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Great Gardening: Enjoying the gift of time in the garden

What a wonderful Mother’s Day it was for me. First I know I am one of the lucky ones for now, on a day when many people experience sadness and the pain of losses. I still have a mother in good health (at age 100) and a daughter who is great company and makes me proud. And on top of all that good fortune one other wonderful thing happened: On Mother’s Day I had the great gift of time by myself in my garden.

Gardeners understand what many partners and family members do not: In May we never have enough time for gardening – especially if we have jobs, children or parents who need us, or other commitments that require us to clean our fingernails and change our muddy-kneed pants. So last Sunday I seized the moment, left the phone inside, and did all I could. Before going in to clean up for dinner I looked back and said, “There! One-twentieth done!”

Little bits of wisdom

If I were a garden journalist, or – today’s version – blogger, I would have written the following tips, notes to self and observations after my Monday morning review of Sunday’s work. Some things you’ll know already but maybe I spotted something you’ll find helpful.

• When it all seems overwhelming, take one section at a time and just do what needs doing. Don’t fret about the whole. (I worked around the outside of my driveway, about 10 feet into the perennials and shrubs bed, fighting the cinquefoil and bedstraw, thinning and pruning crowded plants, and deeply burying open, weeded areas under thick newspaper or black plastic, all covered with pine needles in bags I had saved from last fall.) The principle works for homework or tasks on the job: Start somewhere and finish off one chunk.

• Don’t step on the babies. In a perennial garden in spring, look carefully before you start ripping out weeds at full speed. I have almost ripped out many desirable self-seeding annuals (Nigella – love-in-a-mist or Verbena bonariensis) or young perennials because they are tiny among the tall weeds or because they show up late. On Sunday I almost pulled out the feeble, dead-looking crowns of Perovskia (Russian sage.) Probably I stepped on a few Japanese anemones just emerging. I know many gardeners who have walked on or chopped up Balloon flowers (Platycodon) or Butterfly weeds (Asclepias tuberosa). How disheartened I was upon seeing a huge vacancy in my front (North side) bed until I remembered: Rodgersia is also very late to poke through.

• Get rose gloves. Wear the rose gloves before – ouch! – it’s too late. Every time you think you’ll pick up the rose clippings gently, with the regular gloves, you get pricked and can even get an infection.

• “The third year they leap” is true! I say it often to new perennial or shrub buyers: Be patient. It’s small now but don’t crowd it; you’ll be amazed by the third year (or fourth or fifth, depending). Now my reaffirmation came in the form of Exochorda (Pearl bush, cultivar ‘The Bride’). It poked along for a couple of years – blah – and suddenly it’s full of bright white flowers and 4 feet tall! That’s the joy of gardening.

• I have never been sorry I took something out. On the other hand, I have often regretted not taking out something sooner. Plants I let go for too long: Purple alliums (way too spreading), hops vine (too much vine with too little beauty) and Artemesia lactifolia. It’s really a mugwort, a bullying weed, but some connoisseurs of unusual plants tempted me at the time. (Life lesson: If a true gardener tells you something “can be a real bully,” believe her. Don’t think you can keep it under control.) Many people tell horror stories like this about Houttenia.

• Move the plant as soon as you conclude it’s in the wrong place. I should have moved the variegated Rose of Sharon farther away from a tree long ago. It’s too big now. I should have moved the gold-leaved tansy and the yarrow ‘Stephanie Cohen’ into full sun much sooner. What a difference! Toad lilies should have moved into dappled sunlight from a darker spot sooner too. And why haven’t I yet moved the Clove Current nearer to the house where we’ll catch the heavenly fragrance in May?

• It’s not (necessarily) dead yet: important to learn. Many new gardeners give up and dig up butterfly bushes, hardy (dinner plate type) hibiscus, and probably Lespedeza (Pea shrub). But wait! They are probably alive. Watch for tiny green shoots coming from the base even as late as June 1. My cut leaf sumac, Carolina allspice and Callicarpa (Beauty berry) are barely showing life. A couple of clematis are also just showing shoots at the base. Some plants just break dormancy and form buds slower than others.

• Plant protectors wanted: Flower and vegetable gardeners need plant guards of various sizes to keep bunnies from eating the plants or to indicate “New plant here; don’t step on me!” I have improvised for years with lampshade frames, bird feeder cages and milk crates. Now my husband is designing various circles of chicken wire or deer netting attached to stakes. Plants grow quickly so the needs change but I think many of us need some plant guards of several sizes from 8 by 6 to 12 by 12 to 24 by 24 (height and diameter in inches). By the time plants are bigger, the bunnies and deer have lots to eat and most plants will survive unguarded (or they are the wrong choices).

• Go get the right tools or garden cart or bucket now, as soon as you need them. Don’t be lazy and pile the weeds and then go fetch the cart. Don’t dig with your pruners because you don’t have the trowel. On the way to the garden, plan.

• Remember to look back at what you did. Instead of seeing all that still needs doing, applaud your progress since usually nobody else will notice. It feels good, on Mother’s Day or any day.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.