Sunday, July 21, 2013

Rules of Gardening

There are certain garden practices I do not do, and will never do. Double-digging, for one example. Hedge shearing, for another. They are no fun. Therefore I avoid them. They are unnecessary evils. 

Gardening is not knitting. It is not a step-by-step, but an exploration. And so you will not find maxims like “feed your lawn in spring and fall” or “tomatoes must be planted 3 feet apart” in my rulebook. My rules are my rules. Take them … or write your own. 
Finches love sunflowers, so I love sunflowers.

Rule #1. Never pull out a chance sunflower seedling.
I see the little seed leaves that are so unmistakably sunflower-like and in my head I see finches doing acrobatics on the seedheads. I see slow-moving bumblebees, oblivious to all of the other the darting pollinators, systematically sucking nectar from the hundreds of tiny disk flowers.  If the sunflower seedling has emerged clumsily close to a lilac or spiraea, so be it. The shrub will just have to share the space for this one year. It will survive.

Rule #2. Never plant a shrub rose where bindweed grows.
This rule comes from experience. It comes from bloody arms and punctured thumbs. Field bindweed is a problem anywhere, but it will twine up the thorny stems of a shrub rose and erupt into flower before you can even catch sight of the rapidly growing menace. Meanwhile the ropey roots are happily storing carbohydrates well below the soil surface. Though capable of spreading more than 10 feet in a growing season, the vines are generally so content with the strategy of growing within the rose that they don’t even need to venture outside of its protective thorniness. Let the bindweed seeds mature, and the pest will assuredly outlive both you and the rose. Seed has been found to be viable at the ripe old age of 60!

And while we’re on the subject,
Pilea pumila, one of the good guys

Rule #3. Get to know your weeds.
There is a hierarchy. Some weeds must be removed forthwith, bound up in plastic, tortured, burned … Aside from the abovementioned bindweed, I include the deceptively unassuming arum, Pinellia ternata, in this category. Its common names are crow dipper and, more aptly, miniature green dragon, and the secret to its success lies in the corm that remains securely buried in the soil after you yank out the stem. But, on the other end of the weed spectrum are the good guys, what I call the placekeepers. Lovely jewelweed holds a fertile spot until you find some other use for it, and then offers no resistance when you pull. Pilea pumila, also known as clearweed, is similarly benign. It is related to stinging nettle and, like nettle, sustains the caterpillars of some beautiful butterflies, including the Red Admiral. Both jewelweed and clearweed are, not so coincidentally, native plants.

Need to save space for dwarf ginkgo!
Rule #4. Always leave an empty spot or two in your garden.
This goes back to having fun. You just never know when you are going to encounter that plant that you must have. If there’s space to play with—even if it involves moving things around—you can say yes! Conversely, that empty spot will allow for “the quest.” The delicious hunt for that special something. You don’t know what it is, yet, but it’s out there. You'll know it when you see it.

Rule #5. If there’s an easy way to do something, do it!
And this goes back to double-digging, which probably has its advantages (though how would I know?). Nevertheless I’ve had great success with gardening without ever having to resort to this extreme method, which involves much sweat and muscle, a wheelbarrow or tarp, a tool that can dig a series of deep trenches without breaking, and a great chunk of time. I started my vegetable garden by laying down bales of straw and rolling them over once they had killed the turf, then forking and adding compost as needed. The straw, by the way, makes excellent mulch and is very easy to move around the garden, unlike 3 cubic yards of wood chips.
My vegetable garden: beautiful, productive, and not  double-dug.

The benefit, of course, to taking things easy, is that it encourages one to add more gardens. More opportunities for “the quest.” More space for sunflowers and bumblebees and finches.

More gardens, fewer rules. Isn't that the way life should be?

What are your rules of gardening?

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