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Tick tock goes the gardening clock

Monday felt like the last good day to work outside in comfort. The bright sunshine and warm breezes did not hint at late October but I knew there wouldn’t be many more days like this in 2017 – maybe none. Never mind writing deadlines, piled-up emails, looming laundry, and errands in town. I claimed the time for me and the garden.

What to do first? My deck and garden still sported at least 15 containers filled with cannas, dahlias, gingers, pineapple lilies and mixed annuals with a few perennials mixed in. It was time to cut them back and store them for winter, take them inside, or compost them. Also facing me was a sad little guilt-inducing lineup of perennials and a couple of shrubs that I hadn’t gotten around to planting, although I had done a fairly good job of planting most new acquisitions this season.

I also have other tasks that are familiar to most homeowners: storing yard furniture, deck furniture, garden art, bird baths and tools; also cutting back limbs and marking the driveway to get ready for the snow plow. And I’ve put off another job, less familiar to most people, that had to be faced before winter. I have been worm composting (vermiculture) for 20 years, but the bins became so heavy that I’ve neglected to empty them and use the dense compost. My excuse is a back problem, but today was the day to face it for one great reason: I’d hired a professional gardener to help me!

A time to get help

Many people garden to get away from our jobs and pressures, and even from other people. We connect with nature, find our own peaceful places, and follow our own minds and hearts. So it’s not easy to let anybody into a personal garden. It’s a great joy and piece of luck if you can find the right person.

In my case, with a complicated plant collection, soil I have built so arduously, and my organic and natural approach, I can’t just let anybody help. (Some CNLP firms – certified landscape professionals – certainly have some artistic, sensitive specialists who know the whole range of perennial and container plants, so you can find such people if you ask the right questions. But I think that our industry still needs more professional “gardeners” who know their flowers.)

In short, I am glad I finally admitted to needing some help, and then was lucky enough to find a smart and strong young woman named Bonnie – a graduate of Niagara County Community College’s horticultural program. Good job, NCCC.

A few hours of work

Loved ones like my husband and mother try to save me, saying: “Stop doing so much, cut back on your gardening, it takes too much time!” Honestly it does not take much time to accomplish a lot. In a couple of hours per week I can usually keep up with most weeding, cutting back, watering and some planting or transplanting. Now, in a late-season session, just look what we did in just a few hours:

• Save and store tender bulbs and tropical plants: Bonnie brought the containers to the deck and we cut the plants back. I will air dry most bulbs or tubers before putting them in peat or sawdust, and leave some in pots. Most will stay in my basement – the aim is a 50-degree space.

• Potted perennials: Some people store hardy plants in unheated garages or barns, where freezing temperatures are fairly consistent. (Once in a while put some snow on the pots so they don’t dry out completely.) I’ve done better by clustering the plants on the east side of my house against the foundation. They freeze but have some shelter, and most survive. Smaller plants need protection from severe freezing so I put 8-inch or smaller pots within larger pots and surround them with mulch. This time we used the old potting mix from the tropical plant containers. After everything freezes and the mice have found alternative housing I will dump leaves over the whole collection.

• Cutting back perennials: It was nice to have a young version of myself who understood the instructions to cut back the Chelone, Rudbeckias, Hostas, Veronicastrum, Japanese anemones and Filipendulas. Bonnie finished what I’d started last week, and dumped the filled wheelbarrows in the new compost heap.

• The red wrigglers: Worm composting is a good way to use up coffee grounds, kitchen scraps and houseplant debris. Together we emptied the heavy, finished bins – compost for future use – and divided the active worm drawer so that she could start one too. Now I have a lightweight system to manage all winter.

• Young roses: From trade shows and conferences I took home several samples of lovely landscape roses from Proven Winners and Weeks Roses, but I wasn’t ready with beds for them. While the weather still felt like planting time, I knew in September that it was too late for small plants to settle in before winter. (You can still succeed with larger woody plants until the ground is frozen as long as you plant properly and water well.) I’d planted the roses temporarily in a long trough, and they are flowering beautifully – so now what? My answer is to enjoy them on the deck as long as possible and then stash the trough with the perennials close to the sheltered side of the house. I’ll mulch well and hope for the best.

One more day

Some day soon I will have time to finish: Store the emptied pots (after the rain washes them for me), gather and store the props (stakes and fences) and garden art. Bonnie helped with the heaviest furniture and swing set, and I can handle the rest. And of course there is the water garden (aka frog pond)… Maybe there is more than one more day of work out there. For now it’s so satisfying to see all that was done – with a little help from a new friend.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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