Lessons From the Garden

A short course for those of us with thumbs (and lives) not so green.

By Jeff Hampton

Find a Beneficial Pattern

When we built the new house we put down solid St. Augustine sod, but there were still valleys between the rows, prompting the landscaper to advise me to mow against the rows to prevent the creation of permanent ruts. For the first three mowing sessions, I mowed perpendicular to the rows, which in the large backyard meant I was working in the sunshine most of the time and eventually moving into the shade created by a stand of trees and brush along the back property line. With summer temperatures pushing past 100 degrees, the shade was a welcome reward for slogging through the sunny part of the yard.

But then one day I changed my pattern – I don’t remember why – and I made a welcome discovery: By mowing at a diagonal, which is actually the pattern preferred by the landscaper, every long row of mowing included some time spent in the shade. Instead of mowing in the wide-open heat for 20 minutes and then almost collapsing as I finally reached the shade, every row included the stress of sunshine and heat and the welcome relief of the shade. Meanwhile, the time it took to mow was the same, the quality of the mowing was probably better, and I was less worn out when I finished.

Let Them Bloom Where They Are

Every spring when the gardens start to turn green and bloom I’m surprised to find some flowers coming back that were planted the year before – surprised that they survived the cold winter, the digging squirrels, and my neglect. One spring I found a few snapdragons coming up in the front flowerbeds and even more coming up in a backyard bed. The ones in the back were especially pretty and hearty but nobody could see them, so I decided to move them to the front where they could show off.

I thought my plan was pretty good. I dug up a large clump of dirt with each of the plants, being careful not to expose the roots. I set the clumps in a wheelbarrow, rolled them around to the front, carefully inserted them in the front bed and watered them well. But, most of the snapdragons that I moved became dry and spindly; some died quickly. The ones that did survive being transplanted were not nearly as pretty as the ones that came up on their own in the front bed or the ones that I left alone in the back bed.

In my attempt to pretty things up I failed to understand that when these plants come up every year, they do so because they have adapted to the conditions – the soil content, the light and shade patterns, the wind currents and even the air temperatures – and those conditions vary greatly from the front of the house to the back. I’ve learned since them to let them bloom where they are.

Fear + Neglect = Devastation

One year I was given a birdhouse shaped like a church. I placed it on a table on the back porch and as springtime turned to summer, I noticed wasps flying in and out of the opening. Wasps and I don’t get along well due to some childhood stings, so I try to give them a lot of space. So it was that over time the wasps built a nest inside the birdhouse, and as the nest got larger the wasp population did too. Before long I was afraid to go out on the porch, and the more my fear grew and I stayed away, the larger the nest became.

Finally, some other work that needed to be done on the porch forced me to take action. I brainstormed several plans, including: hosing the birdhouse down and drowning the wasps; putting a bucket over it and suffocating them; getting a baseball bat and slugging them house and all out into the yard; or even torching them with fire. Finally, I got my courage up and attacked the birdhouse with one of those powerful long-distance wasp spray cannons. When I was reasonably certain that I’d killed them all, I picked up the birdhouse by the tip of the steeple and tossed it into the yard away from the porch. A few days later, I poked at it and kicked at it and when nothing buzzed I set it out in a flowerbed between some knock out roses and a potato bush.

Years later, the birdhouse remained vacant. I poisoned it so well that nothing would go inside – not even the birds for which it was built.

Consider The Big Picture

One year during some interior home renovations I swapped my office and my bedroom and positioned my desk and computer in front of a window that faced the backyard. By the time I got everything arranged, the large Vitex bush outside the window was mostly bare and I had a good view of the yard and the flowerbeds through the winter and into the early spring. But as the Vitex began to leaf out, I contemplated cutting it down or at least cutting it back so I could see the flowers across the yard in the beds.

