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Gardeners are out there digging until dark

Gardening is a joyful passion for some people. Others call it an obsession. Craziness. Take a candid peek at what one gardener -- moi -- actually does. Start with Sunday night, after a full weekend. It's time for kicking back, reading the paper or catching up with saved-up episodes of "Dancing With the Stars."

So what did I decide to do at 7:30 p.m. when the choices were the sofa or going back out there?

True gardeners know the answer. There was still daylight; I had strength in my body: I went out and worked until dark. That is what gardeners do.

Regular people don't necessarily get this. They (you?) want a nice yard, as seen on TV, and they have strong urges in spring to plant flowers, cut the green grass and fill pretty planters. Then it's done, right? Everyone can relax in the yard between work, vacations, social lives and fun at the golf course, ballpark or beach.

Here's the problem: For a yard or garden to live up to your dreams, somebody -- you or someone you hire -- has to do a lot of work, at least a few hours a week for a couple of months.

There are no shortcuts. But if you are taking on a garden, or trying to understand a gardener, you need to know the truth.

The work of gardening: I'm not saying that all gardeners and gardens are the same. Each garden has its own history, developmental stage, size and set of problems. Each gardener brings his or her own proclivities and skills. Each season has its weather and pest challenges.

Still, within a range of possibilities, most gardeners do similar work each month. Here are the jobs:

Spring cleanup: It starts in March with yard cleanup (branches, twigs and winter debris) and finishes now. Cleanup also means cutting back dead grasses and stems of perennials (above the new growth) and grooming small shrubs.

Managing weeds: In a new garden, it's fairly easy (and important) to get every new weed before it multiplies. In a mature garden, weeding is often the biggest job of all, and you're never finished. It's enough to drive some people to quit or to hire help.

Large weed infestations can lead to renovating the whole garden. Some people spray, sprinkle or brush on herbicides (be careful to read labels and protect other plants, animals and yourself). If you're weeding the old-fashioned way, that means hoeing seedlings and then digging or pulling the rest. Weeding is often more than half the work of gardening.

Improving the soil and fertilizing: Ads give the impression that you just have to spray with a certain fertilizer to have flowers everywhere. Actually, you really have to take care of the soil annually. That means adding compost (organic matter) around existing plants.

If you have overly alkaline soil or want blue hydrangeas, you work in soil acidifier. You may fertilize perennials or woody plants in spring (never after July) and you fertilize container annuals all season.

Mulching: Many gardeners spread mulch on all the bare areas in a garden and on paths. Mulch blocks weeds, retains soil moisture, protects roots in winter and adds organic matter to the soil over time. Mulch also makes a landscape bed look finished or groomed.

In spring you just rake old mulch to make it even and neater. Then you could put a thin layer of fresh mulch on top of it, but don't let it get thicker than 3 inches and don't crowd tree trunks or smaller plants. Mulching is the kind of physical work that sometimes requires paid helpers, but once it's done you just rake occasionally.

Edging: This is another time-consuming and back-challenging spring job, but good edging instantly makes your yard look better. Grass and weeds always grow into landscape beds, even if they are bordered by rock walls, fences, logs or bricks. A simple V-shaped trench around a bed, to separate the lawn from the bed, makes a visible and practical difference. If you maintain it, then the weed-whacker or lawn mower can keep edges clean.

Watering: In summer, the most time-consuming job is usually watering. New gardens need water all season, because small plant roots need moisture every time they dry out. Older, established plants often need deep, long watering periods to get through dry spells.

Gardeners typically underestimate how much time it takes to adequately hand-water plants, pointing a hose at the base of the plants, and how long a sprinkler takes to soak the soil (easily half of the water evaporates). Even fiddling with in-ground systems, and checking where the water is delivered, takes time. Plan on some hours of watering, twice a week, depending on the size and age of your garden.

Dead-heading: Most flowering plants produce more if you cut or pinch off finished flowers at the bottom of their stems, before the next flower bud. It is called "dead-heading," and it's a job you can poke at, a little each evening, perhaps. But if you have lots of flowers, it takes time.

Planting: Choosing plants and planting them is the fun part, and it's where beginners start (and sometimes finish). It's the least of our jobs. In mature gardens, dividing and moving plants around can also be a demanding task, but fun for those who are hooked.

And we do this why?: I know this sounds like hard work to many people, and it is. (Imagine how much more work is done by Garden Walk Buffalo and other National Garden Festival on-display gardeners!)

But gardening isn't the list of tasks. It is a way of life. It's doing what comes naturally to us -- observing, tending, nurturing -- which explains why we are out there, swatting mosquitoes, sweating or muddy, as darkness falls.

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Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.