Garden Log 5/11/22

I’ve been thinking about labor in the garden. Often when I’m working in the front garden, a neighbor will pause as they walk by and say something like, “Lot of work!” And I’m never quite sure what to say, because the real answer is complex. I usually say something like, “Yes, but I enjoy it!” Or if they seem to want to chat more, I might add something about, “It’s my hobby, exercise, and therapy!”

All of which is true, but not complete? Because it’s not really as much work as they think it is, or rather, the work is very distributed and often optional. A lot of that comes down to the style of garden I have, and the kind of gardener I am.

DESIGNING A BULB & PERENNIAL GARDEN:

To explain it properly, I think I have to go back about 12 years. We bought our house in fall 2007 as a foreclosure, and then did a gut renovation, which ended with us moving in, in spring 2009. The homeowners before us had apparently put in a prairie garden, but by the time renovation was done, the machines had churned it up so much, there was basically heavy clay mud everywhere, and not much else. I could’ve waited to see what had survived, but I knew that I was aiming for a very different kind of garden, so instead, I dove into that plan.

I worked with a garden designer (she was great, but sadly out of business now, so I can’t recommend her to you) to plan out some new paths, a redbud tree, and some initial shrubs, which her crew installed. This is what you would typically do first in a garden – hardscaping, trees, shrubs. We placed a small diamond of sod in the front (maybe one-fifth of the front yard), and a larger rectangle of sod in the back (for our young kids to play on). She was a little startled that I wanted so much garden bed, but I told her I had a plan, and she went along with it. She also suggested I add at least one big planter for annual color, and we had one leftover planter from our condo balcony, so we set that up. So far, so good.

The next thing I probably should’ve done is put in a lot of groundcover – if I’d done that, it would’ve held moisture in the soil and minimized weeding. But the thought of planting a zillion tiny groundcover plugs was boring & exhausting, and we were pretty much out of budget at that point for hiring labor to help. So instead, I mostly put in mulch. Lots and lots of triple-milled hardwood mulch. I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I bought kazillion bags of mulch at Home Depot and brought them home in my car (it took 3-4 trips), and dragged them out across the mudpit of a yard, and dumped them out one by one. (That first year, I also raked in many bags of compost first.)

It turns out that if you have a spot for them to dump the pile, you can get a big load of mulch delivered to you, which I did in later years. Spreading that much mulch was definitely somewhat labor-intensive, but I did it in stints, and got my husband to help when I got tired, and it was basically fine. I didn’t have much else in the way of gardening to do at that point, after filling in the annuals in the planter. Which is probably just as well, since I had a toddler and an infant at that point, plus a full-time job, so I wasn’t sleeping much and energy levels were pretty low.

But I was itching to garden. I knew what I was aiming for, after reading many garden magazines and watching many garden shows – I wanted a lively perennial garden, with flowers that changed every week, all on their own. Something always in bloom, something always emerging, something always dying too – but that last bit isn’t so noticeable if you have plenty of flowers on display. A perennial garden is all about misdirection – if the daffodil leaves are yellowing, but the tulips and alliums are going strong, and the brunnera and hostas have grown up to camouflage the withering leaves, most people won’t notice those yellowing leaves at all. Designing a perennial garden is like being a magician in a way – a little dazzle, a little fool-the-eye. A lot of floriferous delight.

Once our budget recovered a bit, I started buying plants. I went to the garden store every week or two, saw what had come in, and started buying the perennials I liked, usually in groups of 3. 5 or 7 would have been better, but I didn’t have the budget for that; I was figuring that I’d get them going, and in a few years, they’d be big enough to divide, so I could spot more around for repeating patterns. I’d move aside some mulch, dig up some soil, plant the tiny perennials, spread the mulch back around them. Repeat every few weeks, all season long. And then the same thing the following year, and the year after that, etc.

By year 3-4, some of the plants were big enough that I could start dividing, which helped to stretch the budget. It all looked pretty sparse for the first few years, but I could imagine what it would look like down the road. One element of garden design is always time.

Eventually, the triple-milled hardwood mulch broke down and improved the heavy clay soil, making it much easier to plant, and making the plants happier. And each year, I had a little less ground that needed to be covered with mulch. (Again, groundcovers would have taken care of a lot of this – in retrospect, I should have invested the labor in those early instead. Oh well. I did start adding them eventually, though I still have a ways to go.)

At this point, 11 years in, the front garden is so packed with plants, it needs almost no mulch. The side yard still takes a fair bit, and the back beds as well, because I haven’t done as much planting there. Give me another 7-8 years, though, and I might be done with mulching entirely. (If we sell this house at that point, I really hope we can find someone who wants a mature perennial garden!)

DAILY LABOR:

Okay, so that’s the shape of my garden. What that means in terms of labor? Well, starting in early March, I’m out there for maybe 30 minutes a few times a week, pruning trees and such, enjoying the early spring ephemerals and the hellebores that have started to bloom. By mid-April, I’ve done the garden clean-up (or if I’m particularly busy with the day job, hired someone to help with that – this year, Rasta with a Rake took care of clearing my side and back garden, as well as pruning the plum tree, pruning the roses I hadn’t gotten to yet, and moving a rose to a hopefully happier spot).

Of course, instead of cleaning the leaves up, you can just leave them on the ground, which also means less mulching (which saves on both labor and cost), but we have a LOT of leaves and they smother my early spring bulbs, so I do eventually clean them up, though I put it off for a while for the pollinators. And to be honest, I don’t love the look of withered leaves in spring, which is really an aesthetic choice – I prefer the dark brown of soil or wood mulch, or the green of emerging plants, as a foil to the flowers. I don’t mind leaf mulch in other peoples’ gardens, though!

In May, once my semester ends, the labor has kicked into full gear – there’s a ton to do, and I usually spend 30-60 minutes a day in the garden, doing something different every day. Pruning, planting, moving plants around, tying things up, fertilizing the roses and the blueberries, putting in vegetables, etc. and so on. (I don’t do a lot of deadheading / tidying, unless I’m bored and have run out of more interesting things to do.)

June / July are mostly going out in the early morning while it’s still cool and weeding, though the more perennials I plant, the less room there is for weeds to show up. And there are quite a few ‘weedy’ plants that I quite like, and I don’t bother to pull them up unless they’re interfering with some other more desirable plant. Creeping Charlie is okay in parts of my garden, but not allowed in others.

LAST THOUGHTS:

But here’s the thing — even though I do put a lot of time and effort into gardening, that’s usually because I’m enjoying it. If I ignored my garden for six months straight, it’d be mostly fine. Oh, it’d get a little messier, but not actually that much, because mostly it’s designed to have perennials coming and going on their own, all the time. As long as you have something blooming, the garden makes people happy.

I want to write a whole screed at some point about tidyness and messiness and social pressure, but this is long enough, so I’ll save that for another post. My point here is mostly that this kind of garden isn’t as much work as it looks like; mostly, the perennials take care of themselves surprisingly well, especially once they’re established.

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