Thursday, January 21, 2010

What Does A Gardener Do In The Winter?

(or... Why Am I Still Paying You In January?)

It was a fair question. After all it is January, we've just been through 15 straight days of below freezing nights, and the flower border is sparse, to say the least.
But when my client poses the question to me from behind the wheel of his pretty little silver roadster, I stop just short of rolling my eyes. I am in the process of blowing storm debris off his extensive driveway. And even as he says it, he wavers, a little unsure of the territory, knowing that he doesn't have much time and he could be presenting me with a soapbox.
"It's endless" is what I say, with a little sweep of my hand. He knows what I mean, and I know what he means.
Obviously he knows I'm there every week because his yard needs me. My primary function there is to keep weeds from winning, to keep flowers blooming, and to keep the potted plants from drying up.
If I wasn't there, he'd know it.
The oxalis would take over. Leaves would bury delicate winter annuals. The container plants on the patio would dry up. Dead limbs that fall on the shrubs would go unnoticed. Leaves and litter that collect on the sago fronds would remain, making an elegant plant look dirty and unkept. The vines... oh! those vines! would continue to weave a tapestry across the edge of the woods, blocking sunlight and choking the very trees that support them. The driveway would grow slick and mossy from the layer of damp leaves and litter that would collect. Little silver roadster would not like that. Nor would the patio furniture like it if I didn't clean the pine needles out from under the seats.
The unasked question is this: Why am I paying you more in January than I did in August? Simple answer? Because in January it is 65 degrees. In August, it is over 90 degrees, and the humidity is about 80%. In January, I can tackle those vines without fear of heat stroke. In August, I can barely make it through the necessary tasks of weeding, watering, and deadheading.
Bare with me a little while longer, good sir.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tsk Tsk

See what happens when we don't pay attention to the landscape?
This is a pretty landscape gone bad. The natural form of the crape myrtles has been compromised by repeated 'pruning', the 'Shillings' hollies are almost dead from the drape of vines that covered them, and this crape myrtle has become a trellis for honeysuckle, smilax, Japanese climbing fern and other opportunistic fiends.
When I first saw this landscape three or so years ago I admired its elegance. As time went on, it looked shabby, and then downright terrible. It doesn't look as bad in the pictures only because winter freezes have defoliated the vines and saplings.
The gentleman who lived here recently died, and I guess he was the one taking care of the yard work. That happens, sometimes, and I guess this wasn't the kind of neighborhood where someone would send their teenager over to lend a hand keeping things up when he became too... whatever... to do so.
Thanks goodness its wintertime, and cool. I hate tackling jobs like this in the hot summer.

After hours of work, we have dug out vines, dug up saplings, weeded, and dug out more vines. My right wrist has broken out in what could have been a major case of poison ivy. Thank you, Tecnu! The landscape looks a lot better, but we still have miles of weeds to go, and then we will have to prune the shrubs, clean up the sago palms, and give everything a good thick layer of mulch. Oh, and those yaupon hollies really need to go. I don't think they would even rejuvenate.

The moral? If you get too sick, old, or busy to take care of the landscape yourself, hire someone sooner rather than later.

Friday, January 8, 2010

They Are All Mine

Here is a warning to all my clients, past, present, and future: Let me be clear. Your plants are my plants.

I pick them out, plant them where they will be happy, water them, feed the very soil which supports them, and wish them well.

I inspect them all regularly, individually, for signs of distress, and I fix what I see wrong.

I sweat it when thug plants try to take over the neighborhood, but I also know that not all babies grow up to be thugs, and so some seedlings, I nurture.
Others I yank out and throw in a compost pile.

Do you know this?

I am a slave (a very willing slave) to the needs of your plants, constantly on my knees, examining leaves, spreading mulch under the limbs, eliminating competitors.

I am a doctor who amputates broken limbs, or splints them so they heal and grow strong again.

Occasionally I dig up a plant and move it, to better compliment the scene, to give it more room to grow, or to rescue it from a stressful situation.

If your plants are in containers, I am the one who watches the temperature, doing whatever it takes to protect them from extremes of heat and cold, and wind, and rain.

I keep my pruning shears sharp and handy, tidying up as I go, snipping out a crossing branch, an errant shoot, or a fading flower.

I treat plants like this because I want them happy, just like I want my clients happy, and I want them to look their best, so my clients will notice. We may think of plants as possessions, you and I, but they are really our neighbors, as alive and co-dependent as we are.

I want every one of you to have the experience of seeing a plant as an individual, which it is. I want you to get to appreciate it, to get to know its particular scent, its form in the landscape, its ability to feed its friends, and fend off its enemies.

I want you to really see your plants, because that is what makes them your plants, too.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

It's hard, sometimes, to keep in mind that a gardener's livelihood requires going out into what we unpoetically call 'the elements'. This is especially true when it is raining.

Today it is not raining, but it is cold. Again. We are expecting a high of a balmy 47 degrees today here on the north end of the sunshine state, a veritable heat wave compared to what the rest of the east coast is experiencing. Still, as I get older, it is tempting to spend days on end holed up in teeny-tiny home, waiting it out.

When I lived in my beloved NC mountains, today would have qualified as warm. I got out in much colder weather if there was work to be done, and there always was work to be done. I remember raking leaves that were frozen to the ground, and frozen in big chunks. I remember peeling out of coveralls when it was 22 degrees, because the work would warm me up so much. I remember one spectacular day up on Cowee Mtn., working by myself. The morning was fairly warm, and sunny. Around noon I watched a dark thundercloud roll towards me over the distant ridges. The storm that it brought was ferocious. The mountain shook with thunder, and lightening struck all around. There was hail, marble-sized. And then the sun came out. I went back to work that day, only to have gray clouds descend upon my head, envelop me in fog, wrap me in sleet, and finally, snow.

Being a gardener forces me to get out into the weather, and that is one of the greatest blessings of this life... except when the weather is HOT. How did I ever end up working in Florida? I always said I could never work outdoors if I lived in Florida. I'm pretty sure the Lords of Karma laughed when I said that, and began setting up that very circumstance right away.

Sixteen years later, I've done my time. I call it my penance, for past wrongs, but I think I'm all paid up now. Time to go home. The Sunshine State is a beautiful place to visit, but not so much fun if your profession keeps you outside all day.

I'm looking forward to working in the cold. Think I'll go out today and do some wrap-up work on my gardens here, just for practice.