Archive for February, 2007
I have spent the better part of this winter obsessively checking the National Weather Service Forecast Office’s website – now bookmarked on my laptop. We plant people emerge from the dormancy of winter suddenly anxious for the proper weather to nurture our gardens and crops, fearful of too much or too little of the essential elements necessary for a timely bloom or surviving seedling. In this I am probably no less eccentric in my preoccupation than the farmers and gardeners of yore who relied upon the ancient celestial reckonings printed in their Almanacks to determine the timing of sowing and winnowing. Or to uncover a liar on the witness stand, as one country lawyer famously referenced his in the so-called “Almanac Trial”. The witness, a Mr. Allen, claimed to have seen a murder committed in the dead of night at a considerable distance due to the brightness of the moon at that hour. The lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, Esq., whipped out an almanac from his briefcase to reference the time of moonset for that late August evening of 1857 in central Illinois as 12:03 a.m., just an hour after the witness claimed visibility by full moonlight. At this, the courtroom burst into laughter, and Lincoln passed his almanac to the jurors, who promptly aquitted his client.
Though the NWS employs satellites and computer models to determine the timing of a drop of rain or a sudden hailstorm, I am not convinced it is the gardener’s only true device for knowing the weather. A quick check of NWS this morning reveals that “Lack of significant cloud cover along with the very cold airmass over the region has allowed temperatures to drop to near freezing in some of the interior valleys.” Of course, I might only have walked out the back door to find that the skies are cloudless and it is cold – about 48 degrees by the reckoning of the rusting metal-spring thermometer on the garage wall.
Yesterday, though, a thundershower and hailstorm were predicted in the afternoon, leading me to lay protective screens over the $120 worth of tender new plants I had put in last week. Sure enough, at about 4pm there was one lightening strike, one clap of thunder (that startled the cat), and 5 minutes of hail. The plants survived.
I dragged myself out from under the warm covers the other morning and donned my compost clothes – baggy old jeans and several layers of raggedy cotton knit tops – squeezed into my rubber garden clogs and tied my hair back (it ends up in my mouth and stuck to my sweaty eyelids), and went out into the chill grey mists to heave clods of new dirt onto my raised bed.
My sloping back garden is mostly a huge hunk of clay that, when mixed with the espresso brown froth of commercial soil amendments, simply rolls into a shiny grey ball and sits on top of the dirt like meatballs on rice. The backbreaking work of digging in compost can only be done piecemeal or I pay for one day of shovel mania with five of painful muscle spasms. So I’ve learned to dump a shovel of compost onto my beds here and there, week after week, month to month, and occasionally hack it into the soil around the plants.
There is one plot though that was fenced and amended before we moved in over ten years ago. Raised about 3 inches and relatively level, this 7 foot by 18 foot bed is conveniently bordered on one long side by a cement path. Shaped into faux flagstones, it was certainly the original path under the old clothesline that hung between the garage and a now rusting “T” pole that holds up the giant canes of a yellow blooming rosa Banksia. Emerging from under the redwood deck that now covers the garage end, I can manage to haul a rolling bin of dry leaves or heft the small compost bucket down this path to the 3×3 foot layered Smith & Hawkin compost bin that has for the last decade provided me with lovely black fluffy dirt from my vegetable peelings, yard flotsam, and the occasional bag of chicken manure.
The raised bed has been my garden research plot for many seasons, beginning with a precisely measured and string-divided vegetable plot a decade ago, devolving into meandering swaths of vegetables and flowers, herbs, decorative flagstones with giant terra cotta pots, and finally just flowers, flowers, flowers. Well, I can’t help but leave in a few sprawling tomatoes even though they really don’t get enough sun to produce more than a handful of small fruits.
This year I finally conceded the reality of my back garden. There is only one spot that has dirt (not clay) good enough for annuals and that is the (former) vegetable bed. And as if she had read my mind, Annie Hayes, the owner of Annie’s Annuals nursery and gardening enthusiast, took up two pages of her latest plant catalog to emphasize the importance – nay, the imperative! (Annie loves exclamation points)- of creating “soil that is easy to slide a shovel into” if you want a fabulous mass of blooming annuals commonly known as a cottage garden.
And here is the ultimate test of that “cottage garden soil”. When you walk on it does it sink under your weight like a pile of down comforters? Or does it suck your shoes – and socks – off with a glurping sound in winter, and bounce knives off the surface in summer? If the former, it’s worthy to receive $$$’s worth of tender annuals for planting. If the latter, you might as well just shovel your money into the ground (it might compost).
So after spreading last summer’s pile of compost in a layer over the raised bed, and turning over the gloopy stuff still in the bin, I put on my shopping clothes and drove out to Annie’s Annuals to load up a red wagonful of California native annuals for an early spring garden.