Stories by Robb
Every year there comes a point in time when we find ourselves juggling an endless list of garden chores. Mine seems to have come early this year. As the growing season kicks in, there's always the need to deadhead spent flowers, fertilize perennials and roses and fill gaps in planting borders with annual bedding plants.
I woke up to sunlight this morning. What a joy it is to feel the sun on your face as you step out into the garden. It's May and it's springtime and my garden is alive with activity. I could hear the bees humming as I began my garden walk this morning. They swarm the shrubby, floriferous Mediterranean heathers. They hang onto azalea blossoms and make the twiggy branches arch and sway under their weight. They rise up slowly and then buzz off to search for more May flowers.
May certainly seems like the busiest time of year in the garden. All of a sudden, the once-dormant lawn needs regular mowing. Letting it go another week is no longer an option. Weeds that were nonexistent two weeks ago are now ready to set seed. The rhododendron began to bloom a couple of weeks ago. Within the next couple of weeks, we need to remove its sticky, spent flower heads. At this time of year, one garden chore leads to another.
The key to understanding how to prune is to answer the question, "What is the purpose for pruning this particular plant?" The most effective reasons for pruning are to help establish the shape of a plant along its natural lines; to improve flower or fruit production; to control the time of bloom, as in pinching back chrysanthemums, and for espalier and hedge shaping. These are all methods of seasonal pruning that enhance a plant's best qualities.
Everywhere I go, there is talk of spring, yet I find myself inside looking out more than outside working in the garden. If I remember correctly, I've employed this approach to the season before, reveling in the rites of spring while putting off the task of daily garden maintenance. I know what I have to do and I will ultimately do the work that needs to be done. Just give me a few more days to get started.
I can never say exactly what stirs my emotional awakening to spring each year. It seems to be something different from year to year. I do know that it's more than just a date on the calendar. It's a feeling I cannot shake, a sense that something I've been hoping for is within my grasp. I'm not the only one who feels this way. All of my gardening friends have a certain glow about them, as if they have come upon a secret windfall.
If your intention is to plant annuals or annual seeds directly in the garden, remember that those put out a few weeks later in the season often overtake the ones planted earlier. This is simply because they are less likely to receive a weather check to their growth. One of the most common causes of disappointment for novice gardeners is sowing or planting too early in spring. I know many gardeners who lost their first planting to a late frost and had to replant once temperatures warmed for the season.
Sometimes I look at garden chores as if I'm editing a story. My garden is a visual rendering of an idea I would like to share. If I want to hold on to a certain image or style of garden, I need to do a set of chores to keep that image intact. So I edit the garden by tweaking it back into shape. Mowing a lawn is one simple example. Pruning roses is another. Removing the earliest weeds is also a first step in preparing the garden for spring.
By mid-March my fingers are itching to get in the soil and so are the plants I've collected over the last month or two in preparation for spring planting. Unless your garden soil is cold, wet and muddy, this can be the perfect time to begin planting. Nurseries, home improvement centers and even the local markets are bringing in new plants every day for us to add to our early spring beds and borders. On a day when the air temperature is above freezing and the soil is workable, we can begin to plant hardy ornamentals, potted roses, vines, trees and shrubs.
My head is in the clouds and my knees are weak. It must be spring. It all started when I walked into a local nursery and saw the long tables filled with colorful, spring-blooming plants. There were primroses and tulips in four-inch pots. There were gallon-sized perennial crested irises and a selection of shrubs, including the fragrant, variegated daphne. I could smell the hyacinth before I saw them on the shelves.
We are a month away from spring and I'm already spellbound. In February, three of the largest garden-oriented events in the Pacific Northwest draw capacity crowds by conjuring up spring from the remnants of late winter. At these events, daffodils and tulips bloom a full month ahead of schedule. Bare branched cherry trees and late season magnolias break into full flower months before their time.
Longtime gardeners have learned to add interest to the garden by allowing structural perennial plants to remain through the winter months. Of all the perennial plants that overwinter in my garden, the ornamental grasses hold sway with their year-round stature and seasonal interest. With the continuous introduction of interesting seed heads and sturdy plant stems, many gardeners have come to accept the tawny coloration of dried foliage in beds and borders through the season.
With the upcoming garden shows heralding the arrival of spring, I'm beginning to feel the urge to get back out in the garden. I consider this the onset of my annual bout with spring fever. This feeling is commonly associated with the upcoming change of seasons. It's the time of year when we want to venture back out into the garden but we're not quite ready for the heady pace of spring gardening.
The 2013 Oregon Association of Nurseries' Yard, Garden & Patio Show is the first outdoor show of the season and it's just a little more than a week away. Presented by Dennis' 7 Dees, the event runs Friday, Feb. 8, thru Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Portland Convention Center. This is the largest consumer gardening event of its kind.