I’m glad I put it off, because before I could do any cutting I started to see that the Vitex was a haven for Red Birds, Blue Jays, Doves and Cedar Waxwings. And then in June, the Vitex put out its beautiful purple blooms – the reason I planted it in the first place. By then it was too pretty to cut and the songbirds were enjoying the shade. And besides that, it wasn’t so thick that I couldn’t see through it to the flowerbeds, and in the late afternoon it provided shade from the sun.

Everything Looks Fine . . . From A Distance

There’s a class of broad-leaf weeds or trash plants growing in the flowerbeds that, from a distance, look like hearty annuals or perennials just waiting to bloom. If left unattended they will grow up and around other desirable plants and make them look as if they are full and vibrant. It’s only when you go out for a close-up inspection that you find that the intruders are doing nothing but taking up space. What’s more, when you remove them and step back you find that there is little left of the plant you actually wanted because it was crowded out by the imposters. The only prevention is to get out of the house, walk the beds, and take care of business as frequently as possible.

What Works For Others May Not Work For Me

While walking at the lake in the spring I noticed that the city mows around the perimeters of the point but lets the hillside grow wild. In the middle of that wildness they erected a sign that says “Prairie Grass and Wildflower Area.” At the same time, my small backyard was growing wild with all kinds of weedy stuff, so I decided to do the same thing and mow around the perimeter.

I didn’t put up a sign, but if I did it would have read “Prairie Weed Area,” because nothing in my patch bloomed. Apparently all I had was weeds. What worked for the city didn’t work for me, so I let the sun bake it brown and then I mowed it all down.

Constant Vigilance Is The Way

The flowerbeds are under attack, and they have been for years. There is a vine with bright green, heart-shaped leaves that grows wild everywhere. It grows fast, and as it grows it wraps itself tightly around whatever is nearby – shrubs, flowers, downspouts, fences, everything. If you try to just yank it out it will strip all the leaves and blooms off the plant it is clinging to.

I’m hesitant to poison the vine because it tends to sprout right next to the trunks and stems of other plants and I don’t want to kill the entire garden. So constant vigilance is the way to deal with it – going out every couple of days and carefully unwinding the vines and breaking them off at the ground.

Let’em Be

My garden – like a school classroom – has its share of under-achievers: a Fig bush that produces figs that never ripen or none at a; a Sage that has forgotten how to blush pink; Irises that go years without blooming; Roses that don’t show off beyond springtime; an Encore Azalea that has stage fright.

Some of that is probably my fault. The Sage and Azalea may not have been planted in the right place (too much shade for one, too much sun for the other), or the soil not prepared well enough. But some of the problems may be due simply to the passage of time. The Fig, Irises, and Roses were planted long before I lived there and the conditions have changed. The Fig is shaded by a Pecan tree whose canopy has expanded over the years. The Roses are crowded by Cedar bushes that once stood several feet away. The Irises – I just don’t know.

Every year when I see the non-producers, I tell myself that next year I’m going to make some changes, but with a spotty record of successful transplanting I’m not so sure that moving them is the right thing to do. So I just leave them alone, which is okay because they’re all green, they add texture and depth to the beds, and every few years they surprise me with a show of color. As for the Fig bush, it still feeds the birds so it does get credit for that.

A Solution Worse Than The Problem

At my previous house, which was shaded by wonderful old pecan trees, I’d spend some time every late spring up on the roof sweeping the brown pecan blooms out of the valleys and off the tops of the gutter screens. But not before much of the material had already broken into small pieces and fallen into the gutters where they joined with roof grit and leaf fragments to form a kind of organic mud that diminished the carrying capacity of the gutters. Eventually that debris – trapped by screens designed to keep it out – clogged the gutters so badly that they spilled over at a mid-point on the roofline.

That chain of events caused me to spend a thousand dollars one summer to replace the fascia and soffit above the garage door. When the contractor re-attached the gutter, I told him to leave off the screens. I’d rather scoop out the mud than have it get trapped and rot the woodwork again.

