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Whidbey Island Landscapes

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Cutting back the grasses

cutting back the grasses

cutting back the grasses

My garden assistant Jen and I cut back all the grasses today – Miscanthus, Panicum, Pennisetum, Nasella, Stipa, Calamagrostis, Anemanthele – using a long-armed gas-powered hedge trimmer.  It only took about 45 minutes.   Jen said, “Wow, that saved us a whole day’s work.”  Indeed.   I said, “How about you weed and I’ll deal with the dead bodies.”

I rake and roll the debris onto a small tarp, then drag the tarp to the tractor.  It takes several trips with the tractor to dispose of it all.  As I was driving, I thought, “Wow, I am almost sixty and I’m still gardening!”  Nagging at the back of my mind is, “for how long?”  Many of my friends don’t garden anymore and have moved to smaller places.   I miss their gardens and I’m guessing they do too.   I would like to stay in our home and garden as long as I can.  And I’d love to see children or grandchildren keep our home as a get-away place.  So I’m always thinking of how I can make this garden easier to take care of.  Here are some of those ideas.

Stay fit and flexible.  Yoga and swimming have been my best allies.  Warm up before going outside.  Vary tasks.  Quit before you are tired.   My friend Michele does a victory lap around her garden, wine glass in hand when she is done for the day.

Hire some garden help – even if for now you don’t need much.  Develop a relationship with someone  who comes to understand how you like to do things and gets to know your plants.   Someone you could eventually trust your garden to in case you are ill and can’t get outside.   Hire a knowledgeable professional and expect to pay him or her well.  Or hire someone less experienced and plan to spend several years training this person.  And then if you plan to keep this person, pay him or her well.  Make sure there is work to do even during the winter.

Cover the ground with plants.  Weeding and mulching is time-consuming, expensive and hard on the back and hands.   I am relying more on shrubs and using perennials as accents.

Select plants that need less pruning, deadheading or dividing to look good.  Place shrubs that get twiggy or perennials that spread in a section of the garden you could your “wild” area.

Choose plants that match the cultural needs of your garden and you won’t need to coddle them.  Dragging around hoses is hard work, so use drought resistant plants whenever it is appropriate.  Consider installing an irrigation system to get the plants off to a good start,  but in the long run even this needs monitoring and repair.

Be judicious in your use of low “ground-covers.”  In a small garden or an in-town garden they are fine.   In my garden, open to forest and field they become a huge chore as weed seeds land and sprout between the runners of the groundcover .  I use shrubs at least 1’ tall as groundcover – something I can lift the skirt, reach under and pull the weeds.

Contrary to the sound bites I hear nowadays, I think lawns are much easier to take care of than planting beds especially if you don’t expect your lawn to stay green over the summer or be weed free.  Think about how much easier it is to run a lawn mower over an area than it is to weed the same amount of space.  I mulch our lawn clippings so I don’t fertilize either.  And hiring someone to mow is also easier and much cheaper than hiring someone to weed, prune, deadhead, etc. . . .


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Don’t blame the plants

I’m allowing myself four hours of gardening every morning this beautiful fall.    This is what I accomplished this morning:

There was a hellbore in that hole, Helleborus x hybridus ‘Blue Lady’ to be exact.  I had meant to move her for the last three years, as she morphed from 1 gallon perennial to a two and half by three foot garden bully,  shading out both the pieris on the left and the podocarpus on the right, consequently ruining the shapes of both and the  symetry of my entry garden.  It took me the entire morning to take her out.

I first went in with my favorite trusty perennial spade and broke it – admittedly mis-using it like a lever trying to pop the hellebore out of the ground.   While at Ace buying a new spade, I decided to also buy some potting soil so I could repot that lady and think later about where to put her rather than walking around the garden looking for a spot.  Back at home I went back in with the garden fork.  Not even a budge.  I finally decided to use the Mr’s big shovel but had to hunt around for it first since I hardly ever use it, but that did the trick.

The root ball was huge and I decided to divide her into four pots.  I tried the hori-hori, then the two garden forks back-to-back trick and finally resorted to the axe.  As my gardening hours ticked away, I grumbled about  why anyone would want such a difficult plant anyway – one that crowded out her neighbors and refused to be moved or divided?  And then I remembered those beautiful purple flowers in March.  And her evergreen leaves, hardiness, adaptability.

What do I plan to put in the empty spot?  Nothing.  It would have looked  fine with just the pieris and podocarpus, without me cramming one more plant in.  And I’m hopeful that both plants will fill back out into lovely shapes and touch each other ever so gently.   Also that the little Amemone nemerosa “Robinsoniana’ I planted under the hellebore is still alive and will make an appearance next spring.

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