Category Archives: Gardening Downtime

The Madness Is Upon Me

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I really need to start a master list of plants I’ve given up on.

It would be much more useful than “plants I’ve killed and will try again” which is a very very long list at this point.

Also, when I make stark declarations in the middle of August that I am DONE this is MADNESS and from now on I will grow nothing but tomatoes and basil in the vegetable garden GODDAMNIT, I really need to write that down and perhaps have it witnessed, because here I am at the end of January wondering if I’ve got room for those dwarf snow peas after all.

And the vegetables are the easy part. When Prairie Nursery and Prairie Moon Nursery send out their catalogs and I find myself going “Why do I not have ramps? Ramps would be a great idea!” and drooling over the blue cohosh (which is a very expensive plant to possibly kill, and I am a bit nervous) I need a clear, laid out plan that says “This goes here. Nothing else will fit.”

Actually, what I need is a sign taped to my computer saying “YOU HAVE NO PLACE TO PUT IT SO PUT THE CATALOG DOWN.” That would cover most eventualities.

I should not be thinking of blue cohosh. I should be thinking vines. I have space for vines. I made space for vines. I’m thinking two Carolina jessamine, then a coral honeysuckle, then two jessamine, then a coral honeysuckle in the full sun area. Might mix it up with American bittersweet in the shadier sections. I do not need wild cucumber. It’s an annual and not edible anyway. WHY DO YOU TAUNT ME, CATALOG?

There are so many empty places in the garden. They never warn you that you will live with eyesores for years and years and years, that parts will be gloriously lush and other parts will still be a dead zone under pine trees, that lots are scraped and that stuff isn’t DIRT, it’s subsoil and self-respecting plants won’t grow in that and it’s really not your fault, that your yuccas will grow in the moss and the moss will grow in the yuccas and both will apparently be happy and dear god what is wrong with this picture?

This is the season where I stare at the garden and realize how many things need fixing and how many things I am completely unequipped to fix. I realize what a large garden I have made and how many years it’s going to take to fill it. (All the years. All of them.) I am simultaneously paralyzed by too much space in which hardly anything will grow (that grove of oaks and hickories and all those cedars! Mature trees one might kill for, and I stare at them and wish they were ten feet back on the other side of the fenceline!) and too little space in which nearly anything would grow, having painstakingly hauled manure and topsoil and mulch for multiple years to make it habitable.

I want a cottage garden that overflows with exuberance, and did not realize how often that meant that an exuberant plant would eat its weaker neighbors. I want to grow fascinating vegetables and end up having to glove up and root out the cardoons which were supposed to be annuals, goddamnit, and why did no one mention that they will re-seed like Satan on a bender?

And can I grow artichokes in a whiskey barrel?

And why did I wait so long to discover ferns? Why did no one beat me over the head with ferns until I listened?

And why are there never enough tomato cages? They work great for pea trellises—by the time the peas are dead of heat stroke, the tomatoes are just starting to need cages. Chop the peas at the roots, move the cage three feet, there you go. Except that I need more tomato cages so I can grow more peas.

And why is it only January, when there’s so much gardening to be done?

Lush and Ragged

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August is the worst possible time to judge a southern garden, which is of course why I’m doing it.

At least it's green...

The whole garden needs work. The grass is long and needs mowing (and in some places, plain ‘ol weed-whacking) and the big established bed needs everything cut back and deadheaded and chopped. Stuff is sticking out at all angles and the wild quinine has not so much fallen over as exploded and I should have chopped back the swamp sunflower in June and the rose mallow has shot up and is waving red saucers like UFOs over the bulk of the greenery.

It needs a serious haircut.

I am not doing any of this.

The weather is partly to blame. It’s about 101 degrees today, and the heat index has been pegged at “Seriously, You’ll Die.” If I get working out there, I’ll keep working and then I will wonder why I have stopped sweating and why everything suddenly seems so sparkly.