Some experts insist that gutters are needed to drain water away from the foundation, which in our area is subject to pressure from our expansive clay soil. But even with gutters, I still had shifting so I’m not so sure that gutters mattered there. Meanwhile, my brother-in-law – a talented restorer of historic homes – states unequivocally that gutters are a curse because of the very damage I experienced. The old homes he restores do not have gutters; he lets the rain roll off the roof naturally. Most people coming to visit in the rain carry an umbrella anyway so they’re not bothered by rain dripping off the roof.

If I had stayed in that house, I probably would have pulled the gutters off the next time I painted or replaced the roof. But I moved away and built a new house. Yes, we have gutters all around, but we don’t have those awful gutter screens.

It’s Not Work If You Enjoy It

I was asked if I have any hobbies, and I froze for a moment because the immediate answer is “no.” I don’t paint, do woodwork, tie flies, throw pottery, play Scrabble or golf, rock climb or star gaze, cook or bake. I used to cycle a lot and I’m getting back to that. I do walk for recreation and exercise, but it’s hard to call walking a hobby when it’s something that every able-bodied human does just to survive. The answer I finally gave was, “I like to do yard work.”

I was embarrassed to say that because “yard work” does not sound as elegant as “gardening,” and I can’t claim “gardening” because that’s not what I really do. “Yard work” is the best phrase I have for what I do, but even that is not accurate because I don’t consider it “work.” Sure, I get hot and sweaty and I wear myself out sometimes, but I still enjoy it.

Yard work is a great full-body workout, and I find exercise goes faster when I’m doing something productive instead of just running in circles or sitting inside some kind of machine. And I discovered years ago that I do some of my best thinking while working in the yard. Much of the work is repetitive and doesn’t require a lot of brainpower, so the mind is free to explore other thoughts and ideas.

There’s also something primal or at least ancestral about working the soil and tending to nature. It just feels right to me.

No Better Time Than Now

I plotted out a backyard flowerbed that was 50 feet long by four feet wide, and then I drove a few miles to the local sand and stone supplier and ordered a couple of yards of landscape mix with instructions to dump it on the driveway. It was delivered on a Monday while I was at work, and that evening I had a meeting at the church so I figured that I’d park behind the pile that night and begin spreading it in a day or two.

When I came home from the meeting that night my wife said, “You’ll never believe what happened,” and then she told me: She heard noise outside and raised the garage door to find that two men had backed a pick-up truck next to the pile and were getting ready to start shoveling the dirt. When she confronted them, they played innocent and said, “Oh, we just thought we’d help you move this pile of dirt.” She told them, “That dirt is there for a reason and we don’t need your help and you better leave right now.” Thankfully, they left.

It didn’t take a minute after hearing the story to know that I couldn’t wait another day to move the dirt. I changed clothes and for the next three hours I worked in the dark, shoveling the dirt into a wheelbarrow and dispersing it up and down the flowerbed. And when I was done, I locked the gate. I didn’t trust anyone; I knew that anyone bold enough to drive up in broad daylight and steal a pile of dirt from a driveway might come again and empty the beds.

Which begs the question: What else have I been putting off that needs to be dealt with right away – before someone steals my idea or something robs me of my energy and ambition?

They’ve Earned The Right

We have some plants here and there around the house that a professional landscaper would probably yank out in a heartbeat because they don’t fit into any type of organized landscape scheme: a stray Mum here and there, a tangled wild Rose bush, a Lily, a wild Pyracantha. But once a year or so they bloom or put out berries or fill a gap, so in exchange for still putting on a little show in spite of the weather and my neglect, I leave them alone. They’ve, earned the right to stay.

Outgrowing Its Bindings

Part of the reason we bought the house in 1992 was the three large Pecan trees that framed the front and side yard. Especially the large double-trunk Pecan that sits on the right side of the lawn on the property line. It’s a beautiful specimen whether fully leafed out in the summer or bare in the winter.

