THE GARDEN IN SPRING
We’re all grumpy because winter has gone on too long certainly it has here in southern Ontario. But be of good cheer, it has come to an end. And it’s time to at least think about what you’ll be doing in the garden. But nothing elaborate, please. An overly-manicured garden doesn’t look real, isn’t satisfying and never has the same pleasurable frisson of a garden where a real person does real things in real time.
Garden writer Mary Keen wrote recently “A garden, like a poem, clears a private space in your head where you can retreat. It isn’t about complicated techniques or aspiring to what you see in magazines. It doesn’t always have to be perfect….”
I couldn’t agree more. The most enchanting garden experiences I’ve ever had have usually been in less than perfect places. Perfection is for the artist who’s organizing it for a photographer. And as we gardeners know, photographs lie. They leave out what’s most obvious to the human eye: something glorius that’s a bit off.
So go at the garden less like a photographer and more like the essentially haphazard soul you are. I used to always tell my kids when it came to a room clean up: at least do the stuff I can see from the door.
Not a bad principle when it comes to the garden. Save the big effort for areas you can see from where you sit, or at the door or where a visitor might glance. Always do the edges so they look good. This is the perfect time to get rid of nascent weeds if you know what they look like (have a look at the blog about this). If you aren’t sure, leave them alone for a while.
Whatever you do in the garden this year make sure you bump up the soil. Soil is one of the liveliest elements on the planet. It moves all the time, and just like any living entity it can be overworked and become exhausted. If you leave it alone year after year planting and planting, there is no doubt it will need help it can get.
First of all don’t go digging around in it unless you have to. It’s one thing to excavate a border because the soil is crappy or you’ve had construction going on anywhere near it. But once you’ve got border sizes settled, let the soil alone. Do all the feeding of the soil from the top, but you must feed it. Now is the very best time because worms are heading to the surface to haul anything they can eat into the soil and get it down to the roots. The fertilizer you need is compost and you can’t have too much.
Construction and soil are an anathema to each other. It is the habit of renovators to toss stuff outside and bury it in a bit of soil and then hope for the best. It doesn’t work. Even if rubble is buried it will eventually move around and, sometimes, as it comes closer and closer to the surface, plants start dying off inexplicably. Most aren’t designed to handle that much limestone. If you’ve had construction, or have raised beds made of stone or any other kind of construct (cement around a gazebo comes to mind), make sure you excavate near them. It will be expensive and pain in the neck but down the road, you will be so grateful because plants will thrive in good soil
If you do nothing else in the garden but look after the soil this year, you won’t regret it. Dig down as far as you can (use the formula below for ordering replacement soil). Replace really bad soil with plain black earth with no additions. If you have terribly dense clay soil (squeeze it in your hand), add lots of compost to it. But you can add horticultural sand if you need to change the profile slightly. It will lighten things up a bit. Some say it helps drainage but I’ve never found this. If you have very sandy soil, compost and then more compost to help it hold in moisture.
The principle of composting is to feed the plants where it’s needed—through soil. Cover up everything with this blanket of goodness designed to smother weeds and hold in moisture. But new compost will also give any border, container or raised bed a lovely appearance. If you insist, rake off last year’s leaves and detritus and put into the compost to finish breaking. But I usually just pile the new compost on the old stuff on the ground.
Here’s a caveat: Make sure you know where the compost comes from and what it contains. There are lots of scams out there and unless you are buying it by the yard (which I’d recommend), read the label on the package.
Bulk buying of course is cheaper and if you can’t use a whole yard, share it with a neighbour. A yard of soil is a cubic yard by volume. Calculate it by multiplying width, side and depth (10 by 30 by 2 feet) and dividing by 27 (in this example 300 divided by 27 is .75 of a yard. This will give you how many yards you need. Take into account the number of shrubs and other large plants that will take up space and subtract from the total.
Pile it on and don’t worry about it covering up plants or bulbs they will push their way through this very light medium. And since it’s not going to be around for very long, you don’t have to worry about where it hits or misses. This is a real feast for soil insects, worms will be delighted to drag it inwards for you.
A DETAIL FROM THE GARDEN
Then get out lists of plants, check your research and head out to the nursery. I’ve written endlessly about having a list before stepping into a nursery and though I try to abide by my own rules, it’s difficult not to be tempted. And temptation is what nurseries are all about. They want to “educate” us and I’m all for that. But I’m a sucker for good display. Once a plant has been isolated and put in with a bouquet of plants, how irresistible is that? Temptation lurks everywhere. Buy the basics first and then move on to the new and irresistible.
There are lots of wonderful new plants on the market and you might want to experiment with one or two. I loved Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ a couple of years ago and it has come through two winters (one easy, one bad) in a raised bed well mulched. You might want to try it or put it in a container.
Consider evergreens: if you one add one or two in a select place where you’ll see it all winter it will give such pleasure. Get a triangle of them going in an ever-so-subtle pattern so the eye hits one, follows to the next and onward. This is both restful and dynamic. Can’t be beat. I love Chamaecyparis but one of my favourites croaked so I either planted it in the wrong place or it was a bad winter for them. Don’t be discourage by death in the garden, think of it as an opportunity to try something else.
Things are growing a mile a minute. I can hear them growing. Get out there and breathe in the joy, the rest of the world is a mess.
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