Being a host for Garden Chat on twitter last night made me think about how I garden, esp in the fall. Also, how I've learned to garden. Folks tell me that by looking at my garden pics, they assume my garden is much older, and that I've been a gardener my whole life. Really, the garden and I were born together in July of 2007, and what I've learned has been by trowel and error, and by lots of book reading and obsessive google searching. Hope some of this helps, esp if you're a newbie:
-- Each spring I get hatchback loads of free compost from my city. I use this to top dress the garden and lawn in March / April. I also use it in each new planting hole, on the bottom and sides, and top dress the new plant, water, then mulch. That's all the fertilizer I use. Know what I mulch with? All my herbaceous perennials--which make great homes for insects and spiders on the garden floor.
-- In fall I cut nothing down. Why? Let's take for example the black swallowtail caterpillars currently munching on fennel and parsley. They will soon venture off to form a chrysalis, and remain attached to sticks and stems until April-ish when they emerge. Why would I toss them? A lot of insects are bedding down for winter, insects that will pollinate my perennials, give me more seed, and that will also feed hungry baby birds in May. Speaking of birds--I have 5x as many in the winter now that my garden is mature-ish. Flocks and flocks. Here are some things that depend on you leaving your sticks and leaves alone.
-- Not cutting down part 2: I can see the garden so much more clearly, walk it, and think about what needs work. If you try to design in the summer you can't see anything. Besides, winter sucks already, if you at least leave the garden standing you can IMAGINE it alive, you can dream and plan, and that gets you through. Oh, and plants will grab snow with their stalks for insulation, and hollow-stemmed plants are less likely to freeze and die.
-- I do a lot of research. Right plant for the right place. This often means a native species plant, not a hybrid or cultivar because....
--GARDENING IS NOT HARD WORK. It can be if you want it to be, if you love the act. But look--I think even gardeners suffer from the misconception that gardens mean tending, tending, tending. NO NO NO. If I wanted to do the bare minimum necessary to sustain my 2,000 square feet, I could spend 2-4 feverish days in March in it--that's all. This is because I have the right plants in the right soil and light, because I use compost, because I mulch, and I believe because I use so many natives. If a plant doesn't make it, it doesn't get a second chance, but most do make it.
-- As the garden grows, it supports itself more and more. Roots intermingle and share information and nutrients, also choking out weed roots (and weeds themselves from sunlight in a growing canopy of perennial foliage). Don't plant your garden thin -- go thick. Go tall.
-- Garden pests? Forget about it. I may have 5 million aphids and grasshoppers, but within a week of their appearance I have 10 billion apex predator bugs--assassin, garden spiders, mantis. I don't have to use pesticides, which also means more insects, which means more plants and birds, which means more predators, which means I have more insects, which means more plants and more wildlife....
-- My garden is starting to self sow. I move some seedlings, I kill others, I toss seed in my garden and over the fence on to my neighbor's acreage (and out of my car window). The garden wants to do what it wants to do, and left to its own for years it would become a prairie. But it's a garden. So I garden here and there in bits throughout the year because I want to--but it's not really maintenance.
-- I garden for fall. I have blooms into November here in zone 5 with many species of grasses, burnet, chelone, solidago, aster, eupatorium, (yes I use Latin, you should too, and you'll pick it up naturally as if being in a foreign country). It's fall, think fall--but think spring. Dig now and give your plants a head start. Get things on sale. Water well once, then mulch, then forget about it until March.
Don't know if that was interesting to anyone. I speak about some of this stuff in my memoir Sleep, Creep, Leap, but if anyone ever wants to ask a question, I'm game. I might not have the answer, though, contrary to my cat's opinion of himself (he's walking across my hands right now).