Just when you think the cold and rain is going to keep you out of the garden until spring returns, there comes a break in the weather. OK, we should not expect a reversal in winter weather but we can look forward to the occasional period of warmer temperatures and even an afternoon break in the cloud cover as each day grows longer. On days when a long-sleeved sweater and a hat are enough to protect us from the chill in the air, we find ourselves venturing out into the garden.
New Year's Eve brought a bone-chilling reminder that January is a winter month. Temperatures dropped. There was a dusting of snow in Vancouver and an accumulation of several inches of snow up on my hill. By definition, winter is the coldest season of the year, extending from the end of autumn to the beginning of spring. Extremely cold weather comes and goes, but when it is present, it consumes our attention. Today, cold is all I can think about.
Now that we have had a bout of real winter weather, our gardens should remain in a somewhat suspended state of dormancy for the rest of the winter season. I won't call it a permanent state of dormancy because experience in the Northwest garden has shown that dormancy in our part of the world is fickle, coming and going with the rise and fall of our temperate climate. We share this phenomenon with Britain and much of Western Europe, parts of the northeast United States, New Zealand, eastern Asia and southern Chile.
Once upon a winter day, everything in my garden came together in the guise of a holiday postcard. There was no snow or sleet. It was not even raining. The sky was clear blue and the lawn was a verdant green. The first bloom of a winter hellebore stood starkly white against the leathery, deep green foliage. The bracing air drew me out and into the garden. The abundant sunshine was enough to warm my face. For a moment in time, everything was exactly as it should be.
Winter signals a season of discontent for many gardeners. Fading sunlight, falling temperatures and frequent days of continuous rain diminish the appeal of working in the garden. Take heart, the first killing frost does not have to eliminate your gardening spirit. Despite a lack of blooms in winter, your garden can still be exciting. Weather permitting, the garden is still worth exploring.
The best way to learn anything, including how to garden, is by doing. You can study and read and go to lectures, but at some point you have to get your hands dirty to become a gardener. Regardless of the fact that modern technology puts information at our fingertips, the masters of any craft still learned the ropes by actually doing what they do so well.
I'm beginning to wonder if there really is such a thing as perfection in the garden. The most beautiful rose bush, examined closely, will have the occasional leaf touched by black spot. At some point in its development, there will be perfect roses and faded roses at the same time. I am pleased to say that I am comfortable with this reality. I can accept imperfection in my own garden. It's still so beautiful.
Mid- to late autumn is one of the most beautiful times of year in the Northwest garden. Summer is a thing of the past. Winter is just around the corner and yet the late fall garden is awash with a kaleidoscope of plant interest. Fruit, bloom, bark and foliage hold sway until the bite of winter cold takes hold. While other cities turn ashen gray with the onset of cold weather, we begin to take on deeper color hues. The Northwest lawn turns a lush, deep green in gratitude for the autumn rains.
The most effective gardens start with a basic selection of plants that offer something of interest throughout the calendar year. In midwinter, the most striking plant in my garden is the large shrub known as "Copper Beauty" witch hazel (Hamamelis intermedia 'Jelena'). This dramatic shrub sports spindly, metallic orange-yellow flower petals that emerge from bare branches in such profusion that it seems fall color has returned to the garden.
In many ways, the garden is our voice, as well as the face we present to the world. It's what our friends, family and visitors see first when they are invited to our homes and into our lives. Visitors to my garden would be surprised to pull into the driveway and arrive at a formal, Italianate garden or a suburban yard. That picture would not fit their perception of a country garden, or of me. I prefer a more casual approach to gardening, with a mix of newly introduced and native trees, shrubs and perennial borders surrounding wooden decks.
I've been known to compare the upkeep of my garden to painting the Eiffel Tower. By the time I think I have finished the job, it's time to start all over again. Despite the fact that I cut back wayward branches on the Japanese maples last year, there is always another tree or shrub to prune. There is grass to mow and leaves to rake. In my garden, there is never a season when weeds take the week off.
Officially, autumn has arrived in the Pacific Northwest. But my garden watering and summer upkeep go on as usual. As the season progresses and after rainfall returns, we can finally begin fall planting and transplanting. Empty spaces in the flower border make it clear where we can fit in one more perennial or a group of spring-flowering bulbs. It's also time to add large-scale trees and shrubs to the garden.
October brings with it the change of seasons from summer to autumn. More often than not the days remain quite pleasant with warm afternoons that seem to be an extension of summer. For those of us with a penchant for seasonal flowering plants, many shrubs and vines that flowered earlier in the year might surprise us with a second flowering. Roses, fuchsia and many cultivars of clematis will welcome in the new season with flush of intermittent blossoms.
As summer begins to take its leave and autumn stands patiently waiting, we feel a need to redirect our garden energies. The change of seasons signals a shift in our focus from the daily maintenance of watering, deadheading and mowing to fall planting and preparation for the winter season. Inherent in the passage of one season to the next is a desire to plan ahead for the changes to come.
For the longtime gardener, each change of season comes as the comforting recognition of an old friend returning home. At this time of year, when days begin to grow markedly shorter, I start looking forward to a lessening of daily watering and weeding. When you weed in spring, new weedlings are sprouting up before you get your pruners back in the holster. By late August, summer weeds are as enervated as the inveterate gardener is.
As summer wanes and autumn waits in the wings, garden plants begin to change along with the weather. One of the most fascinating aspects of the summer-to-fall season is watching the metamorphosis of many structural garden plants. A group of plants that stands out at this time of year is the ornamental grasses. Most have reached their full height by the end of summer but it takes the onset of cooler weather to bring out their best qualities. Now, the stalks of ornamental grasses begin to color in burnished, autumn hues. Feathery flower spikes rise up above the foliage, swaying gracefully in the slightest breeze.
I spend most of my time in the garden doing seasonal chores. In my garden journal I keep a list of annual and seasonal tasks that need to be done in the garden throughout the year. At the beginning of each month, I refer to my task list for that specific month. In addition, I am always revising a personal, ever-changing list of jobs specific to my own garden.
In mid- to late summer, I always find a few plants in my garden showing signs of stress from multiple days of continuous sunshine and the return of summer drought. Since I added a few plants to the garden this spring, I will continue to water through the summer months to keep my garden looking its best. However, for the long-term health and care of my garden, I try not to overwater in any season, including summer.
More than any other group of plants, the family of vines displays a vast array of distinct personalities. Vines come in a wide variety of forms, including bush, climbing and trailing. Their flowers come in infinite shapes, sizes and colors. Like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, vines often appear larger than life, as they rise above the plants around them. When they reach the peak of their individual form, they have been known to take one's breath away.
Midsummer is a wonderful time to visit gardens that garden owners are willing to open to the public. An "open garden" is a generous gift to a community of fellow gardeners. The only garden I can remember visiting as a child was my grandmother's garden. Even when we moved away, we would spend holidays and summer with her in Southern California. The heady scent of roses and the sweet sugary tang of a climbing honeysuckle (Lonicera ssp.) still take me back to that place of carefree days when there was nothing more important to do than play the day away.
Summer is one of those points in time when all the work we have done pays off in the garden. It's taken some real effort but the weeding, planting, pruning and deadheading have come together to show your garden at its best. In midsummer, the most important job of the season is maintaining the elements that your plants need to perform. Water, nutrients, friable soil, air and sunlight are essential to a plant's well-being.
The arrival of summer sets the stage for a wave of colorful perennials beginning with the peppermint Phlox subulata Candy Stripe' and the azure Blue Star Creeper (Pratia pedunculata) covering the ground in waves of color. When the sun finally comes to stay, a mix of flowering shrubs, vines and perennials will take the color palette to new heights.
For many who garden, the concept of gardening naturally, holistically or organically is one of our greatest challenges. Each new generation approaches the issues of the modern world from a unique viewpoint. While some longtime gardeners feel intimidated by the idea of eliminating all nonorganic techniques, those who are just beginning to garden in today's world will likely feel that the use of sustainable gardening practices is the best choice they can make.
The main reason we prune roses is to encourage the shrub to make more flowers. Roses, like every other plant in the garden, are here to reproduce. Once any plant flowers, its next purpose is to set seed. When you cut a flower head off before the flower goes to seed, as you do when you prune a rose, the plant produces another flower in an effort to propagate. Prune regularly throughout the season and you will keep flowers coming and vases filled to the brim.
You know you're a gardener when the only thing you don't have enough of in your life are plants. When someone mentions a trip to the nursery, does your energy level escalate? If you see a new plant in someone else's garden, do you have to have it for your own? Being a gardener is just the first step to becoming a plant collector.
Most of us grew up thinking that vegetable gardening and flower gardening were two very separate entities. If a vegetable gardener heard that you were a gardener, he or she would ask, "What do you grow," waiting to hear your list of favorite vegetables. Flower gardeners or gardeners interested in gardening to beautify the landscape typically ask what kind of garden you have or what type of plants you like to grow.
Every few years I like to review the concept of creating a garden with a sequence of bloom. Beginning in spring, certain plants come into flower. As these flowers fade another plant in the garden will begin to bloom. By planting the proper selection of trees, shrubs and perennials, the process continues with waves of color from one plant to the next throughout the gardening season. The ultimate goal is a garden with 12 months of plant interest.
All new plants need frequent watering until they are growing well. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. Provide a steady supply of water from planting until harvest. Rows or beds of seeds and young seedlings need moisture without flooding. They might require sprinkling as often as two or three times a day if weather is very hot. As transplants and seedlings grow and their roots reach deeper into the soil, you can water less often. Be sure to moisten the entire root zone when watering.
Occasionally in late spring, I like to wander through the garden with the intention of seeing all that is right with my world. Spring is a season of great rewards. The round, plump peony buds blossom into flowers larger than my open hand. The dogwood blooms as if by magic from bare branches. Birdsong adds a melodious dimension to the garden, like the musical score to a springtime garden party. How happy I am today, to think back on the part I have played in all of this.