April in New England is maddening. The snow is mostly gone and most of the ground is thawed. Unfortunately, other than pruning and picking up the debris of winter, gardening outdoors is out of the question.
Unless you have a greenhouse or well protected cold frames, the twenty degree temperatures over night will break your enthusiasm for attempting to plant much this time of year.
I recently popped into a "discount" big box store in the area to survey their wares. Not much of the merchandise was of interest to me until I saw a row of boxes displaying spring bulbs, rhizomes, and corms. There was a large selection of caladiums, gladiolus, dahlias, lilies, etc. I am not a snob when it comes to plants, but purchasing them from an unknown source, with no idea how long they have been on the shelf is a risk I usually don't take. Today was different.
Given that it was cold and snow flurries were coming down, no hope of warm weather anytime soon and the general gloom of the day, I decided to purchase a few bags on the cheap. What caught my eye were Rudebekia and Liatris. Grown out by nurseries these plants can cost upwards of $14.00 each. The enticing little bags were only $2.50 for 6 and 12 respectfully. I was hooked.
I made my purchase and traveled home.
My first challenge was that I had only small pots and seed trays in my basement. Trudging threw the remaining snow to the garden shed yielded a few bigger pots and old plastic window boxes.
The second challenge was where to put these pots so that they were warm and received adequate light. The solution was to place them on the floor in a quirky alcove in my kitchen during the night and to move to the enclosed kitchen porch during the day. The amount of direct sunlight is only about 5 hours each day, but I realized that if they were established plants in my garden they would not be getting much more than that anyway.
After a week 4 of the 6 Rudbekia are showing signs of life. As for the Liatris, I am still waiting.
Besides trying to keep these pots warm, keeping the soil moist is important. Hopefully, my "April Challenge" on the cheap will produce a few extra plants.
It took a well known professor and author of poetry to turn my head around growing plants from seeds. A poet who loves to garden, could nothing be better?
A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed, by James Fenton has provided me with a road map of delight. He creates a path through the garden with such imagery you are able to smell the scents and smile at the delightful colors. This little book stays with you long after you finish, I have lost track of the times I have returned to its pages for inspiration. Fenton's words grow, even in the fading light of this very cold winter's eve.
Indulge me for a few moments while I share some of the seeds I turn to each year. None of these are exotic or difficult to find, but they provide me a measure of comfort when I see them in my garden.
I look forward each year to For-Get-Me-Knots, Myosotis sylvatica. Its meaning is one of a connection that lasts through time and plays out each year. The endless self sowing seeds provides a mass of light blue just as we watch winter turn into spring.
How can you say you garden without the bright and symmetrical blooms of Zinnias? There are short ones and tall ones, orange, yellow, pink, and cream. The palate seems endless, allowing you to create whatever you dream. No need to prick and space little seedlings, the more crowded the bed the more beautiful the scene.
(My apologies to Mr. Fenton for my feeble attempt at verse.)
Anthriscus cerefolium 'Chervil', just the name brings forth a smile on my face. Folklore has it that the plant makes one merry, bestows youth upon the aged, and symbolizes sincerity. The Greeks called this plant Chaerophyllon, "That which rejoices the heart".
Impatiens balsamina waves its flag of lush green foliage, the flowers are jewels peeking between the leaves. The plants stand at attention in the waning days of summer when others are fading or have already gone by.
Fall in Maine was beautiful this year. The golden colors of the maples were postcard worthy. Even though we had cool weather, the first frost was late. The warm temperatures delayed cutting back perennials, and the annual leaf raking and shredding.
The window between the first frost and the ground being frozen solid was short this year. Bulb planting kept being put off until I had to scramble to get them in the ground.
I have to admit my weakness for daffodils and alliums. (Just for the record, I would love to plant tulips, but the deer like them more than I do.) Every year I try to restrain myself but those bulb catalogs are just irresistible.
Because of being rushed into getting them planted I forgot to draw a simple site plan for the bulbs. Now I have only a vague idea where they are.
With daffodils this will not be a problem since they will poke their little heads up early, as for the alliums it was a big mistake. I ordered some late blooming alliums this year and I will have to be careful next spring not to disturb the bulbs. This was the first time in several years that I failed to record this information in my journal.
Keeping a garden journal is a disciplined practice and it took me several years before I consistently made entries each day I worked in the garden. I share this with you because keeping a journal takes commitment and courage. The good intentions when you start a garden journal are hard to maintain.
When I first started I would find that after a few weeks I would forget, procrastinate, or tell myself I had nothing to write down. One day I finally decided that since I was a habitual list maker, journal entries would go on my daily to-do list. Knowing that I rarely carry any item over to the next day, it was the push I needed. Now I record everything from deadheading a rose bush to what bed I pulled a few weeds from.
Journal's also require courage. There is no point in keeping a record of your garden if you do not keep track of your mistakes and failures. The courage comes into play when you are able to record the same mistake from the summer before and own up to it.
Last summer I forgot to once again shear off the Cerastium tomentosum "Snow in Summer" right as the blooms were fading and ended up with a mess of stems and leaves that looked pitiful the rest of the summer. If I had been on top of it I would have seen this plant bloom again before summer's end.
Winter is a great time to take stock of your garden by reading back through your entries for the year and making a list of all the things you hope to do and correct. Now you can sit back and wait for spring, when once again you will be able to feel the warm earth on your hands.
Each year I get excited about the season between Thanksgiving and the New Year because the dedicated folks at the US Postal Service deliver wonderful presents to my home .....
Garden Catalogs !
I feel a little guilty about requesting the print version of a catalog when I usually only order from one or two of them, but I use them as a reference throughout the year.
Paper catalogs allow me to write notes in the margin, turn the page back without clicking a button, and provide an abundance of information that is not always so easily found on-line.
When planning a new bed or a re-do of an old area, I cut out the pictures and tape them to a story board to better visualize the project.
Plant and seed catalogs do have some pitfalls. They feed into the enemy of every responsible gardener. We devote a great deal of time combating black spot, powdery mildew, or slugs that chew holes in your hostas. Yet, we quickly fall prey to the seed catalog's glossy publications and their well executed layouts. It is so easy to whip out that card and order online. This can take you down a dark hole and a path of regret.
Don't get me wrong, I love to spend a cold snowy day curled up with a cup of coffee to while away a few hours dreaming of the flowers to be and the coming spring.
A good prescription for this problem is to have a master plan for your garden. This does not have to be complicated or pretty. Landscapers have software for this, but all you need is a piece of note paper and a pencil. Remember, your garden is never finished, so make sure your pencil has a good eraser.
To get started you will need to know the size of the planting area, average daily light available during the growing season, and whether or not it is a particularly dry or wet area. Note: I left off the type of soil because that is changeable and your soil can always be improved to meet necessary conditions.
The rest of your plan is up to you and how much time you wish to devote in the garden each year. Play around with color, height, and spread of the plant. Break the rules, not everyone likes perfect symmetry.
Don't let a plan overwhelm you, divide large beds into small venues. If you can only manage half of the flower bed for now, then over-seed the rest of the bed with a cover crop. One of my favorites is buckwheat, a short lived annual that is a nitrogen fixing plant. Combining these seeds with easily germinated zinnias, cosmos, or bachelor buttons will cover the area until you can complete your planting plan the next year.
Garden Catalogs offer an array of opportunities that are enticing. I encourage you to step outside the boundaries of your comfort zone every once in a while and challenge yourself with something new. Having a plan will allow you to take a chance on a few new plants each year without getting carried away.
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