Let The Gardening Begin!

Describe the most ambitious DIY project you’ve ever taken on.

The end of February has arrived. Ahhh! Gardening season has arrived. Well, at least inside under grow lights. The kale, three cherry tomatoes, and lemongrass have sprouted. Over the following weeks, other things will be started. I do salad greens, lettuce, and broccoli early because they go out into the greenhouse and the cold frames early. Seeing the beginning of my gardening year gets me mentally away from the bugbear of winter and thinking about the renewal of spring.

Gardeners in the US Department of Agriculture zone 5 must be professional optimists. We take calculated risks and love to walk along the edge of the abyss. The frost-free date may say one thing, but we have plants in the ground under frost-protecting hot caps, cloches, and spun fabric covers weeks earlier. Some, hardier than I, are already in their plastic-covered greenhouses and planting in protected cold frames. For them, a March blizzard is just another challenge to overcome.

Climate change in my area has meant a greater degree of climate unpredictability. Proper mulching and soil amendment are practical considerations for water conservation, not just a feel-good thing. It has meant that all our season-extending technology, like spun fabric frost protection, is necessary when frost-free means “we’re not sure.”

Gardeners who can’t take a bit of a challenge should be disqualified; their hoes, shovels, and garden carts should be confiscated and drummed out of the fellowship.

Perhaps they could take up a less challenging DIY activity like blogging.

January Gardening

I sent off the first seed orders. Finally, the ideal time in January arrived, and I sat down with the pile of catalogs for a winter afternoon of dreaming of the tropical wonderland the garden could be. OK, maybe not so tropical for Central Massachusetts in the middle of New England. But one can have dreams. Even if the results will not be so high and mighty comes August.

I’ve also researched elevated garden beds. For durability, you are ideally looking for a cedar or cypress construction. But the ever-deceptive ads on a major online site call anything cedar, even when it’s the soft rot-prone Chinese fir. One critic warned that it seems as though the manufacturers were using the word “cedar” as a reference to the wood color rather than the species.
So rather than trust the onsite evaluations, I went through a number of the “Best of” sites for contrasting assessments. Unsurprisingly, 99 percent of the products were made in China. Buyer beware. A hint concerning reviews; most are done after assembly, not after a bit or a season of use.

Sol is steadily climbing in the sky. Every day just a bit further higher in the sky. While garden planning in January does not seem very topical for this time of year, I expect seedlings will be sprouting in the middle of February.

Now I need to get rid of the snow.

Seed Catalogs

The catalogs started piling up in December, but by a long-standing rule, they stayed by the door until after Christmas. Then they were dropped without ceremony onto a pile of other catalogs until after the middle of January. That date has passed, and now the gardening catalogs are displayed on the table in all their immanent colorful glory.

OK, I’ll admit on the eleventh, I broke down and bought one of those “herb gardens on your kitchen window” kits. I just couldn’t bear it anymore – wait! Let me Italicize that for emphasis I just couldn’t wait any longer!

Things are going to be a bit different this year. I mean it! My hip surgery last August left me evaluating how I use the spatial limits and advantages of the garden and how my physical inabilities butted up against those. So instead of tearing through pages of colorful flowers and veggies, I’ve been looking at elevated planters. I think the days of spending lots of time on my knees may become strictly rationed.

The websites and catalogs are full of goodies promising to make my gardening life easier. But, after an initial viewing, I cut to the chase and went to the many reviews on how these stack up. There are lots of reviews of these products. I am looking at their esthetics, potential longevity, capacity, and pricing. I haven’t made any firm commitments.

For many years I was an advocate of grow bags. They are cheap, economical on water ( rather than watering the whole bed, you just water the bag), and very friendly to be placed in useable but odd locations around the garden. However, their principal problem is that they are ugly and don’t age well. Also, I still have to stoop to weed them. I want to limit stooping and kneeling. Some of the grow bags will go into the further reaches of the garden. Those in poor condition will be repurposed. They are made from heavy-duty landscape cloth, so cutting them up and using them as landscape barriers is a good repurposing.

January tends to be my month for planning and exploring new options in both the shop and the garden. It’s a strategy I’ve found helps me get through the worst of this part of the winter. In February, I’ll start more plants inside, ordering and assembling what I need for spring, and get busy making maple syrup.

If you have the winter blahs, having a plan is essential.


