In case you’re wondering why I call this blog “Inconstant Gardener,” let me give you an example.
Last October, as I was starting up this blog, I searched for good blogs or newsletters on gardening. You know, so I would have some models, and some sense of what wasn’t being covered in gardening blogs. One of the newsletters I subscribed to was Charlie Nardozzi’s (you can sign up at https://www.gardeningwithcharlie.com), guaranteed to plop into my emailbox once every ten days, labeled by month and segment. “Charlie’s Early February Newsletter,” “Charlie’s Mid February Newsletter,” and so on.
And on and on. It’s like when I subscribed to the daily and Sunday New York Times, on paper. I felt obliged to read from the first-page headlines right on to the final section (although I did allow myself to skip Sports). The pile of not-yet-completely-read papers rose higher and higher, and then I had to start a second pile, and… yeah, you can imagine.
Well, I did okay with the fall and winter issues of Charlie’s Newsletters. The fall ones mostly talked about harvest and cleanup. Since my raised beds only got raised in October, I had no harvest to worry about. I reveled in Charlie’s wisdom on cleanup—mostly: leave it lie!—and immediately put it into practice by doing nothing.
So far, so good
Then during the winter, as the snow piled up and the winds howled, I got to read the previews of coming attractions. How-to’s on growing catmint, for example, or African violets (as if!). Or even, inventorying seeds left over from the previous year—an easy one for me: all of them!—and making a list of things to be done in the garden come spring.
Also an easy one. I excel at list-making. If you doubt that, I could show you the entire box of index cards containing to-do items, carefully categorized. House, garden, errands, calls, write, read, social media, fix, cook, tidy, office, and a fair number more. “Done” has its own category, just so I can reassure myself that I do occasionally get something done.
There are three cards in it.
The Hurrier I Go…
“Garden” got so big it now has its very own box, subcategorized to the nth degree.
And there’s Charlie’s newsletter, giving me plenty to put on the list. So much, in fact, that when spring sprang on us early this year and then we roared into summer, I fell a bit behind.
How behind? Let me put it this way. Charlie’s Late July Newsletter recently arrived. I’m still working on Late March. Now when they arrive, I file them in the Blogs/ Inconstant Gardener/ Materials folder and pray for December.
It’s not as though I haven’t been working out there. I have at latest count seven very full yard-waste bags of uprooted dandelions, plantains, Johnny jump-ups, crabgrass, and other assorted weeds whose names I still don’t know. (Because I’ve had no time to check them against the encyclopedic Weeds of North America.)
If you roamed my yard, you’d find two huge tarp-wrapped bundles stashed in odd spots. These are full of branches pruned (weeks ago!) from dogwoods, burning bush, Canadian hemlock, kolkwitzia, witch hazel that were contending too obstreperously with their neighbors.
And there’s garlic in one raised bed ready to harvest, which I planted in a big rush last November praying it wasn’t too late; and onions I planted in a big rush in April because it would be too late by the very next day.
…The Behinder I Get
What else is in the raised beds? Welllll, there’s the rub. In late May I finally gave up on my seeds and got some herb and lettuce starts on sale at the garden store. Then about three weeks later when those looked about to give up the ghost if I didn’t do something, I bunged them in near the garlic and the onions.
But off the hook I am not.
Now, I know the importance of planning. You know, so I don’t do things in such a slapdash way that I end up not tying my shoelaces before beginning the race, so to speak.
I concentrate very hard on tying the shoelaces. The advantage: my shoes never fall off mid-stride. The disadvantage: the race is usually over before my shoelaces are finally tied properly.
A Woman, A Plan B
This late in the summer, I knew the time for planting early crops in the space left in those raised beds was long gone. But I took hope from the fact that I had plenty of room for late summer/ fall crops. As I ruminated over plans for those crops (inventorying seeds: all of them!), I stumbled upon a gorgeous multi-colored poster offered by Hudson Valley Seed Company. Late Season Planting Guide!
Aha, thought I! This will guide me through the planning and planting. From what I could see of it in the online catalog, it looked so inviting. It depicted many delectables I could plant 16, 14, 12, 10 etc. days before first frost. Definitely a must-have. So I ordered it, well ahead of time: July 3. Even if it took a week to arrive, there was still plenty of lead time for the planting.
Are you already rolling on the floor laughing? Yes, it arrived, and only upon unscrolling it and reading the small print did I realize that those numbers up on top were not for days before first frost.
They were for weeks.
Farewell, hopes of parsnips, winter or summer squash, cucumbers. No time for you!
This had its advantages: more room for the beans, beets, carrots, Asian greens, lettuce, calendula. Even peas! And the squash and cucumber seeds stay viable for a couple years at least.
Disadvantage: RIP parsnips. They’re good for only one year, the finicky snips.
Now in acceleration mode, I divided all the seeds that still qualified for a try. They went into separate ziploc bags labeled “week of July 11,” “week of July 18,” “week of July 25,” etc. All the way to the week of Sept. 28, the likely zero hour (as in Zero Centigrade).
