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A pre-autumnal to-do list for the must-impress guest

click to enlarge Naked ladies. Photo by Amy Stewart.
  • Naked ladies. Photo by Amy Stewart.

Last month, I was in New York and I stopped by my publisher's office to have a chat with my editor. While we were talking, my editor's boss walked in and told me that she would be in Northern California in September. I asked her if she would like to stop by while she was in the neighborhood, and she said, "Sure! I would love to see this garden of yours."

Gulp. Here's the woman who, more than anyone, holds my fate in the palm of her hand. If I want them to continue publishing whatever I might decide to write about the plant world, it's fairly important that I maintain the illusion that I know what I'm talking about. I can't blame her for her assuming that someone who writes about gardening would have a beautiful garden, and I have probably been guilty of sending out a few carefully cropped photographs of my garden at its peak, which might have given the impression that my garden was a place worth visiting.

I mumbled a few words about how I've been kind of busy this year, and how the garden still had big holes in it from last year's freeze. But yes, of course, I told her, I would love for her to come see the garden.

I got home and looked around. The garden was a dried-up, disheveled, disorganized mess. All the low-growing perennials like yarrow, geranium, catmint and lady's mantle had turned brown and gone to seed. Blackberry vines were creeping around corners. The front garden is in a state of transition — I'm removing some lavenders that are past their prime and rearranging everything — but this work was basically on hold until the fall. And sure enough, all the new shrubs I had bought to replace last year's popsicles were only knee-high and nowhere near blooming. To make matters worse, the little area that I had fenced off for vegetables had been decimated by the chickens who, as it turns out, are perfectly capable of flying over a two-foot-tall fence when there's kale to be had.

What a mess. Even if I had all the time and money in the world, I couldn't get it whipped into shape before the end of the month. Plants don't just bloom on command, after all. But as I looked around, I realized that there probably were a few things that I could do. So here's my plan for getting the garden ready for its fall close-up:

Haircuts. The first thing I did was to cut back all those seedy perennials that are past their prime. Some of them might actually rebloom if I bribe them with food and water. But even if they don't bloom, a tidy little green mound looks better than a shaggy, neglected mess.

Weeds . I've been keeping up with the weeds fairly well, but obviously the blackberry brambles have to go.

Water. My garden goes on a near-starvation diet in the summer. I just don't water much. Drought-tolerant plants are the only ones that make sense in this climate anyway, so if it can't survive a certain level of deprivation, it doesn't belong here. But deep, regular waterings over the next few weeks will encourage the plants to get green and to take up more nutrients from the soil.

Food . It might be tempting to spray the blue stuff everywhere to force plants to bloom. But the last thing this garden needs is harsh chemicals that can burn the plants and add unwanted salts to the soil. So I'm sprinkling dried kelp meal around, and spraying a foliar feed of fish emulsion and other liquid organic ingredients.

Mulch . Frankly, at this point, the purpose of the mulch is really just to make me feel better. The garden just looks a little tidier when the dirt is a uniform rich black. But there are plenty of soil conditioner mixes out there that have organic nutrients and beneficial microbes added, and I usually mix in worm castings from my bin and a few handfuls of dry organic fertilizer as well, just to give an extra boost at the root zone.

Oh, and if you're gonna spend some cash ... I have finally learned that it doesn't do much good to go out and buy a bunch of blooming plants to try to spruce up the garden at the last minute. It would be cost-prohibitive to really buy enough plants to make a difference, and it's a waste of money anyway. Plants that are covered with blooms in the nursery have probably been exhausted from overfeeding and won't last as long as plants that have been allowed to develop normally and bloom later, once they reach maturity.

If I do get the urge to splurge before the end of the month, it would make much more sense to buy some high-impact decorative element for the garden, like a piece of furniture, sculpture or architectural salvage, or a big, brightly colored pot that can sit in the perennial border. The right piece in the right place can really draw attention away from plants that are past their prime and give the garden a focal point.

I don't know what this garden will look like a few weeks from now. Maybe a few plants will take pity on me and bloom. The rest of it will look a little tidier and better cared-for, but that's probably about it. If only my guests would show up in May or June, when the garden is at its peak. But the timing of houseguests, like the timing of the garden itself, is just one more thing I can't control. All I can do is spray kelp meal (on the garden, not the guests) and hope.

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Amy Stewart

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