Madison Monday: The small, downtown garden

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It was another busy weekend in Madison, with many exciting events still on the horizon to look forward to.  At the Thomas Family Winery, it was the 16th Annual Hot Luck and Fiery Foods Marketplace.  Saturday was the first day for the outdoor season of the Farmer’s Market, where we purchased some fresh asparagus, spinach, lettuce, and soap (from All Good Things Soaps and Such, who set up at the market every Saturday).  After our Farmer’s Market trip, my husband dutifully headed up to the community garden to help put the electric fence up.  This will hopefully signal the end of the ominous deer hoof prints in the middle of the row of beets.  Saturday night we attended a lovely party on the east end of town…or at least, the end of town even farther east than we are, past the bridge.  Sometimes past the bridge feels like it may as well be another country in our little town, but it was a lovely affair–the kind of party that reminds you how very much you like your neighbors.  This is especially true when your neighbors have a seemingly infinite supply of wine and culinary abilities that belong in a five star restaurant.

In just a few short weeks, River Roots festival will be upon us.  Look for more reviews of River Roots artists soon.  The first ever Poetpalooza at Village Lights Bookstore is fast approaching on the weekend of April 27-29.  The bookstore will host hourly readings, book signings, and live music, featuring a plethora of regional poets.  The event includes five poet laureates of Indiana and Kentucky.  Here is my haiku in honor of Poetpalooza:

Poets everywhere
On the streets of Madison.
Assonance abounds.

Feel free to contribute your own haiku in honor of Poetpalooza.

The very warm and early spring this year in Madison, combined with all this produce-related activity has me feeling very enthusiastic about another year of gardening.  It’s always easiest to feel enthusiastic in the spring, before the real heartache has begun.  But I feel certain my husband and I are on top of things and ahead of the curve.

Two springs ago, we broke down and got rid of the beautiful yet troublesome mimosa tree in our backyard.  Mimosa trees are quite lovely…at a distance.  In a small backyard, they are something of a nightmare.  First, there are the blossoms.  Beautiful pink things adored by hummingbirds which fall all over your yard and deck for at least 2-3 months at a time.  When they land, they don’t dry up and blow away like some other flowers.  They form a kind of disgusting goo that sticks to your deck, the side of your house, and yourself if you don’t move quickly enough.  When the blossoms are finally gone, you get the pods.  Think of all the creepy associations the word “pod” has; they all apply perfectly to the pods of the mimosa.  These pods fall and they do dry up.  They just leave legions upon legions of little mimosa seedlings in their wake.  I recently read a novel, The Caretaker of Lorne Field, in which one family spent generations weeding a field full of monster plants called Aukowie’s, which grow a foot in a day and if left untended, will destroy all life on the planet within a month.  I think the author of this novel had a mimosa tree somewhere in his past.

Star of Bethlehem

In addition to the flowers and the pods, the mimosa tree was also creating a great deal of shade.  In our second year sans mimosa, all the flowers in my garden are considerably more prolific in their blooming.  In fact, the peonies which I thought I should just dig up are about to bloom more than they ever have, and the azalea bush which has never bloomed did quite respectably this spring.

Here’s my favorite thing about my little backyard garden–the dearth of grass.  When I lived on campus my first three years, I spent more time than I’d even like to talk about mowing grass.  And do you know what happens after you spend about 4 hours mowing your grass?  You have to mow it again.  I’m not particularly fond of grass, and my feelings are strong enough on the subject to warrant a whole separate post, which you might be seeing later this week.  Our backyard has just enough grass to stand on and wiggle your feet in, but not enough to spend more than ten minutes at most contemplating in any meaningful way.

Even with the mimosa tree gone, in a small, downtown garden there is a constant battle with shade.  The sunniest spot in our yard is right where the deck sits.  This year, I imagine the deck filled with beautiful pots containing various edible plants.  Two of them are already occupied by brussel sprouts.  This is what I imagine and whether or not it will actually happen is a whole other matter.

