The lone voice of horticultural reason

Reflecting On An Off Year

10-4-2000 — Enough already. One would think that a billion-dollar dynamo as astonishingly successful as the gardening industry would let up once in a while, and allow its poor, humble patrons a weekend off. But I guess not, judging from the avalanche of fall duties being suggested in the current issues of gardening magazines, catalogs, and on those infuriatingly cheerful television gardening shows.

No rest for the weary. If we really hope to take advantage of all that gardening has to offer, we’re expected to plant tulip bulbs for the next two weeks, replace our ragged annuals with fresh nursery mums, dig up our geraniums and hang them in the basement, store our dahlia tubers in a box filled with peat moss, and tie our tall grasses with festive bows (preparation for the holidays, you understand).

That’s only to break a little sweat on the small of your back. Next you need to add motor oil to a bucket of sand so you can winterize all your shovels (I’d explain the theory further, but you’re not going to do it), fire off a few semiripe cuttings from that half-hardy Mandevilla vine, lay a final application of fertilizer on the lawn, and add a four-inch layer of compost to your vegetable beds. Nothing to this gardening stuff.

Well, let me be the first among us to admit, I’m tired. Not only that, I realized the other day that I have now been gardening long enough to regress, to take a few steps backward, to have an off year.

It has not been a great year in the garden for me. First, it’s been a very busy summer, with lots of commitments and projects, and a fair deal of travel. Starting in the spring my house was remodeled, and that involved a lot of time and effort spent in the house, and not as much time in the yard. All season I’ve felt as if I was playing catch-up in the garden, and in truth I was. Gardening demands many things, and the greatest of these is time.

As of this writing, my tallest asters aren’t staked properly, meaning circled halfway up with wire hoops, as I prefer. A few are fine but half of them are lying sideways, tipped to the ground by their weight and the wind, their purple blooms lost under a blanket of leaves I am preferring not to arouse. Many of my annuals are ragged and void of bloom, from erratic watering throughout the season and lack of a good early-August shearing. Most of my tall phlox and all of my Veronica‘Sunny Border Blue’ are in critical condition, suffocating with powdery mildew. A few of the Astilbe are dead, I’m pretty sure, though I haven’t had time to investigate closely.

For the third year in a row my side yard remains a horticultural train wreck, a seedy and unseemly mess of homeless hosta, castoff native grasses and numerous forgotten daylilies that refuse to die. The big plan calls for this swath to be tilled and seeded as native prairie, but it sure didn’t happen again this year.

Most years you don’t accomplish everything you’d hoped; turns out, some years you don’t accomplish anything. Far and away the most important comment I can make about this current state of affairs, however, is that it’s OK. It’s all OK. Not keeping up with one’s garden, having it get away from you, having parts of your garden look dreadful, it happens if you garden long enough. It’s inevitable. Next year will be fine.

Still, those upbeat magazine garden writers, and the talking-head, TV gardening show hosts will continue to propose batteries of fun and festive fall chores they just can’t wait to tell us about. Sadly for them, they are assuming I own a pruning shears that isn’t shot, or can even find a rake from last year.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener