Sunday, May 23, 2010

Things I've learned about gardening

When I first arrived in the US as a graduate student I didn't think about gardening in the USA. It never occurred to me that I was going to stay long enough to have a garden here. I spent my very first Christmas in the US with the family of one of my undergraduate students in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Her aunt and uncle had spent the previous Christmas in the UK as their daughter was studying abroad there. My conversations with them were the first that I'd had with Americans in the US who'd spent much time in the UK. I remember very specifically that they commented "And the grass stays green all winter in England." Having not yet lived through an entire winter in the US, I thought they were a little strange. Isn't that what grass does - stay green? Nope, not here. It goes brown in the winter, and then again in the summer if it doesn't get vast amounts of water!

My first garden in the United States was a rooftop one. Sounds posh, like I had a penthouse or something, but sadly not so. I was working at a boarding school, and the fire escape that led out through my apartment went out onto a flat porch roof, about 4 stories up. It wasn't quite as private as it felt, but it was my little oasis. As soon as I moved in I decided I wanted to have a garden. I bought a lot of large plastic pots and saucers, and lugged tons of bags of pebbles (for the bottom of the pots) and potting soil up to the roof. I did check first with the maintenance department if it was OK to put several hundred extra pounds of weight on the roof and they okayed it.

I learned very quickly that the wide, flattish, bowl-like, pots needed to be watered too often. Ditto the smaller pots. Once a day watering just didn't cut it in the summer heat, and twice a day became too much like work, given that I did also have to work. The best ones were the largest ones I'd been able to find, and which were just about too heavy for me to move once they were full. Second discovery - ignore what the planting guidelines said in terms of spacing. When you put plants in a pot, you want to cram as many in as possible. Over-stuffed pots look far more impressive than sparsely planted ones. This also helps ensure that you don't have to do any weeding!

Pots that have water reservoirs underneath are wonderful. We have four out on the front porch right now. Two have peas planted in them, one has lettuce, and the other has flowers. No tomatoes this year. I ignored all the warnings about the tomato blight last year and planted tomatoes anyway. I don't think we got to eat a single one. The plants were prolific, but every single tomato went rotten well before it was ready to be picked. Don't think your garden will be immune from local diseases and bugs just because you love it and look after it!

Since we've had a real garden and not just one in containers, I've learned a few more things.
  • The landscaping put in by the builder was intended to look good for the first 4 or 5 years. After that, most of what was put in grows too big for its location. We have some beautiful shrubs and trees that we will probably have to cut down because they were planted too close to the house or each other.
  • Deer eat tulips as though they're candy. It's worth paying attention to which plants at the garden center are labelled "deer-resistant."
  • Rabbits will eat all kinds of things, but they especially seem to love liatris shoots.
  • Pay attention to the hardiness zones for plants. Buy plants that are guaranteed hardy for your area, unless you want them to die over the winter. Some plants that are too sensitive for New England winters can be grown here if you dig them up and move them into the house every winter, but that's too much work as far as I'm concerned. (See the exception below.)
  • If you really like it, and it's not hardy in New England, it might be worth buying anyway because the south-facing flower bed at the front of the house is in a hardiness zone all of its own and stuff often survives there that you wouldn't expect. Last year we had dozens of wallflowers that had self-seeded there from the annuals I had planted the year before, and this year we had some pansies that survived the winter (only to get nibbled back to the ground by the rabbits!)
  • Sometimes plants will survive multiple winters and then succumb unpredictably. Too bad. Plants are only temporary! Buy more!
  • Sometimes it is worth digging plants up for the winter. I've overwintered geraniums in the basement for the last 2 winters, and it really wasn't difficult at all. Dig them out of the pot, wrap them in newspaper, put them in the basement and forget about them till March. The survival rate would be higher if I remembered to spray them with water occasionally over the winter, but that would mean remembering to do so and I have a hard enough time remembering to bring them out of storage in March in time to get them started growing again for the summer.
  • If the 'soil' in your garden is mostly sand, you will need a sprinkler system for anything to grow.
  • There is actually a point to the strip of mulch between the woods behind the house and the lawn, beyond separating the cultivated lawn from the wild plants in the woods - apparently it also helps reduce the number of ticks we might otherwise find in the lawn. Supposedly, they don't survive the trek from the woods across the strip of mulch to the lawn. Given that ticks can carry Lyme disease, anything that reduces our potential exposure to them is a good thing.
  • No matter how many plants I think I need, and how much money I spend each year, I never have enough. Clearly this garden is going to be a very long-term project!


Michelloui said...

This is funny, really enjoyed this! I find I know so little about gardening in the US now, except for some vague memories from childhood and the chats with my mom over the phone.

nappy valley girl said...

Ah, I wondered what everyone did about their pot plants in the winter here. The basement is a good idea (seeing as it is the receptacle for all our junk anyway). I have just planted some herbs - oregano, mint and basil, in pots - I wonder if they should go to the basement in winter too?

Almost American said...

NVG - other than my geraniums, I usually only put annuals in my pots. I leave them outside all winter. They don't look particularly attractive, but they stop the soil in the pots from blowing away (which it will if I uproot the plants at the end of the season.) The pots are too heavy to bother moving down to the basement!

Last year I had some dianthus in one of the pots. I transplanted them before the first frost into the garden and I was happy to find they survived and are flowering already.

We have one pot of herbs on the deck, right by the back door, and again I just leave it out there all winter. If I had any window ledges, I'd put the herbs in smaller pots for the winter and bring the them inside, but I don't :-( The creeping thyme actually survived the winter in the pot this year. We have a pot of mint out back by the compost bin. It's such a weed, it usually survives the winter, even in a pot where it freezes.

Canoez said...

Alas, I think the mint has finally succumbed to the neglect we've been giving it. :-(

Iota said...

I love to envisage you lugging all those bags of soil and pebbles up the fire escape!

Almost American said...

Yes, I did lug all those bags up the fire escape - but it was a metal staircase rather than a ladder! Actually, I think I got a friend to carry the bag of pebbles 'cos that one was particularly heavy, but I carried all the bags of soil myself.

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