Then I decanted all the seeds in the first bag into separate little lidded plastic cups. (If you’re planting in a hurry, the last thing you need is to have all the seeds spill out of the paper envelope when you’re trying to fish out just one.) Stuck a little masking tape label on each lid, loaded them all into an aluminum pan, and sashayed out to the garden to get to work.
Whereupon I quickly realized that if I planted seeds for all the “Week of July 11” veggies, no room would remain for the Week of July 18, let alone the 25th. As for August, fuhgddaboutit.
Well, maybe not entirely. The garlic has to come out now, and the onions won’t be far behind, so there may be room for some kale and chard if I get the seedlings started indoors, which I am (according to the planting guide) supposed to do this week. Or was it last week?
Meanwhile, back at the wrench…
Keep in mind, we’re only talking about two 4’X8’ raised beds. A mere 64 square feet. My lot as a whole is a third of an acre, all burgeoning with weeds that did not fail to notice (unlike many of the recently planted perennials and shrubs) that we have been getting lots and lots of rain.
How much rain? One day, two and a half inches came down. For comparison’s sake: we got about two and a half inches of rain in all of June. In July, we got 11.92 inches.
Hence, on days when it hasn’t rained, I’ve been spending most of my time weeding and mulching like crazy. The veggies in the raised beds somehow have to be squeezed in between.
And meanwhile, assembly work awaits me in the garage. The rotating compost bin that arrived (in pieces, natch) in June still sits patiently—no, let me amend that. It lurks in the garage, tapping its figurative feet and glowering balefully every time I venture in looking for an empty pot or a trowel or a trug for weeds.
Lately, though, that carton isn’t causing me quite so much guilt because three boxes containing Chicken Wire Crop Coops (also in pieces, natch) are now keeping it company. These, once put together, will protect my tender baby veggie plants from Tamerlane The Woodchuck and Thumper The Wascally Wabbit.
No doubt all of these would have been assembled much sooner if I had my work bench set up in the garage. That has sat (in pieces, natch) in the basement… for the past 8 years.
All Depends on Point of View
How to do all that needs doing, when you’re only one person and every task done sprouts hydra heads?
Clearly, the obvious solutions will never happen. I will not become two, three, many persons (and I suspect if I did, the extras would set yet more goals and make things even worse). I will not change my basic approach to life and work. And I certainly will not suddenly become younger, more energetic, or able to leap tall buildings with a single bound (not a useful garden skill anyway).
So instead of tormenting myself, I’m going to have to change the way I look at the situation.
Here’s the way I’ve started thinking about the garden. I do this work because I love it. Not necessarily because I adore the results. Sure, I get a thrill out of the bursts of flowers in early spring, and the blast of hibiscus blooms in August. I enjoy harvesting my very own lettuce and chard and basil, and sharing them when they invariably exceed my capacity to use them up. If no rewards ever popped up, I might quit. But when I stop to think seriously about why I spend so much time, sweat, and money on the garden, two reasons come to the fore.
Philosopher in the Garden: 1
First, every task I perform in the garden rewards me with a sense of focus while I am doing it.
I may start out removing the weeds to give the shrubs and flowers and veggies room to grow. But a very few minutes into the work, my attention rivets on the square inch or square foot that weed occupies. I notice the differences between the crabgrass roots’ expansive shallow clutch and the dandelions’ deep-plunging taproot. The way some weeds fight to maintain their hold while others surrender with deceptive ease (sheer trickery: they always come back so quickly).
Every coneflower or peony or blueberry bush or lettuce seed I plant represents a hope for future bounty. But while I’m placing them in the right spot at the right depth with the right nutrients added, my world consists of the earthworms squirming away from the site, the ants busy at their own focused tasks, the mama spider hurrying off with egg case bundled close, the texture of the soil, the way last year’s mulch is melting into earth, the match between the height of plant in pot and the depth I dig.
No matter how stressed I am when I step out to work in the garden, within five minutes this focus brings me calm and peace.
Philosopher in the Garden: 2
Second, the combination of happenstance and experiment serves up an ever-changing dose of nature’s reality, keeping me humble while poised on my toes.
Drought or too much rain or a hailstorm at the wrong time or a new marauder, fungal or four-footed or fluttering, may decimate the fruits of my efforts. I can experiment with ways to reduce the random disasters, like those crop coops or a better juxtaposition of plants or a liberal sprinkle of powdered cayenne.
But ultimately, I cannot exercise total control.
On any given day I may be outraged at the chomps taken out of the heuchera or the lacework created out of what used to be a hibiscus leaf. But I may also stumble with delight upon the tiger swallowtail butterfly judiciously sampling every magenta frond of the butterfly bush, or the toad so blended into setting that I spot her only when she shifts position.
I could never in a million years have planned those.
Is There a Big Picture?
Joy is not on the to-do list. And yet, why else do we do so much that we do, if we aren’t hoping that some form of happiness will come from it? (Not all of it. A stack of clean dishes does not thrill me, even though a stack of dirty ones makes my teeth hurt. Relief of pain is a good goal too!)