When we purchased our home in Central Massachusetts, we asked the previous owners to do a clean sweep before the sale. So the day we moved into the house was reasonably pristine. However, they left some things they were confident we’d need. In the basement was the giant bag of some “weed and feed” products.
Looking outside at what passed for the lawn, I realized that for many years the owners had been committed to creating a European-style lawn on the top of a hill that was ninety percent glacial till. As a result, there were barely three-quarters of an inch of soil before you hit gravel and sand. The lawn was a straggling bunch of grasses mixed with invasive weeds. Behind us was a wildlife sanctuary that shaded the rear third of the lot. That back section was choked with invasive vines.

Moving in late fall, just before Halloween, meant I had more immediate issues than dealing with the yard. So we started on wallpaper stripping, painting, and the usual stuff that needed to be done in a new old house.

It was March before I began to tackle the mess outside. I started by removing the weed and feed, removing all the vines, and clearing a sunny garden area. The rear of the lot needed significant work, but we weren’t exactly sure what type. It was so shaded and had been covered by vines for so long that almost nothing grew there. Beyond our property line was a typical New England “Old Field” succession that had filled in an old orchard and pastureland.
I did a lot of sitting on an old stump fretting about the future of this land.
It was a depauperated woodland border. Elsewhere a semi-shaded area like those would be full of a mixture of plants that thrived on the edge of the woods. On hiking trips with the Appalachian Mountain Club, I’d walked through thousands of small glades like that. So I decided to recreate a typical woodland border.
Local nurseries, the local conservation district, and mail-order plant providers have figured large in this effort. It can’t all be done in a year or a decade. Some plants don’t succeed, and others do too well. There is no font of knowledge readily available for data on this process, but if your community has a knowledgeable conservation agent, they might be able to guide you.

Although it’s January as I write this, and an ice storm is on its way, my mind is already turning to how I can repair the damage that last year’s severe drought did. I won’t know until April which plants merely went dormant early and which plants didn’t make it. As I said, there is no textbook available. But I have restored a more regional and natural woodland border where only invasives thrived before.

  • Trillium
  • Canadian Ginger
  • Anemone

Dust, Dust Bunnies and Weeds

While recovering from recent hip surgery, I needed late-night diversion. Unfortunately, I had trouble sleeping because I could not find a comfortable position. So I sought distraction from magazines. As a result, I now have a large stack of woodworking, model railroading, and gardening magazines that I’ve read from cover to cover, ads included.

The fear that my sleep routines would be permanently affected created a tension that seemed to ease if I concentrated on intently reading every article and ad in the magazines, not the sort of thing I would typically do.

Usually, I’m skeptical of the way the magazines groom every inch of a photo presentation. In woodworking magazines, the shops are pristine. In model railroading, the layouts are incredibly complete and perfect, and needless to say, in the gardening magazines, the grooming is exquisite.

Mainly because I’ve been physically challenged, my shop is a bit ( Ha!) worse for wear than usual, my model railroad dusty and ignored, and the garden obscured by a jungle of weeds. It would take a generation or two of laborers to correct all the defects and make it magazine perfect. This sort of idiocy does not usually get to me. but this was different. I became fixitated on things I could not control.

While hobbling around on crutches, I’d stare out the door into the dark and imagine the weeds sadistically growing to spite me. Today my broccoli. Tomorrow, my porch. Once I could climb the stairs, I could barely stand the mess in my office/ storage/ train room. The dust bunnies seemed to whisper, “We are the future!”

The shop was a disaster. The dust had settled over everything, and it looked like it had been abandoned for years. I started up the air cleaner but could do little else on crutches.

As my sleep returned to normal, I paid less attention to the magazines. I’ve begun to make peace with the dust bunnies and the dust in the shop. My fixation on getting things perfect receded. We are now approaching normal.

The weeds, you ask? They have continued to grow and encroach on the porch, inch by inch. A particularly nasty clematis vine started to cover the gate. A rogue tomato joined the rebellion and made a common cause with a pigweed. I fear for the Brussels sprouts. I have not been able to make it to that garden section. The area still under my control is a small section by the workshop; it’s never been this bad in all the years I’ve lived here.

I ceased worrying about it; I’ll win in the end

I am in this for the long game.

The first hard frost is coming. There’ll be a rematch in the spring, 

I’ll be ready. 

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, but no Thyme, yet

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, basil, and no thyme, yet. Today I took the morning to harvest some herbs from the garden. I still have a considerable amount of basil and rosemary to do. The garlic has been in for a few weeks, but I’ll have to plant next year’s crop in the next week or two.