The other reason is because the bugs are going crazy. The bee balm is STILL blooming–it’s ugly and ragged and on its last legs, and the insects are still crawling all over it. The rose mallow is covered in swallowtails and occasionally a hummingbird will elbow its way in. And if you leave the coneflowers up, the goldfinches love them (Although we’re awfully light on goldfinches this year…)

I know, I shouldn’t itch at it. It’s not the garden’s fault that August is the worst month. I should just be grateful that everything is still thick and fairly green. And I shouldn’t judge the new beds at all–they need a year or two before I can expect ANYTHING, and the backyard is barely even cultivated, really, and the prairie planting gets another year before I get too twitchy…

But it looks dreadful at the moment. And my desire to get out there and start brutalizing it into shape is intense. All I’d need would be a few cubic yards of topsoil and maybe nine cubic yards of mulch…that’s not much, right?


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I was nearly done digging the pond.  I have gotten tons done on it in the last month, and I was looking down into the mucky hole and thinking “Hey! I might be done today!” and the very next shovelful of dirt, my back went “THWANNNNG!”

“But Ursula,” you say, because you are a sensible sort, “why were you digging a frog pond by hand when you know you have a bad back and this sort of thing was likely—nay, practically inevitable?”

To which I say, “Shut up, shut up, I can’t hear you and anyway the doctor told me to get more exercise.”

That was yesterday. It rained hard last night, so even if I had completed the pond, I couldn’t do anything with it, as it’s…well…a pond at the moment, not an empty hole ready for lining. And I still have to get the field stone to edge the sucker with. (It will include a useful beach-head for critters to get in and out, but I still need the stone to weight the liner.)

However, there will be no fetching of stones, because my back is well and truly out, one of those impressive outages that send shooting pain down your hip as well. (Oh god, I’m thirty-three, I should not be crying “My hip!” and clutching at my pelvis for YEARS yet.)

Damnit. I had all kinds of stuff to do today that involved hunching! I was going to plant out onion sets! I had a cross-vine to dig a hole for, and an American bittersweet!

I want a bionic back, damnit.

Thaw Smell

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It is almost seventy degrees out. Tonight it’s going to freeze. I do not pretend to understand the weather.

What I do know is that the thaw-smell is out in force, and it’s making my brain jitter.

I’ve tried to describe the thaw-smell before, and I’m never sure if I can actually explain it. These days I’m not even sure it’s a smell. It’s that odd jittery feeling that hits when the snow is finally melting and you can smell the wet earth underneath.  In Minnesota, where I spent a lot of my formative years, it’s quite literally a thaw–the gutters turn into rivers, the big piles of snow start to melt, people are wandering around in their shorts and tank tops, despite the face that it’s 33 degrees out, because we’re Minnesotans and that’s just how we roll.

Then I moved to North Carolina, and discovered the thaw smell in a climate that doesn’t even reliably get snow, and now I don’t know if it’s a smell at all. So…it’s the thing that happens on that warm day toward the end of winter that makes you feel that spring is coming. The smell of wet earth is part of it, I’m sure of it, but there’s more than that. Some powerful unknown emotion wells up under your breastbone and you don’t know if you want to laugh or cry or dance around the room. It tastes like joy and closes the throat like grief. There is a maddening frustration to it, as if the world is demanding something of you, and you do not know what response you are supposed to make. You are energized and restless and you itch inside your skin, and throwing all your worldly belongings in a van and driving cross country for no reason whatsover suddenly starts to seem like a great idea.

They say that people have used the Santa Ana winds blowing as part of a murder defense. I can believe it. The air does weird things to people. The thaw smell does not make me stare thoughtfully at butcher knives, but it sure does something.

So I opened the windows and went outside and did yard work. When I was young and angry and pretentiously pagan, I probably would have mucked about with candles and my own self-importance—these days I am a gardener, which involves less sandalwood and more steer manure, so I picked up a rake.

It’s not spring yet, although it’s probably not far off—we’ll get a few more cold snaps and possibly even a good solid snow, the way this winter is going. So there’s a limit to the kind of gardening I can really DO. I settled for raking the leaves off the deck and onto the site of the future vegetable bed and plotting out my nefarious plans for an herb mound.

I don’t know if that was the response the world wanted, but apparently it was close enough.

