8 parting tips from a longtime Associated Press columnist
Farewell, fellow gardener. After almost 30 years of sharing my gardening experience, expertise, and enthusiasm in columns for The Associated Press, I’ve decided to focus my time and energy in other directions.
Thanks for joining me as, according to the seasons, I selected tomato varieties to grow, pruned ‘mums for best blooms, or highlighted the darker side of mistletoe.
Perhaps you’re a brand-new gardener. Perhaps an experienced one. My goal has been to guide, to entertain and, most of all, to share with you the joys of gardening.
I’d like to close by offering eight suggestions to help make your garden — whether it’s a few flower pots, a large vegetable plot or a general home landscape — prettier, more productive, and more enjoyable to maintain.
• Suggestion #1: An important element of good gardening can be summed up in two words: organic matter. Autumn leaves, compost, sawdust, kitchen trimmings — that is, materials that are or once were living — are all organic matter. Added to the soil, it encourages a healthy balance of beneficial soil microorganisms that help fight plant pests and feed the plants. Organic matter also improves soil aeration and moisture retention.
• Suggestion #2: Did some insect or disease ruin you zinnias or other plant last summer? Don’t panic! Aphids, scab fungi and other pests are part of the natural world, and they can be part of what makes gardening interesting. Tolerate a certain amount of damage. Your plants can. Japanese beetles might chew off part of your rose’s leaves, but the plant compensates by ramping up photosynthesis in remaining portions. Find out specifically what the problem is, how and where it lives, and all possible ways of dealing with it before taking action. Where a spray is called for
— and a spray should be a last resort — follow directions exactly for best effect with minimum impact on non-target organisms.
Suggestion #3: Have faith in Mother Nature and try to follow her lead. She’s been at it a long time. A seed dropped into a soil furrow really does want to grow. Bare soil is prone to erosion and wide swings in temperature. Nature clothes and protects bare soil with plants (weeds); you can do so with crop plants or mulch. The natural habitat of blue flag iris and cardinal flower is wet soils; that of purple coneflower and blazing star is dry soils. Site plants accordingly.
• Suggestion #4: Keep written records and photos of what you’ve done each year. Then you can better learn from your mistakes. There’s no end to what you can learn about gardening, unless you forgot what you did and what the result was. Thomas Jefferson, a very good gardener, wrote: “Though an old man, I am a young gardener.” He kept good written records but, of course, no
• Suggestion #5: Don’t get boxed in by preconceptions. Allow me to offer three examples.
a) “Weeding isn’t fun.” Weeding is enjoyable if weeds don’t get out of hand. One way to keep them in tow is with regular hoeing. Or with mulching. Or by not tilling. Tilling exposes weed seeds buried within any soil to light, just what they need to sprout. Over 30 years ago, I abandoned the annual ritual of tilling the soil, and now regular weeding takes me only a few enjoyable minutes every few days.
b) “Flowers belong in a flower garden.” Flowers in your vegetable garden will beautify it and attract beneficial insects. No need for the vegetable garden to look like a vegetable factory. A prettier vegetable garden is more inviting, to the benefit of both you and your plants. For that matter, there’s no reason vegetables need be confined to the vegetable garden. Eggplants, peppers, rainbow chard: They’ll all add pizazz to your flower bed.
c) “I need an orchard to grow fruits.” Not if you integrate fruit plants into your landscape. Many fruit trees are decorative in their own right. In fact, some, such as juneberry, cornelian cherry, and Nanking cherry, are mostly grown for their beauty, without people knowing that the tasty fruits hanging among the branches are edible.
• Suggestion #6: Seek out reputable sources when you have a gardening question. When I need solid information online, I include “site:edu” or “site:gov” in searches, which calls up university or government sites, respectively. Sure, they’re not always 100% correct, but 99% is good enough for me. There are other sites with reputable information, of course, but it takes more finesse and knowledge to know the good from the bad.
• Suggestion #7: Grow a wide variety of plants, especially edibles. Years ago, a confluence of conditions in the Northeast resulted in late blight disease, which devastated many gardeners’ and farmers’ tomato plants. Mine also! But that year I still picked plenty of peppers, sweet corn, kale, and all sorts of other vegetables and fruits.
• Suggestion #8: Be careful not to let flashy catalogs or websites, or spring’s first warm breezes, entice you to plant too much. This is a tough suggestion to follow. I still fall prey to planting too much (although I rationalize that my plantings are also for workshops and demonstration purposes). When visitors admire my garden’s abundance, especially of vegetables and fruits, I half-jokingly admonish them, “Don’t do this at home!” Not this much, at least.
Although I will no longer be writing about gardening for the AP, I’m not abandoning my hoe, my trowel, my whole garden. I’m planning some new fruit, vegetable, and ornamental plantings, and editing some of my existing ones by cutting down some pawpaw trees, planting a screen with layers of rhododendrons, arborvitae, and winterberry, laying another stone wall behind which to grow lingonberry and dwarf sweet box, and so on.
My gardening is something like my writing. I do a draft and then edit it again and again.
I’m also not giving up writing. Every week I post a blog (www.leereich.com/blog). Come visit me there, where the whims of the weather and the weeds, a flower that caught my eye, a particular aroma, or the unfolding of blossoms or the ripening of fruits might dictate what I write.
Gotta go now. The garden beckons. Yes, even in December!