We’ll start the drying hanging like this but eventually move on to the dehydrators to finish. A few things are question marks. The Tumeric plant eas an experiment. So, too tender for the semi-heated greenhouse, or does it come into the house? Some of the bay plants are going into the greenhouse after a suggestion by a greenhouse owner about them being hardy for the temps they’d run into in my cool greenhouse. It’s easy to blunder with experiments. Then you forever commemorate them in memory as the year you grew so and such. The problem is the seed growers and plant sellers are always foisting, I mean tempting us with new plants that they assure us will be luminous successes and make this gardening year go down as a golden memory. Bull pucky!

Anyway, it’s time to wade through the weeds to see what happened to the potatoes. Their bags were last seen the day before my hip surgery. Since then, the weeds have grown in and obscured that section of the garden.

Please send a rescue party if you don’t hear from me for a while.

Good Intentions

The pumpkins have run riot and obstruct the path leading back to the tomatoes. At this point in the summer, it’s hard to recall my genius plan for keeping my small garden well tended. It failed.
OK, I do have an excuse. The hip operation has meant that almost a month has passed without suckering the tomatoes. The cukes need tending as well. Anything could lurk in there and probably does. August, a garden untended, only bad things could happen.

It would take a caped crusader to fight a way through the tangles. Even the dog hesitates to travel too far into our little “Heart of Darkness”; he knows that the tremendous wooly unknown could lurk anywhere. So I toss a treat into the jungle and say, ” go get it” he looks at me like I’m nuts.

I’m shamed at how it’s turned out. As usual, good intentions went wrong, but I’ll share a picture of how it looked in April, full of promise.

I might need a flame thrower to clear this mess.

Nip Season

Everything is growing well. Soon there will be flowers – cat hashish- and I’ll roll about in feline paradise. Father has refused to get rid of the weeds he calls food and allow the nip to grow wild. The ninny pulls young plants as weeds!

I guess he doesn’t realize that nip is the most perfect drug, I mean digestive aid, in the universe. It was a God-given gift. Yes, in her feline perfection, she gave the nip to all cats, great and small.

Humans have no taste. But this is not a bad thing. I’d hate to have to share with him. Vintage nip is too good to waste on two-legged nincompoops.

Let’s see. Who’s on my Catmass list for the holiday distribution to cousins?

The Storage Box Greenhouse.

A bargain in a cold frame starts with that clear plastic storage box that cracked or lost its lid. Try to recycle them, and you have a big job breaking the plastic up for the bin. I don’t know about your city, but in mine, if it’s not in the recycle bin, they aren’t taking it.

This spring, I had dual problems: not enough greenhouse and cold frame space, and about four of the storage boxes at the end of their useful life.
Moving things around one evening, I dropped the boxes in the garden when called in for dinner. The following day I saw the humidity inside the boxes, and one plus one equaled a mini-greenhouse or cold frame.

The photo shows several of them protecting a row of sugar snap peas and some cauliflower. If it’s going to get windy, I can place a brick on the top.

In a few weeks, I won’t need them for the season. Instead, I’ll store them for the fall growing season when I put in late spinach and lettuce.

You maybe have been using this idea for a couple of years already, but it was new to me and perhaps will be new to some of you.

Snow Day

It’s not about to be inducted into the Winter Storm Hall of fame. And it’s not a hybrid monster freakout “caused by Climate Change” event. No, it’s just a skim coat of white stuff over my freshly prepared garden beds.

I’ve worked to remove all the abandoned stakes, tomato cages, and debris from last year. The frost was out of the ground, and I could rake in the wood ash accumulating on top of them. A neighbor had contributed many bags of pine planer shavings, and these did an excellent job of mulching the pathways between the raised beds. In brief, I was ready!

Of course, it’s still March, and even into April, we can get much more than the dusting that’s on the ground now. And no, the warmer weather didn’t fool me enough to put kale or lettuce into the cold frames – that’s about two weeks out.

But I admit to being seduced; every gardener knows the jubilant seduction that a gradually warming season brings. It’s like my wife running her fingers through my hair – a promise of more yet to come.

However, if it’s less than pleasant to me, watching the cat sitting by the sliding door at a frozen prospect was tougher. Xenia is snow averse. She doesn’t mind water, but snow between her toes is another thing. Her face looks like some people get down on the coast when the tide is out on the marshes, and the brackish smell of tidal flats wafts about. You know… the nose all wrinkled up with a foul odor. Of course, she won’t be out doing her daily garden patrol.

Of course, now I have to put up with both the snow and a hissing cat. Lovely day.

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