I think my approach to flower gardening is fairly typical among those who live in northern climes-- once winter’s hold is broken, approach gardening with robust abandon! Then, as the days get longer and summer rolls along, garden less and less, in direct proportion to whatever minimum effort is needed to keep the weeds at bay. Don’t get me wrong—I love my garden and, at a minimum, I visit it every day. But gardening is a lot of work and summer beckons with so many other possibilities. Over the years of living in southeast Alaska, I have learned a few things about gardening, which I will share with you. Implement them at your own risk!
In early spring, your garden will be a mess from last year’s biomass or, as I prefer, “biomess.” But, once you clean out the debris, the garden looks somewhat empty—you’ll naively believe that you have plenty of space to work with. But, soon the bulbs that I planted last fall are in bloom. They are the early season stalwart backbone of any good garden. This is also the time I also look around and note any bare spots, which I mark in a visible but discrete way. I also make a diagram of these spots (more on that later). These are the places I will plant bulbs next fall.
A few more weeks roll by, and after enjoying a plethora of colors and smells, the bulbs are now past their prime. Perennials and annuals are putting out lots of vegetative growth, but very little color other than green. Now is a perfect time to buy annuals and perennials for a spot of color. Besides, your garden still seems somewhat empty, so it is nice to fill in some of the holes, right?
As the weeks pass, gardening becomes more about maintenance. With the exception of a couple of really dry spots in my yard-- either next to the house or in the woods-- I never have to water my garden beds. A wonderful side benefit from all the liquid sunshine Juneau receives! But, given a choice, I’d much rather water than weed, for weeding is an odious task that never seems to end. It also seems decidedly unfair that the volunteer plants grow so much better than the ones I try to cultivate. An ecology professor I had in college perhaps put it best, “Mother Nature is not a nudist by choice.” Meaning, of course, that wherever there is a niche to fill, something will fill it. Unfortunately, it usually isn’t something I want. Ok—a few dandelions, buttercups or phlox are nice, but they reproduce so vigorously that if you don’t monitor them, they will take over. So, you must weed, weed, and weed again. My enthusiasm for this task diminishes rapidly as the summer rolls along.
There are also some cultivated plants that are the bane of my garden. Ajuga and snow on the mountain come to mind. Why did I ever think planting them was a good idea? They spread like crazy and take over. So, note to the wise—if anyone is ever “giving” these plants away—don’t take them!!! There is a reason they are free!
Somehow, around the end of June, my garden is suddenly overgrown overnight. What happened? Where did all this biomass come from? Suddenly the beds are burgeoning! One benefit of this explosion of vegetation is that the weeds tend to blend in more, allowing me to slack off on my efforts a bit. And, many of the perennials are now in bloom. The garden looks full but beautiful!
Over the years, some plants have emerged as real winners. These include primroses—flower early and are ridiculously reliable; bergenia—strong, sturdy green and red leaves that sport sturdy pink flowers early in the season; sweet woodruff –low-lying, smells sweet, and spreads, but in a good way; delphinium—grows tall and has delightful blue, lavender and purple flowers that attract hummingbirds—it does need to be staked; and hosta—loves the shade and it flowers—need I say more?
On a wet summer, be forewarned, moss thrives and can take over your beautiful beds. But, at least it is green. Unfortunately, slugs also like the moist weather. They are mostly brown. Green and brown look good together.
In early September, I remember that I have bulbs that will need planting in a few weeks. For a long time, I tried to plant all my bulbs, start to finish, in one day. Whenever I planned this, it would usually be raining and miserable and just not much fun. Then I got smart. Remember how I said I marked the spots where I would plant bulbs earlier in the season? Well, the markers work in theory, but by September my garden is so overgrown it is hard to find the markers. Now you know why I also made a diagram. So, I wait for a sunny day and then armed with diagram in hand, I search out the markers and pre-dig my holes. This simple change has made planting bulbs so much more fun. Later, when it is time to stick the bulbs in the pre-dug holes, it is a simple matter and it doesn’t really matter if it is raining. Trust me on this one!
All too soon, it will be fall and too wet to do anything but look at the garden through the window. I also used to religiously clean up the vegetation and then carefully cover my plants with spruce bows to protect them from winters cold. But, I also learned that is a lot of work and decided to let the plants fend on their own. With very few exceptions, this strategy works well. The vegetation fades and dies with the freezing temps, and provides a natural cover for the roots below. By spring, the biomess will also be much smaller and easier to remove.
So, that is my approach to gardening in a nutshell. I love my garden—I would never be without. I know I will have a feast of color and fragrance every time I step outside and I love being able to share bouquets of flowers with friends. As Luther Burbank once said, “Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food, and medicine for the soul.” May your garden grow well this year!