This particular tree was the focus of concern one year when a tree man wandering the neighborhood looking for business noted that two cables installed high between the trunks before we arrived had snapped. He said the situation was dangerous and he recommended that the cables be reconnected. Not sure about that remedy, I contacted another “expert” and he said the tree would split some day and so it needed to come down completely. I didn’t like that idea at all, so I sought a third opinion. This man said the cables had snapped because the tree had grown and it needed to be left alone. So that’s what we did.

That was more than 25 years ago. I eventually moved away, because just like the tree I outgrew my bindings. I see the tree from a distance every week and it is doing fine. So am I.

Discovering Hidden Beauty

They’re all over town: Crepe Myrtles that have been left alone to grow fat and ugly. We had a couple of bushes like that on either side of our front walk. They were pretty when they were small, but over several years they got bigger and rounder and less lovely, even when they bloomed. Until one day when I went looking for their hidden beauty.

Working carefully from the bottom and going about half-way up their seven-foot height, I started trimming out the vertical shoots, leaving only the thickest and strongest – the ones that looked like “trunks.” I’d cut a little and then step back to check the look, then cut a little more and step back again. Before long, two beautiful, shapely Crepe Myrtle “trees” began to appear – showing off their classic, sensuously smooth bark rising up to full tops that in the spring and summer leaf out and bloom gorgeously.

Their beauty was there all along. I just had to uncover it.

Too Late

In preparation for a visit from family I went to the nursery and bought a bunch of annuals (Zinnias, Pintas and Caladiums) and perennials (Lantana) to fill out the beds and add a splash of color. I planted them in good soil, fed them and watered them well. They looked good that evening when my guests arrived, but within four days the Zinnias were turning brown and wilting.

The problem was my timing. It was late June and the temperature was already hitting 100. At the nursery the Zinnias were under a mesh screen that filtered the sun, but the direct sunlight in my beds was too much. Even though the roots were watered, the hot blowtorch air was frying the stems, leaves and blooms. I should have planted them a month earlier when it was cooler and they could have gradually acclimated to the sunlight and searing heat. I had put it off and put it off and waited too late.

Running Out Of Juice

It’s the bane of yard work: Running out of gas. Sometimes I can be so eager or rushed about getting started that I fail to make sure there is enough gas in the storage can. What happens next is that I can be in mid yard and full sweat when the mower sputters and quits, and then when I go to refill the tank I find that the gas can is empty. That means I have to get in the car and go to the gas station, and then a lot can happen that prevents me from finishing the yard before the sun goes down or the rain rolls in or the next commitment on the schedule comes due. All of that could be avoided if I just give the fuel can a quick shake before I start mowing. Better yet if I check it the day before.

Beauty And Beast

Mowing the lawn for the first time in 10 days, I went to a shady corner of the back yard and was surprised to find a beautiful pink amaryllis in full bloom. It was a surprise because I didn’t plant it (it’s one of numerous plants that were here before our arrival in 1992), and because I don’t recall ever seeing it bloom.

So I stopped to admire it and then went in the house to get my camera. Only when zooming in and focusing did I notice the bright green poison ivy wrapped around the stalk.

And isn’t that the way it always is: beauty and beast, pleasure and pain, agony and ecstasy, sunshine and rain, sickness and health, better and worse. One always seems to come with the other.

The key is to focus on the good and not overreact to the bad. I could go out and zap the poison ivy with a chemical, but I’d probably kill the amaryllis too. Best to leave it alone, enjoy the pink blooms and let winter take care of the ivy.

Check The Wheel

Before the first lawn mow of the season, I looked at the mower and had forgotten that the front left wheel was falling apart. It’s the wheel on the opposite side of the grass catcher. It’s the wheel that gets the most abuse, the wheel that is always riding on the pavement or rubbing against the sidewalk and the metal landscape edging. It’s the wheel that I push the deepest under the shrubs where it bumps into branches and rocks. I call it the lead wheel because the other three follow it.

