I am Not a Science-Based Gardener

If my Facebook feed and many prominent gardening blogs are any indication, “science-based gardening” is trending.  Here is my feeling about that:

Zzzzzzzzzzz.

Hey, I know there’s a lot of bad gardening advice out there, and it’s great that there are strong and trustworthy voices ready to stamp it out, but gardening is just not something that I (and dare I say, the majority of gardeners?) approach scientifically.

For me, gardening — like cooking — is something to be approached intuitively, even sentimentally, rather than methodically.  I would rather bake and eat the chocolate chip cookie made from my mom’s recipe on the yellowed index card than the one whose sugar/butter ratio was tested and deemed superior by a panel of food science doctoral students.  (Yes, I can taste her love in the cookies, don’t tell me I can’t!)

Same with gardening.  My planting choices are often guided by pure emotion, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  The little voice that tells me I really oughtn’t to plant a banana tree in my yard just because I saw it done in that little garden in Charleston with the amazing wrought-iron gate with the pineapple motif and the whole vignette just about made my heart stop — that’s a voice I often just ignore.   The banana is going in!

Years ago I got a soil test done.  I carefully followed the instructions given to me by the Master Gardeners: I selected several different spots in my yard, dug a few inches down, collected the prescribed amount of soil, placed it into the designated receptacles, and sent it down to the lab at Virginia Tech.  The helpful people at the Extension service sent back a detailed report indicating acidity levels and the presence of micronutrients, etc.  I recall they suggested that I add a quantity of lime to my lawn — even specifying how much per square yard and such.  It was awfully nice of them.

soil test

I carefully folded the report back into the envelope, stuffed it into my Gardening for Dummies book, and drove to the garden center, where I purchased plants that spoke to my eye and heart, which that year was probably columbine and clematis.

I never did lime my lawn.

Unfortunately, the way I usually learn what NOT to plant in my yard is by heartbreaking trial and error, and not by flipping through Foolproof Plants of the Midatlantic.  I have learned many other life lessons in this same painful and unscientific manner, and it seems to be the only way that things stick.  And let’s face it, sometimes it’s more fun not learn the lesson at all.  Sometimes life is best lived by moving from one gloriously impractical idea to the next.

So I shall continue to stumble along, letting my ridiculous, irrational brain guide my gardening choices.  And the banana shall be planted forthwith!

 

This Land is My Land, All Mine!

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about what it means, as a gardener, to actually own my own piece of property.  Sometimes when I am taking my vegetable scraps out to the compost heap, following a route that spans the full expanse of my backyard, I marvel at the fact that the entire vast swath is mine to do with as I wish. The soil, the trees, the rocks, the grass (weeds), every dip and sweep of this somewhat pie-shaped, .49 acre lot is all mine!  For a single human, a half an acre is a king’s riches.  It is more than enough to keep a solitary gardener busy and fretting with planting schemes and projects for a lifetime.

A quarter acre would be enough.  An eighth.  A 10′ x 15′ rectangle.  It’s mine, I own it, I am content.  I would rather own a sunny balcony with an array of pots than merely occupy a 50-acre estate.  Mary Lennox, recall, pleaded only for “a bit of earth.”  A bit.  But she wanted it for herself.

p_20170130_081727

The whole idea of private land ownership is fundamental in American culture, obviously, but I think it’s in our genes as well.  Even hunter-gatherer societies who couldn’t conceive of private property clashed with one another over hunting grounds and resources.

But of course, they were just being practical.

We gardeners like to covet and control.  There is no sugar-coating it.  We see our gardens as a means of self-expression, whether we are decorating them as fussily as we would our living rooms or attempting to create native plant wilderness.  We tend, shape, manipulate.  What’s less obvious is that the rose garden and the bird habitat are shaped with equal passion.

I know that there is a certain class of gardener — protégés of Sara Stein, for example — who seeks to return their property to a Rousseauian state of nature, whereby they need no longer prune, nor weed, nor remove leaves, etc.  Even these good folk, I suspect, would dash out the back door with a giant machete at the first sight of Japanese honeysuckle overtaking their sassafras grove.  And who would blame them?  They spent 10 years getting those sassafras established!