In this frazzled, crazy, productivity-is-all, doing-more-is-doing-better culture, it does make sense for me to pull back from the worm’s eye view of the to-do list and soar up to get the eagle’s eye view. Why do I need to do all these things, and why now? Do I actually need to do them, and even if so, are they really so urgent?
Sometimes life intrudes in ways that remind me of the importance of getting the eagle’s perspective more often. A very dear friend of mine died suddenly and unexpectedly just a week ago. I hadn’t talked with her in a while, and for much of the previous week I kept making mental notes to call her. But I put it off because there were urgent (so I thought) things on the to-do list. So I planted beans instead of making that phone call.
Believe me, the next time I think of calling a friend, I will do it right away. Beans I can get at the supermarket. Friends are not replaceable.
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- Do you ever manage to finish everything on your to-do list? If so, how do you do that??? If not, does it bother you, are you trying various approaches to deal with it, or do you figure it’s just the way things are?
- Is there any particular garden task that you feel you’re always behind on? Ahead on?
- If there’s a friend you’ve been thinking of calling, and you’ve been putting it off, make the call now! Then come back and tell us about it if you still have the time.
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Thanks for reading!
Oh dear, that friend and the missed conversation. I’m sorry.
But for the constant (I hope becoming less constant) self-monitoring… I took two weeks off from morning list-making. Coming back to it from a vacation in Maine I thought, hmmm, why is it necessary, and yet resumed making a daily list even before getting out of bed (there’s an old-fashioned clipboard and pen right there). I realized it is to control the feeling of too much going on that demands or seems to demand me. If it’s on the list I can breathe a little – the list is done which of course is something on the list I can then check off. Write first: make a list.
My garden is much less demanding or maybe I’ve just taken my hearing aids out and don’t hear it yelling for me. I also have picked off a huge crop of shiso, pureed with a little rice vinegar and frozen in bags. I’ve picked some things to ferment and advocate turning torment into ferment whenever possible.
Also thinking: the tons of things to be done are signposts of hope – there’s a future if there’s more to do, kind of like the old joke, “I can’t be overdrawn, I have more checks!”
Joy’s not the object, pace Marie Abe, a sit on the deck with an inch of whisky is.
Thank you for all the philosophy, it’s inspiring.
Corky–and thanks for the reflections prompted by the philosophy! They are refreshing and invigorating. Also soothing, in the case of the inch of whisky/ whiskey–somebody told me who writes it which way where, but I’ve forgotten that. Note to self: look up whisky/ whiskey.
I think I need to use your tip about the shiso in rice vinegar. My late crop isn’t all that big, but it’s bigger than I can deal with now single-handed.
So much to love about this essay! “Finicky snips” is wonderful. And I just love how you keep adapting to the changing circumstances, misunderstood planting guides and whatnot. There is a Roadrunner/Sisyphus existential aspect of this essay that I think we can all apply to the constant inconstancy of life in general!
I too am an inveterate list-maker and no, I never finish what’s on my to-do list. Luckily there is an implicit understanding between me and my lists that they are more wishful than realistic, and hey, there’s always tomorrow! I read somewhere that procrastination is when you’ve made a choice about something but don’t want to admit it to yourself yet. Not sure if that’s always so, but sometimes I force myself to take a hard look at my list items, and ask myself, Do I really even want to do that? And why? Asking the Why, as you did, and getting a birds’ eye view, is important to keep these tasks in perspective.
I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. Good reminder that people, like plants, don’t last forever.
“I read somewhere that procrastination is when you’ve made a choice about something but don’t want to admit it to yourself yet.” Love this! I must be making a truckload of unadmitted choices lately!
Thanks for the sympathy, too.
So sorry for the loss of your friend. Thank you for making me feel less of a sloth & guilty over the lack of attention I’ve paid my garden this year. Yours sounds ever much more civilized than the wilderness mine has become. Your compassionate voice reminds me to enjoy the hummingbird that buzzed my head yesterday & not get angry with the morning glory who insists on wrapping its tendrils around the cilantro in a death grip no matter how many times I encourage it to use the fence posts. Loved this essay!! E.
Ellice, many thanks for your sympathy.
I’m glad to know that something I’ve written comes in useful–and with something like gardening, in my view, “useful” is more important for attitudes and how we police ourselves than it is in the practical sense of what-to-plant-where-and-when. I love the image of the morning glory’s death grip on the cilantro. An herb-loving vine, imagine! Maybe next year you should plant the morning glory near a more robust herb, like the sage that considers itself a shrub in my garden. Or borage, or…. (Uh-oh, that sounds suspiciously like practical advice!)
Joy is unexpected, and I like to venture into the garden just to see what has changed overnight.
I also have raised bed challenges, and trying to figure out best way to deal with fungal infection in raised beds. Looks like it might end up being take all of the dirt out and replace. Geez. Talk about hard work instead of JOY.
Oh my, fungus in the raised beds sounds like a horrible pain. I’ve grown a few mushrooms there (unplanned), but so far nothing nasty has appeared. Have you tried using any of the organic (supposedly safe) anti-fungal treatments? Taking all the soil out sure sounds like an unattractive option–and I suppose you’d also have to somehow disinfect the wood, too!