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July 13, 2006

The Overcrowded Garden


Something has changed about my garden this year. It's reached a kind of critical mass, finally. It's matured. Most of the perennials have been in the ground long enough to reach their full size, and some, like the two dozen lavender I planted when I moved in, are now old and woody and ready to be pulled out.

I stood in the garden this afternoon, thinking over the fates of those lavender plants, and I suddenly realized that in a few more months, this will officially be the garden I've had longer than any other. How did that happen? I still think of this as being my new garden, the one I filled with plants from my old garden. But it's not so new anymore. It's full-grown — and it's also full.

Gardens have a way of marking the passage of time in sudden, surprising ways (how did that tree we planted get to be taller than the house?) and mine is no exception. A sturdy, yellow-flowered phlomis I planted a few years ago has sprawled entirely out of bounds, burying a couple of interesting and unusual salvia in the process. The salvia in turn have buried some Oriental poppies. The Oriental poppies have squashed a — well, you get the idea. I'm out of room, but I can't stand to throw anything away and I can't stop buying more plants. Last time I reached this point in a garden, I moved. But I'm not moving this time, so what do I do?

One thing I'm determined to do is get tough in the garden. I filled the front with Shasta daisies from my old garden because they were easy to dig up and bring with me, and also because they're my mother's favorite flower and a sentimental favorite. And when they're in bloom during May, June and July, they're glorious. But by August, the flowers are gone and I'm left with the chore of chopping down a miniature forest of daisy stems, and then, from September until May, the dark green mounds of foliage do nothing but take up space and harbor snails. So I've resolved to scale back on daisies and find something that'll pull its weight the rest of the year.

Rose campion is another plant that needs to be reined in. The flowers are gorgeous and they self-sow like crazy, but they need more water than I'm willing to give them and they also bloom for an unacceptably short season. When I had an empty garden and nothing but a carload of plants to get me started, a prolific self-sower seemed like a good idea. But they're turning into a weed. Out they go. (Hey, on paper this is easy!)

Finally, any number of plants need to be dug up and moved — and some of them need to be moved to the compost pile. If it's prone to disease, gets eaten by bugs, refuses to bloom or demands too much water in the summer, it needs to be tossed. With any luck, those evictions will create enough space to let me relocate the plants that are getting crushed by their neighbors.

It occurs to me that as the garden matures, I take on the role of an editor. Move this, cut that, add a little over there, but not too much. That's not such a bad gig, but what happens to the part of gardening I love most — the part where I go to the nursery and load up on new plants? I need that shopping fix, and I'm not sure I'll be satisfied buying fertilizer and mulch and pruning shears. Buying plants is such a hopeful experience, and one that never feels like conspicuous, wasteful consumption. When I buy a dozen perennials in four-inch pots, I feel like I'm buying potential. Promise. A better future — one with more flowers and fruit and branches and vines. In fact, it's entirely possible that I got into gardening mostly for the shopping. Without that, what's left?

While my real garden gets overgrown, my digital garden's getting a little crazy, too. I wrote about garden blogs in this column a year or so ago, and since then, there's been an explosion of horticulturally-themed blogs on the Internet. Lots of people are keeping track of their gardens online by posting photos and diary-style entries, but there are also some spirited debates going on out there. Some of my newest favorites are Gardening While Intoxicated (http://martagon.blogspot.com), Heavy Petal (http://www.heavypetal.ca) and, for the fabulous photos and general Texas-ness of it all, Digging: Diary of an Austin Gardener (http://www.penick.net/digging).

I'm also blogging with a rebellious group of highly opinionated gardeners at www.gardenrant.com. Our hobbies include posting photographs of truly horrible gardens we happen to drive by, arguing over who is the sexiest celebrity gardener and making fun of HGTV. Come rant with us.

Send garden news to amystewart@northcoastjournal.com, or write in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata, 95521.


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