Reflections on Gardening

It’s fall and the gardening season will be ending shortly. I’ve managed to elude a killing frost so far this year, so I still have tomatoes on the vine. At the same time, its rainy and windy and the leaves are beginning to fall from the trees– I only have so much time left.

It was a short summer. This is the consensus of everyone I’ve talked with, and also seems to be backed up by the data. In April, when the snow was on the ground, I received a package of sweet potato slips, ordered in January when I was optimistic about this gardening season and then forgotten until they arrived.

Just to back up a little bit, I have three gardens: a vegetable garden, a perennial flower bed that wraps around the house, and a garden of prairie plants native to the part of central Wisconsin where I grew up. The prairie garden is about 4 years old now; the others were started 6 years ago when we moved into this house and have been expanded periodically over time. These aren’t wonderful, amazing gardens, but they work. I like them, and we get vegetables, bees, and butterflies in the summer.

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I’m beginning to realize that gardens have their own progression, or succession, over time. In the perennial beds, this happens over several years, while it only takes 3-4 months in the vegetable garden:

  • Planting: This is at the very beginning, when everything is planned and laid out deliberately. Vegetables are in rows, perennials arranged by anticipated height, color, and foliage. The plants take up little space, relative to the amount of available growing space. Effort exerted and optimism for future success are both high.
  • Establishment: It takes the plants a while to get adjusted, build their root systems, and grow. It feels like forever, although it’s really only June for a vegetable garden, and the first 1-2 years of a perennial garden. As a gardener, you wait and wait for the plants to grow and do something— anything! (can I at least get some lettuce?!?!). Meanwhile, weeding becomes critical, and effort remains high. Optimism also remains high that it will all work out, except for the occasional, fleeting thought that it won’t.
Establishment of Prairie Garden, 2011.
After Establishment of Prairie Garden, 2011.
  • Production: Finally, things are shaping up. There are vegetables, There are flowers. There are more bees that slugs. The plants are big enough to compete against the weeds, so weeding is less important and the young, hardy plants are resistant to pests and diseases. Effort is low and spirits are high. Woohoo!  Of course, this stage lasts no more than 2 weeks in the vegetable garden and 2 months in the perennial garden and coincides with summer vacations and other time spent away from the gardens.
  • Divergence: After the excitement of the production stage, reality sets in. Success is differential across the garden: yes, some plants are doing wonderfully and being heroically productive, but others aren’t doing so well. They aren’t growing, or they are being ransacked by pests. Some areas look amazing, like a Better Homes and Gardens centerfold, but others have… issues. Plants are crammed too closely together or are too far apart (or both) , the tall stuff is in front of the short stuff, and the ugly stuff is taking over everywhere. Optimism plummets, and everything needs work.
  • Maintenance: Reality sets in, and now it’s about making the best of what is there, with a reasonable amount of effort and scaled-back expectations. This is mid-August in a vegetable garden, and a few years into a perennial garden. The Better Homes and Gardens centerfold isn’t really happening this year, but maybe it’s possible that this year can be as good as, or slightly better, than last year. Continuous improvement becomes the goal instead of perfection for this growing season. Of course, there’s always next year to get it just right..,

Perhaps this sounds more dour than I mean it to, as I sit here and type in gloomy fall weather. I don’t mean to say that the effort isn’t worth it, that gardening is some hamster wheel of never-ending disappointment. Rather, it’s really amazing to think about the boundless optimism of growing new things every year. I am so convinced that my gardens will be amazing next year. They will be really, really awesome.

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