Brussel sprouts

Our community garden plot up on the grounds of the State Hospital allows us to dedicate whatever sunny spots we have down here to herbs.  Last year I bought one Kentucky Colonel mint plant, which my husband swore by as the only mint worth having.  Despite everyone warning us and warning us about the pathological dangers of planting mint, we’ve never had any luck getting it to spread.  Well, the removal of the mimosa must have been key, as we are now deeply committed to fighting with the mint for the rest of our lives.  But what a lovely fight to lose sometimes.  We also have a nicely well-established sage plant, some oregano, lemon balm, and dill that magically appeared in the front bed.

I like to think I grew up as my mother’s assistant gardener.  I certainly loved looking through her garden catalogues and helping her plan her beds.  At some age, I carved out for myself a little bed next to the swimming pool, hauled rocks up from the creek for an edge, and began filling it with perennials.  This was good practice for my own little garden, which is all perennials.  Many of the plants were gifts from previous owners.  The lilac, clematis, the azalea, the lilies, the sedum (or live forever), peonies and spiderwort were all here already.  I added the yarrow, coneflower, lily of the valley, grape hyacinth, balloon flowers, black-eyed susan’s, daisies, obedience plant, false indigo, Japanese anenome, ferns and probably a few other things I’ve forgotten.  Have I really fit all of that into this small little space?  Yes.  The hardest part of having a small garden is reminding yourself that there really probably isn’t room for that one more thing.  The best part of having a small garden is knowing that there probably isn’t room for one more thing.

Kentucky Colonel Mint, ready for Derby Day

I have a gardening book which includes detailed instructions for how to plan a garden from the bottom up.  It includes information about double digging, and soil composition and color and height balance.  I very much like to look at this book and the lovely pictures of formal verus informal gardens.  I like to pretend that I will make very elaborate and detailed plans for my garden.  And then I remember the advice of Henry Mitchell in The Essential Earthman, which boiled down to this: you plant it and see how it goes.  Gardens are in a state of constant evolution while plans exist mostly on paper.  The most beautiful gardens are arrived at mainly through a process of many years of trial and error.

Here are a few things I have learned in both my garden reading and my garden doing:

– Don’t underestimate foliage.  As Henry Mitchell wisely points out, very few plants bloom all season.  But if they look beautiful even when they’re not blooming, that’s quite alright.

– Consider timing.  It seems that spring blooming flowers dominate our gardening consciousness.  Perhaps this is because they are such bright spots after (usually) a long season of gloom.  But one of the things I keep working towards in my garden is continual blooming.  Right now, it’s hard to get excited about the obedience plant and the Japanese anenome.  They’re not doing much but taking up space.  But come August and September, I’ll be happy I left them alone.

– Color is seasonal.  This is also a Henry Mitchell insight.  Sometimes, one becomes obsessed with variety of color in your garden.  There are too many purples, I’m always thinking.  But there is a seasonality to colors.  Spring tends to be pink and purple.  Summer moves into orange and red.  Fall is more yellow, at least in my garden.  A garden in the spring with pinks and purples is okay, and in fact, yellow might just end up being out of place.

– Replace weeds with weeds.  A “weed” is, of course, a social construction.  Go with that.  I love plants with weed-like qualities, as in, they spread like mad.  The mint, some bee balm I planted last year, black-eyed susan’s, Japanese anenome.  Do you know what these wonderful plants do?  They choke out the “real” weeds.  And yes, okay, they require thinning and control themselves.  Well, I don’t know about you, but I personally feel much less resentful pulling up mint or bee balm than I do pulling up poke weed or dandelions, or any number of the unidentifiable scourges that propagate my flower beds.

– Accept your complete lack of control.  Now, different folks have quite different philosophies about gardening.  Mine is that putting things in the ground and expecting them to grow is a kind of prayer sent out into the universe–a prayer that may or may not be answered.  Though experts may claim to know the answer to the question, “What went wrong?”, I am skeptical.  Repeat this phrase to yourself–“It just didn’t grow.”  Gardeners must accept chaos and become habitual starters.  My philosophy is always cut or trim the hell out of it, and if that doesn’t work, plant it again.  And if that doesn’t work, move on.

What are the lessons you’ve learned about gardening and what are garden dreams are you dreaming this spring?

Look for more pictures of the garden here, on my Facebook page.

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