I know I’m not the first gardener who developed the passion only after purchasing my own property, because the same thing happened to the famous garden writer Beverley Nichols.  In this passage from Down the Garden Path Nichols describes the joy he felt in performing even onerous tasks in his very first garden:

Until you actually own a garden, you cannot know this joy.  You may say, ‘oh yes, I love a garden.’ But what do you really mean by that?  You mean that you like to wander through rows of hollyhocks, swathed in tulle…and that you like to drink lemonade under a tree….You do not like bending down for hours to pull up hateful little weeds that break off above the root…you do not like these things, for one reason and only one reason…because you do not own the garden.  All gardeners will know what I mean.  Ownership makes all the difference in the world.  I suppose it is like the difference between one’s own baby and somebody else’s.  If it is your own baby you probably quite enjoy wiping its nose.  If it is somebody else’s you would have to use a long pole with a handkerchief on the end.  That was why I loved all this early work, because the garden was the first thing I had ever really owned.

What about community gardens?  Well, the community vegetable garden near me is sliced up like a pan of brownies at a kids’ party, with each gardener carefully guarding his portion.  Most community gardens appear to be set up this way, with fences making it very clear whose plot is whose.  The gardeners may share hoses and wheelbarrows, but they don’t often share the earth itself.

This is all kind of a paradox, because gardeners are also known to be very generous.  We are all quick to share our extra vegetables, divisions, seed packs, and of course, unsolicited advice.  And I know there are many gardeners out there who donate their time at public gardens, which is generous indeed.

For most of us, though, ownership is fundamental to the experience of being a gardener.  We are happy to yank up hateful little weeds — whether they’re sprouting in a pot, a city garden, or a 50-acre estate — because they are our hateful little weeds.

Country Time

Like many of you, every once in awhile I fantasize about living in the country.  I’m pretty sure that if I actually lived in the country, I might turn into a version of Jack Torrance from The Shining and after a couple months of winter start chasing my family around with an ax for lack of nearby amenities. 

But thankfully, every now and then it’s possible to get a taste of the country life without actually committing to it.  Such was the case a couple of weeks ago, when my mother’s friend Bobbi invited us out to her farm near Harrisonburg, VA for the day. 

She has a charming turn of the century farmhouse, adorned inside and out with the coolest old farm equipment and tools….(pics by my sister Karen)Bobbie's house at the Busy B Farm

My son and I played hide and seek in her awesome barn, which is packed with rustic farm paraphernalia…

Tools in the barn

Baskets strung up for the Barn Sale

Cool sign with old bicycle in the barn

Lanterns in the barn

Jars in the barn

and as for garden ornament, how about a wheel wall?  I didn’t know I wanted one of these until I saw Bobbi’s…

Fence of wheels

Wouldn’t it be great to have the kind of property where an antique Ford pick up looks right at home in the front yard?

The Old Ford

everywhere you turn, you are reminded of simpler times, of the days before texting, tweeting, and twerking…

Farm equipment

Bicycle leaning against the shed

Sign taking you into the Busy B Farm

There is even a delightful stream running through her property, where we skipped stones and looked for interesting rocks…

busy b farm-1812

More wheels…Bobbi was kind enough to let me take a couple of wheels home with me!

Just  a cool sign

One of the wheels Bobbi gave me, at home in my suburban garden…

wheel

Yes indeed…for me, full time country life = mental illness.  But one beautiful May day in the country = mental health.

View from the end of lane and the house at Busy B

Aromatherapy

peony3Things have been rough at work lately.  Test scores have plummetted, students are troubled, many teachers are talking mutiny or early retirement.  Morale is generally in the toilet.

On the drive home from work, I find that stopping for a large chocolate chip cookie and a Frappuchino from Starbucks is often just the pick-me-up I need to transition from work to home, where I will be greeted by a gregarious old yellow lab and a still-very-wiggly seven-year-old boy, both of whom will be requesting play and attention.  (The martini, slippers, and newspaper are nowhere in sight!)

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The Optimism of Tiny Trees

oaktree2)

I have a vivid memory of eating a Red Delicious apple when I was seven years old and, afterward, regarding the dark seeds embedded in the core. Continue reading

I Gotta Git Me One o’ These Outdoor TVs

While reading the latest issue of Better Homes and Gardens, I stumbled upon a new (to me) trend in outdoor living:

Outdoor Televisions!

Phew!  It’s about time.  I was getting so bored and fidgety just sitting out on my patio with, like, no electronic devices whatsoever, wasting lazy summer evenings in quiet conversation with family or watching the birds and butterflies.

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Is Designing Solo the Best Way?

Photo Credit: US Mission Geneva

Photo Credit: US Mission Geneva

In the Final Comprehensive of my Landscape Design Course, we had to work in teams of three. I was in a group with two other talented people (both professional designers), and our task was to redesign a small park on the campus of GW.

We brainstormed. We sketched. We had meetings — many, many meetings. We discussed. We argued. We tried to change one another’s minds and we attempted compromise.

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