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Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2008 08:34 am

Garden lessons for the new year

It’s time to make plans

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Untitled Document An experienced plantsman once told me the best time to prune: “Whenever the shears are sharp.” My approach to gardening has followed a similar bent. I do what I can when I can, with what I have. That’s why I was out planting daffodil bulbs on the day before New Year’s Eve. I pulled up some turnips then, too. Some say they taste better after a frost, though they still taste like turnips. A friend had given me a start from her blackberry vine, so I got that in the ground. Whenever the weather warms up a little and I have time and energy, the garden is waiting, winter or not. I survey the ruins of the past season’s effort. Dead tomato vines still hang on their cages, which I had carefully labeled by variety when I planted them with a good deal of hope. My tomatoes didn’t turn out worth a hoot this year, probably because I didn’t get them planted till June. Like every year, this year’s garden had a dozen failures, and I often feel fortunate that people don’t get arrested for plant abuse. At first I was excited to see a picture in a gardening magazine that looked just like the bed of ornamental castor beans I grew out back. Then I realized the photo was there as a bad example. “The simplicity of the traditional planting in the above photo demonstrates how visually flat this arrangement can be.” Well!
But there were enough successes to balance out. My okra did fine, and I have good luck with bush beans as long as I fence the rabbits out. I did get my potatoes planted in March when I was supposed to, and had my first successful crop. I’ve been adding every year to my perennial bed, so I now have a nice collection of daisies, coneflowers, phlox, coreopsis, etc. This fall a friend divided and rearranged the plants by size and color, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that comes out. The seed and plant catalogs have started arriving, so I’m making plans. The White Flower Farm book, my favorite, carried an essay on “Designing Your Garden.” “The most important point to make is this,” it said: “The best garden will be produced by finding plants you like that are well suited to your climate and soil, and making a brave start. You learn nothing while waiting or paying someone else to garden for you.”
Pretty pictures in the catalogs get my juices flowing, and it’s easier to feel brave when the work is four months away. I might try starting tomatoes indoors from seed. “Improved Gurney Girl II” looks good. Maybe this will be the year I plant sweet corn. Pole beans would be fun, and save my aching back. I think I’ll start a new vegetable bed where I have more sun, or cut down those hackberries that stand in the way of successful broccoli. Life is too short to plant vegetables in the shade. On that subject, it takes fruit trees several years to produce a crop, so I’d better get them started. I’m not getting any younger. I need to get started while I’m energized, because spring gets overwhelming with all there is to do. If I don’t have the right seeds and the right equipment ready at planting time, I can easily get distracted or discouraged. It’s not like me to make a plan and write it down, but I need to learn to do just that. If I order seeds now I won’t have much choice but to plant them after they arrive. Winter is for getting the tiller running right, sharpening the blade on the mower, and buying a chainsaw. The more I do now, the better chance there is for a good garden year. As gardeners know, the same applies to other aspects of life. What we do in the off-season determines the season. Dreaming by the fire sets hearts on fire. Planning makes more things possible. Life is too short to settle for mediocrity. A new year is another chance. We learn nothing while waiting. It’s time to sharpen our tools. And make a brave start.
Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com
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