Saturday, April 26, 2014
"Why does our neighbor's garden look better?"
"Why does our neighbor's garden look better than ours?" These are words that, coming from one's spouse, will make any self-respecting gardener wince. And it's true, this time of year I'm a bit jealous of the daffodils and tulips blooming in the garden next door, and the perennials that are practically filled in already. Their garden is lush and green, and mine kinda looks like crap.
I'll be the first to admit that my garden looks like hell in the winter and spring. Because of my emphasis on perennials, annuals, and heat-loving tropical plants, much of the garden dies back in the fall and frankly, I don't bother to clean it up until the following spring. I'm of the philosophy that all that organic matter, left in place to decompose, helps improve the soil. (At least that's what I tell myself; maybe I really am just that damn lazy.) It doesn't help that after our coldest winter in 20 years, many normally evergreen plants that would otherwise look good right now--for example bamboos, fatsias and hardy palms--are looking pretty sad. Most of these will recover, but it will take some time.
As much as I love them, I use spring-flowering bulbs rather sparingly. Daffodils are wonderful for early spring color, but in my climate the flowers rarely last for more than a few days, whereas the foliage remains for weeks afterwards, taking up space and demanding sun if they are to bloom again next year. Tulip foliage fades faster, but the flowers are likewise ephemeral. And then there's the problem of digging up dormant bulbs anytime I decide to plant something in late summer or autumn.
I do have some plants coming up and getting ready to bloom, like bleeding hearts, bearded irises and columbine, but these spring-flowering perennials tend to look a bit ratty by mid-summer. In a small garden like mine, plants have to earn their keep by looking halfway decent throughout the growing season, even when they're not blooming. Many early-blooming perennials can't pull their weight by late summer, so I try to limit these to just a few of my favorites. Meanwhile many of the later-blooming perennials like Asclepias tuberosa, Spigelia marilandica, Hibiscus hybrids, and Begonia grandis, are barely emerging from the ground. In part because of this, and in part because I reserve space to try new annuals or tropicals every year, there are many gaps right now.
Perhaps most glaringly, the landscape timbers that were used to terrace the hillside, probably 20 or more years ago and never installed properly, are rotting and failing. Yes, they look terrible. I've known for years that they need to be replaced, but again, I'm just that lazy. Anyway, once everything starts growing, they are completely invisible... and this time of year, things grow very, very fast.
It's easy to convince people you have a wonderful garden when you only show photos of it at its peak--which for some gardens is just a week or two in the spring. I'm not afraid to show my garden at its absolute worst, because once I get everything cleaned up and planted--usually sometime in mid-May--I'm pretty pleased with it. If anything, the before-and-after photos are that much more dramatic. So when does my garden look good? From early summer well into the fall, sometimes even into early December, depending on when our first killing frost comes around. At a time of year when many other gardens are fading and tattered, mine is still going strong.
So this weekend I'll do a bit of cleanup, cutting back obviously dead stems and foliage, but otherwise I'm not in any hurry to do much in the garden. I'm content to hold off for a bit, because I'm still waiting to see what survived and might still come up, and it's too early to plant out the begonias, cannas, and other plants I'll grow this year. There are other pleasures to be had, whether it's the fern croziers unfurling, or an evening rainbow over the neighborhood. Maybe I'll get more work done in the garden next weekend.