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Great Gardening: Taking stock of the gardens after a week away

A week is a long time to be away from a garden, especially in early summer – but this is not a complaint. I had a wonderful trip, connecting with gardens and history, cheeses and wine, and wonderful people in France. It was also good to come home and see my garden with fresh eyes.

Never one to write a garden journal (as I do keep a News column going after all), this time I made notes on my first walk around. Stepping back from each area gave me clear ideas and a vision for the future. Up close, specific plants spoke to me about their needs, their placements, and how I could do better with them. Please walk around my yard with me. It may help you think about your own corner of the world from a different perspective.

Housekeeping

My stepdaughter Libby Maeder once said, “Gardening is outdoor housework.” She has a job and still keeps a wonderful home (way beyond my standards) and enjoys it – but doesn’t want to extend the tasks outside. I see her point: If a gardener aims for neatness, a weed-free garden and well-behaved plants, then gardening could be an endless chore. Like housekeeping, you’re never done. Some of us love it anyway, but others just see work.

From another point of view, the neatness and the weeds may not be that important. A look at Claude Monet’s garden at his home in Giverny (the pink house, with the bridge over the pond, with the water lilies, seen in so many paintings) included many weeds and lots of plants crowding each other and not dead-headed, even though there is a small staff of gardeners. Yet it was one of the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen, with its flow of colors, variations in texture, and changing shades of green – surely motivation enough to fuel an impressionist painter’s imagination. A high standard of housekeeping outside may not matter much at all.

Back at home though, my garden did need some housekeeping. So I went for the compromise: Just as if unexpected company were coming to my house after I’d been away a week, I did what some call a “quick and dirty” job: Pull the big weeds, clip back flopping plants and finished flowers that are blocking other plants, and generally neaten up. Call it: Housekeeping Light.

Priorities and details

• Ragweed and goldenrod. My first reaction to my garden was “Oh boy – look what’s blooming! The meadow rue, some daylilies, the Stachys ‘Hummelo!’ ” My second reaction: “Wow, that ragweed!” It was 3 feet tall, each plant with a million seed heads. Ideally, even in a quick-and-dirty pass through, I would pull these plants out and carefully dispose of them. Ragweed is the primary cause of seasonal hay fever, which usually hits late in summer, and if all those seed heads are left to mature they will produce millions more weeds for next year and about that many sneezes. Pull them I would ... but the trouble is this: They are so solidly rooted my back muscles can’t handle it. The compromise: I took out my Felco pruners and cut every one back to the ground. I piled them to pick up later with the wheelbarrow – an important step not to forget since some seed heads continue to mature and could blow out into the world even from a prone position.

Goldenrod, while a beautiful perennial and pollinator plant (the flavor of much local honey), is also a weed in the wrong place. It also roots deeply so cutting it down and then smothering the root area may be necessary if you can’t dig it out. Other weeds are easy to pull, including lambs’ quarters and purslane – both edible, nutritious plants but out they must go. In the first go-round, get the big weeds and anything forming seed heads first.

Vegetables and seeded annuals

My tomato plants in the raised bed and a swath of annual flowers (planted around June 1) also leaped from the soil. Heat, a few rainfalls, and good soil amended with Big Yellow Bag or Bumper Crop compost helped. All that is needed around the vegetables and flowers is to hoe or pull some weed seedlings and make sure the plants don’t dry out during the coming, possibly dry, weeks ahead.

I also started potatoes in the cloth sack product called Big Bad Bed and they shot up 15 inches. The trick with potatoes is this: When the plants are 12 inches tall, shovel soil around them until only 3 inches of growth shows. Do this at least twice when the stems reach up 8 to 12 inches. The method produces lots of potatoes, whether you’re growing them in a sack, garbage can, raised bed or flat garden.

Clipping back sprawlers

Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) is wonderful as an elegant silver border or repeated swath, easily seen from a distance. It produces upright flower spikes. Many gardeners cut them off immediately but I like their upright nature – until they block other blooming plants. Cut the silver spikes back wherever your aesthetic sense dictates but do leave some since it’s a huge favorite of bumble bees. This clipping-back step applies to other jubilant June perennials such as ladies’ mantles, perennial geraniums and campanulas that now need deadheading or have sprawled a bit too far.

My big picture

Looking at other gardens makes a gardener evaluate her own. An inner monologue keeps running – for me and I know some others: Do I like that look? Should I add a clipped boxwood hedge? Would that plant work in my garden ... wonder what zone it is? Why are the French perennials twice as big as mine?

Personally this time I wasn’t moved to make changes or pursue new plants. I loved what I found at home. I did make a new commitment though: I will spend more time in my garden and cherish it. I will do more looking, more wandering through. Then I got on with it – the outdoor housekeeping that I love.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.