Winter Quiet

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There is pretty much nuthin’ goin’ on in my garden at the moment.

Okay, that’s an anthrocentric view. There is undoubtedly a lot going on at levels where I can’t see much of it–the mountain mint, for example, thought our snow and ice was downright cute and has put out an enormous thicket of leaves at ground level, as has the goldenrod. The cup plant did too, but then something ate them.  Come spring, I will plant a couple more cup-plants, but I will plant them INSIDE the fence. (In any well-regulated world, they should be critter resistant. The leaves are like sandpaper.) There are teeny tiny diamond shaped not-quite-buds on a lot of the shrubby things. Probably the fifty-and-sixty degree weather of the last few days means that there are roots rooting around on the down-low. Heck, another week of this and the Salvia greggi will probably decide that it’s time to get to work and start flowering. Salvia greggi is a bit of an overachiever.

It has been warm enough that there are even a few insects out and about. I want to warn them that it’s not spring yet and they would be better off hibernating a little longer, but since I’m throwing open windows and making grandiose plans to finally clean the deck, I don’t really have a leg to stand on.

But in terms of stuff that I, human, can do to the garden–not a lot. We’ll probably get at least a couple more nasty cold snaps, possibly even another honest-to-god snow the way this winter’s going, so the best thing I can do is leave well enough alone, take hot baths with my seed catalogs and a martini, and not start poking around stirring things up just to give myself something to do.

Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch…

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It is now cool enough in the morning that I can sit out on the front steps with coffee. This is an improvement. I still can’t do yardwork worth a damn, but I can at least sit there, and stare at the garden, and go “Why did I ever think that seven-foot-tall weirdass South American pea-plant would fit in a bed that size?”

I have plans, once fall hits and I start the new big bed in the front, to move a bunch of plants. We’ll see how it works out.

Meanwhile, condemned to work indoors, as I slowly continue to paint the living room, I find myself looking at design and decorating blogs, with the voraciousness and mild shame with which normal people look at porn.

You know how it is…you skim through one at random until you find something that looks like something you might actually DO, then you follow the link to another blog, and wander through the zillion links attached to it. Unfortunately, there’s so few things that look like anything I’d actually do. I did not consider the seventies a pinnacle of design, and I tend to avoid Shabby Chic because, in a house with this many cats, everything will be shabby in short order without any effort or distressed paint finishes on my part. And there is usually too much fiddly crap on the walls. I am not fiddly. This is not because of bold pop-art aesthetics, it is because I lack patience and manual dexterity. Some of those stencil-transfer-y things kill me. You’d have to have the fingers of a fairy safecracker to get the swoopy swirly things laid out right.

Nevertheless, I keep browsing. I cannot help myself. How are these women–they are almost always women–taking these photos? Do they lug a studio light around with them at all times so that they can take extreme close-ups of their artfully arranged muffins?* Who photographs their lunch with such exquisite care? I admit it, I’m jealous. My lunches tend to consist of a microwaved Lean Cuisine or a nuked bowl of leftovers, which Kevin, in deference to my culinary failings, carefully arranges into “Artist Sized Portions” which can be shoved as-is into the microwave the next day. They are often tasty, but not really suitable for the extreme close-up photo with the soft focus fading into a blurry bowl of peonies in the background.  For one thing, I would need peonies, and having inherited one at my last house and discovering just how much care those plants need, I wouldn’t take one if you gave it to me.

Several of the blogs told me that they were about “living the authentic life.” This phrase struck me in particular, because I had never considered the authenticity of my life before.  Being prey to the gnawing insecurity which afflicts most of humanity, I immediately assumed that my life was not authentic and went to the blog for answers.

After nearly an hour of browsing, I am still in the dark about what is required, although according to the photos, coordinating napkin rings may be essential. This may be where I have gone wrong. I do not own a napkin ring. It always seemed pointless, what with also not owning napkins. (I suppose I could stick paper towels through the napkin rings…)

Anyway. After part of an evening of such browsing, I gave it up and just went over to Catalog Living instead, which is at least funny.

Only another month until the heat breaks. I hope.

*Not a euphemism.