Thursday, May 14, 2009

Between a Rock and ... Another Rock

In New Hampshire, we take rocks for granted. The glaciers scoured off all the topsoil 10,000 years ago, and ever since then, rocks have dominated the Granite State. While the landcover of New Hampshire has changed from 15% forested a century ago to 85% forested today, the rocks remain a very solid part of the landscape.

You can't dig a pit, a trench, or even a small hole with a trowel without turning over a rocky fragment. Actually, digging is not required - just shuffle around the lawn in bare feet and I can guarantee that you strike it rich in rocks.

What this means for new gardeners like me is that it takes a LONG time to dig a new garden bed. Anyone can anticipate that digging a garden bed involves using a shovel. Even Michelle Obama used a shovel for her kitchen garden photo op in March 2009, and the schoolkids who helped out got shovel-shaped cookies and apple cider (check out a detailed WSJ blog post with photo)

However, the excavation that is required when digging a garden bed in New Hampshire is more suited to hydraulic tools and a large lumberjack-looking fellow with a crowbar. Unfortunately, neither of those happened to be on hand when I was digging beds this past month. This is why it took me an hour and half and all of my good humor to dig a 6.5-ft-long, 1-ft-wide, 18-in-deep trench for 5 scraggly asparagus crowns. Even though asparagus is the best green thing since Kermit the Frog, I'm in no hurry to dig another trench any time soon.

I may have underanticipated the rockwork involved in digging a garden, but I try not to take the granite for granted. Rocks are excellent for building stone walls, lining garden beds, throwing to a certain yellow Lab, and also creating alpine and Zen gardens. Just look at the fruits of excavation now attractively arranged in our rock garden!

The tags make the rock garden plants stand out more.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Gardening Season Begins?

Gardening season does not have a start date. If you are a gardener, whether you live in the tropics or the Arctic, you garden all year long. Gardening season is a state of mind, not two days X'ed out on the kitchen calendar.

True, there may be that first day when you can see the chives poking out of the residual snow and ice, and immediately you crouch down and brushing away the ice and dead leaves. The green spikes and their sharp oniony tang is a wake-up call to that part of you that went dormant during the winter.

But that day is in sometime in the beginning of April - I can't remember exactly - because New Hampshire is still in the throes of mud season. This "fifth" season is aptly named because it is essentially a 6-week-long mud wrestling match between winter and spring. Not pretty to behold, potentially damaging, and really, what's the use of it? The only benefit I can see that mud season provides is that the weather is so inhospitable that it offers plenty of time for a gardener to start seeds and, more importantly, start dreaming in full, bright Technicolor about what the garden will look like in a few months.

Gardening journals tell you to wait to play in your garden until the ground is dry enough to work... to me, that shows the true impatience of gardeners in spring. We just can't wait to put all of our new garden ideas into the ground and see what sprouts. This urge is especially irresistible when the daytime high gets above 50 degrees and there's a beautiful yellow sun in a clear blue sky. The first week that the local garden and farm stand opened, I was there to buy pansies. So what if the temperature was supposed to be below 20 degrees every night for the next week? (Not that the pansy plants would die, but the blooming flowers wouldn't survive heavy frosts.)

I did hold off on planting those pansies for another two weeks, partly because I was so overwhelmed with the urge to buy and plant flowers that I hadn't even decided where I would put these eight tiny specimens of "Sorbet Mix" pansies. The other part was that last fall, I decided that raking up leaves was not worth the effort; this spring, I decided that was a bad decision. For the first 2 weeks in April, I raked leaves. Instead of planting peas and pansies, I raked the front lawn. Instead of digging new vegetable beds, I raked the leaves from the granite steps leading toward the planned vegetable bed site. Never again will I put off all the raking until the spring, because it might be summer by the time I get done with the raking this year.

This past weekend, I did manage to pull myself away from the rake and actually do some planting and digging. I've got big plans for this year, the second summer in our first home. We were fortunate enough to move into a wonderful bungalow with a completely neglected yard - not exactly a tabula rasa, but there's something so satisfying about tearing out the sparse lawn, culling the overgrown daylily population, and harshly pruning trees and shrubs.

Here's a brief summary of how the gardens look in my mind. In front of the house, there are peas growing up strings in between the foundation plantings (little Spiraea and Potentilla shrubs that we planted last spring). Between the house and the driveway, where Adam dug up the lawn for a vegetable garden last year, we'll have a annual/perennial flower garden with some salad greens thrown in there. New vegetable gardens are in the process of being dug up the hill next to the garage; the hillside leading up there will be part rock garden, part herb garden, part "anything-to-stabilize-this-slope." The shade garden on the other side of the house will get some plants other than comfrey and myrtle, and the lilac hedge will be thoroughly groomed. And I'll put in an asparagus bed... and I'll clear out all the wild blackberry canes... and I won't spend all of the free time in the garden. (Did I mention that I'm an optimist when it comes to gardening?)

This vision is the culmination of many months of planning, research, and daydreaming, and this process is at least as important if not more important that the actual planting. The year-round gardening that I do in my mind is not as strenuous as the digging, weeding, and planting I do from April through September, but it's a critical part of the gardening season.

(Sorry! I ran out of daylight before I could take any photos - check back soon for garden photos.)