy last summer, and to use up all of the seeds I already have!

  6. Lynne says:

    So many good mantras/resolutions! Your #6 is great advice for me – something I really need to work on. My gardens would flow so much better if I could repeat more/similar plants. But it is so hard not to buy new things each year out of the catalogs (which have started coming already!!!) Happy New Year!

    1. margaret says:

      Nice to hear from you, Lynne, and no worry — that is the main issue for all of us, as I say. Repeat and repeat, instead of buy new beautiful little things, right? Temptation often wins, so I hear you. :)

  7. Marie~ says:

    I’m so glad to see #5 in there. Like tropaeolum, (great handle), I find red geraniums in window boxes and pots extremely cheering. The old standards became common for a reason and it’s nice to have a few plants that deliver without a lot of coddling.

    Can’t wait to see your garden this year. Only 74 days until spring.

  8. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    The thuggish Lamiastrum has found its calling here under my ancient Spruce where nothing else will grow. Compost bins are adjacent meaning I walk through this Archangel ground cover. The dog runs through repeatedly it as she challenges rabbits running outside the nearby fence. It covers the wide area efficiently and aesthetically, blooming every spring. When it threatens to come out of the Spruce’s drip line circle, it is pulled and used as a nitrogen layer in the compost piles to balance the billions of fall leaves. I’d be hard pressed to name another plant that takes the raining down needle blanket, the perpetual dryness and the shade and performs as well. If I did not have the Lamiastrum, I’d have a plethora of [worse] weeds, no uniformity and a bigger visual headache. Lamiastrum is not permitted anywhere else, nowhere with richer soil, with better moisture or with more sun. It is imprisoned under the Spruce, yet it rewards me.

  9. Chris Nicholson says:

    My lamiastrum did in a hillside of stinging nettles and other undesirables–and remains attractive at certain seasons and tolerable at others.

  10. Beth F. says:

    I am so happy to see this list because it is so similar to my own! In particular, this winter I have been focusing on finding the interesting details in the winter garden (numbers 1 and 2) and have been posting pictures on my blog. It’s been so fun and rewarding to realize that I really do have a four season garden. It also is really helpful to hear “it’s Okay to pull that plant” from a professional (like the lamiastrum). I have a number of groundcovers that want to take over.

  11. gina salden says:

    Hi Margaret, you sent me some info on your vintage signet ring.. companies will engrave them can you send me pic of yours .. round or oval is my concern.. I love your taste and want to replicate it! thanks in advance Gina S.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.