My lead wheel had definitely done its job. The last time I mowed in the fall, a long piece of tread had begun to peel off and flopped around as I mowed. It made the going bumpy, but I kept pushing it and it kept going. But now it was worn out, so I pulled it off the mower and took it down the street to the lawnmower shop. The shop owner looked at the wheel, thought a moment, and then led me out back to a barrel where he had a bunch of salvaged wheels floating in a bucket of water. He reached in and pulled out an exact match. He dried it off with a rag and handed it to me. “Here ya go. That’ll be $2.”

So, have you checked your wheel recently? Not the squeaky one that is always getting attention, but the strong silent wheel that keeps turning and turning, even when it is falling apart.


Growing Patience 

A master gardener visiting our neighborhood association said that we could get fall tomatoes out of a summer bush if we didn’t give in to impatience. He said it’s a natural reaction in late summer to look at a scraggly, burned up, played out tomato bush and say, “It’s done,” and dig it up. But if don’t worry about what it looks like and keep watering it, cooler weather will make it leaf out and start producing again. And often the fall tomatoes will be better than the summer ones.

We started following that advice and have been well rewarded. We’ve picked hundreds of tomatoes through the fall, including close to 50 one Christmas Day and that many the day before.

Winter tomatoes? The wet warm fall had a lot to do with that, but more than that it was patience and restraint.

Staying Sharp

I feel like such an idiot. I got dull and ineffective and I didn’t even know it.

We live on a corner lot with what feels like miles and miles of curb and sidewalk, and my little rechargeable edger/weed whacker just wasn’t up to the task. So last summer I bought a gas-powered machine that on day one proved to be almost too powerful for the job. It would cover me with dirt and grass and threaten to skitter down the sidewalk without me. But by the end of the summer I got the feel for it and when I started using it this summer it seemed like I was in control. It didn’t seem as powerful and wasn’t throwing out as much debris. I thought I had tamed the beast.

I learned differently last week when it didn’t seem to be cutting at all. I shut it down and took a good look at the blade and was astonished to find that the blade had been worn down to a nub. Even more astonishing was the fact that I hadn’t looked at it in months. What I had thought was my increasing proficiency was actually my inattention to the fact that the blade was getting ground away against the sidewalk. What’s more, I actually wore away some of the housing around the blade. “Idiot!”

I bought a new blade, installed it, and was immediately taken back to the beginning of last summer when it felt like the machine was going to bury me in debris and cut down the neighborhood. It’s giving me a nice clean edge again, but I’m having to relearn how to keep the beast under control.

The lessons are many, of course. Getting dull is a gradual thing that you barely notice and you can begin to mistake for an easier, more comfortable way of doing things. You might even think that you are in control.

Inattention or laziness – “I’ll inspect it next time” – allows dulling to continue until you’re either just spinning your wheels or possibly doing harm by doing nothing.

On the other hand, being sharp can be a messy, dangerous business. Asking hard questions, making tough decisions, challenging assumptions can irritate and even alienate people. It can put us out on limbs and take us to uncomfortable places. It can have us arguing with God.

But isn’t sharpness the condition in which the most satisfying work gets done? The last time I edged with the dulling blade, the yard just didn’t look right – raggedy like a bad haircut – but I convinced myself it was okay because it didn’t challenge me so much. With the new blade, I was worn out again, but good grief how it looked so much better.

This sharp/dull dynamic is true with our work, our relationships, our spiritual walk. We can let ourselves get dull and say “okay” to things that really aren’t okay or that aren’t the best they can be. We can do lackluster work at school or our jobs and never learn or grow. Pat our loved ones on the head instead of really engaging them in conversation and relationship. Say grace at dinner but never really get down on our knees and wrestle with God over the hard things in life.

I’m guilty of avoiding wrestling and arguments – staying dull, as it were – when the truth is that God appreciates a good argument if we’re seeking answers to important questions. So do parents, teachers, friends, and spouses.

Copyright © 2017 by Jeff Hampton