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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: A gardener's work is never done

I’m old and tired enough now to tell you the dirty, dirty truth about gardening. When I finish my story I think you’ll wonder why any sensible person would engage in it. (Warning: This article contains adult material. Younger or newer gardeners who have not yet been exposed should not proceed further.)

The Dirty Truth: Gardening demands time. Tasks expand exponentially. You are never done.

Take today, for example. It is Nov. 14 as I write. Surprisingly it was a sunny, mild afternoon. It still feels like early autumn. About 2 p.m. I left my desk, deciding it was time to finish putting away the garden props and supplies. I could wrap it up; be ready for winter. Actually, I thought I’d already done most of this on several other days. I’d put away the birdbaths, lifted the pump out of the water garden, put all the containers on the deck, took houseplants inside, and cut back most perennials. Good enough? Apparently not. This is about my fourth week of “I’ll just finish up out there.”

The first thing I intended to do today was to fold up (finally) the 20-by-30-foot sheet of black plastic I had used to kill grass on a new area I hope to plant next season. Twice I spread it out in the sun, held down by boards so the wind wouldn’t take it. Twice the rain came before I put it away. One more time, I shook the water off and spread it again.

Next I noticed that the annuals, cutting garden plants and weeds beside the barn hadn’t been pulled out – a quick job, surely. Amaranth “Kiss me over the garden gate” was dramatically successful there, but pokeweed had grown among the 4-foot plants. It was a cool combination, I’d thought. (Pokeweed is a native plant/weed that contains a deadly toxin; it’s also used for deep purple dye and some medicines among Native Americans but it is pretty in the right place.) I hadn’t banked on how deep its roots grow. Couldn’t pull it out by hand. Went for the shovel. Dig and pull, dig and pull. I went for the wheelbarrow as the weed pile was getting high.

The bed I had emptied was now bare – just asking for a heap of weeds next spring. I am quite sure the Amaranthus (a major food plant in India and other places) had already dropped a zillion seeds in that bed. (Wait, stop, I thought. Just cut off a bucket of those seed heads for Lockwood’s Greenhouses or a Grassroots Gardens project or Master Gardeners … Somebody must want them).

I had to cover that soil. The immediate solution: break apart the bales of straw I had planned to use last spring on a new section of the garden, and spread it. Straw is good. You can heap straw on a garden and it breaks down beautifully, leaving great soil beneath. Just make openings in the straw and plant in it. I spread the straw at least 5 inches thick over that 4-by-20-foot area. Done. (Do not ever use hay that way unless you want a field of hay and weeds in that place. Hay is full of seeds.)

At that point I planned to spread the remaining straw over that new area of now-dead grass. It still had enough plastic over half of it that I could uncover the soil, spread the straw, cover it again with plastic and – voila – it would be lovely next spring.

But to do that I had to move some 5-gallon buckets and Big Bag Beds off the area. The buckets and beds were still filled with a great Big Yellow Bag garden soil, in which I had grown potatoes, tomatoes, and gladioli. So I decided to dump the contents of those containers and my dear old wash tub onto my raspberry patch. The berries are in raised beds, about 4 by 20 feet, enclosed by boards about 4 inches high. My husband and I just banged them together from whatever hardwood boards we could find. Not fancy but they worked. I am very happy with that patch of red and yellow raspberries – second year. The yellow ones especially kept producing all fall. Normally I’d cut them back in February.

The trouble was: To get to the beds to add the nice soil, I had to prune back the wild raspberry canes. Memory told me to cut back the producing canes and leave the others. (For ever-bearing raspberries some people cut back all the canes entirely for a big fall crop rather than going for a spring and fall crop.

For that job I needed the pruner from my house and was shocked to see how much time had passed. No matter, I thought. Can’t be too many days like this left ...

I quickly finished the raspberry job and went to get the second wheelbarrow because I had piled the first one with things to go to the barn: large tomato cages, 5-gallon pots, the old tub, planting bags, shovels, and stakes. I filled the second one with pokeweed, amaranthus, and raspberry clippings. I dumped it at the edge of the yard where I am piling an unstructured compost.

Walking back to the house I passed the perennial garden that is almost ready for winter. I saw more items that need storing, and perennials on the deck waiting for their winter home. I sighed, thinking it really never ends, and decided to tell my readers this dirty little truth.

But wait! I turned back for a moment to look at my work: the straw spread, the berries pruned, the containers stacked, and just a few tasks left to do. It felt good. I’d had a workout and was oxygenated and relaxed. I hadn’t thought about deadlines or committees for hours; no phone calls, no e-mails. And tomorrow I could be lucky enough to go back out there to work in my garden. Truly, that’s the good news: You’re never done.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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