A new leaf? How about a new garden?

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJanuary 16, 2014 

This year, instead of ordering my favorite annual and vegetable seeds for my kitchen garden, I gave myself permission to imagine the garden I will create if Rock, my husband and gardening buddy, and I find the place of our dreams.

Of course, we don’t know where this new garden will be, because we can’t move until we sell our old homestead in Maryland. The large, sunny backyard I have in mind may turn out to be a shady woodland behind a house we can’t resist. Or a roof on an industrial loft. Or we may have no space to garden at all.

Rock shakes his head.

“You have to have a garden,” he tells me. “It would make you crazy not to have one.”

We’ll also need room for a dog — and for a cat to keep the dog company, I say. Our beloved pets died a while back, but you can’t live without animals forever.

Rock looks heavenward, although he’s a nonbeliever, as if to say, “God, let’s just find a place to go first.” Or maybe he has spotted a new leak in the ceiling.

So here’s the thing.

Some people are afraid to dream, because then they’ll get their hopes up and they’ll be even more disappointed when they have to settle for a backyard covered in concrete, surrounded by a chain-link fence. (This sort of thing can be transformed with kiwi vines and such, I have written glibly in the past.)

I’m in the opposite camp. In the best-case scenario, I reason, the good karma your vision creates will draw you toward your dream like an unwavering GPS signal. Worst case, you’ll enjoy painting this fantasy and maybe you’ll get it out of your system. Do you really want to spend all those hours on your knees anyway?

Actually, I do. Gardening is my religion.

So I began by envisioning what I would grow on a sunny site. Because although shade is a wonderful thing — and ferns, gingers and jack-in-the-pulpits are underrated beauties — sun-loving lilacs and sunflowers, tomatoes and asparagus are closer to my heart. And the first rule of garden wisdom is to match the plants to the site.

Looking back over decades of gardens, I realize that I’ve made two major mistakes: putting a plant I loved in the wrong place and watching it die a miserable death, and not preparing the soil properly, because in some cases that means planning a year or two in advance.

But while we are in limbo, I have plenty of time to plan (or at least to dream). I also have time to propagate new plants from some of the old shrubs on the farm. This is something that anyone who lusts after a plant in a friend’s or neighbor’s garden, or anywhere old plants grow, can do with permission.

And at 64, in the same way that I am not embarrassed to get a discount at the movies or to dye my hair red, I am not afraid to admit that I love simple plants. Some of these were given to me by friends over the course of 40 years of gardening. Others were growing here before I was born, so taking cuttings of them will be like bringing the farm and my ancestors with me wherever I go.

In the early spring, I will dig side shoots of the French lilac Syringa vulgaris, known as Ma dame Lemoine, a fragrant double white variety that my grandmother Grace brought with her, no doubt after digging up shoots at her childhood home a mile up the road. I will plant them in 12-inch plastic nursery pots filled with good compost and keep them watered, out of direct sun. It will take months for those shoots to form sturdy roots and be ready for planting, in the fall or even the next spring. (If it takes longer than that to find a garden, I will give them bigger pots.)

And in May, when my grandmother’s rose, a very fragrant double pink damask type that I don’t know the name of, is blooming on the north side of the farmhouse, I’ll take cuttings of that, too.

Stephen Scanniello, a garden designer, taught me how to do this years ago, on a rose-rustling expedition in graveyards.

Basically, using a sharp pair of clean pruning clippers, you cut half a dozen 6-inch stems, clip off any blossoms and the lower leaves, and set each cut stem in moist, sterile potting soil, in a baggie or a pot covered with a plastic bag. Keep the bags or pots out of direct light and be careful not to let them dry out, and within a few weeks, roots will begin to form. Then the bagged cuttings can be potted up or the bags removed from the pots with cuttings.

I have propagated a number of roses this way, and it’s nice to think of my heirlooms still blooming in a roof garden or backyard (and here on the farm, too, if the new owners don’t bulldoze them for a lawn).

As for my new kitchen garden, I picture it as a version of the one that Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman so eloquently describe in “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.” They laid out this 2,500-square-foot vegetable garden, with an additional 2,500 square feet for a grape trellis, fruit trees and berry crops, on the south side of their home in Maine.

Because I have been there, and have sat on the bench beneath the apple tree and walked under the trellis laden with grapes, I know that this garden is the living proof of basic principles many of us ignore.

The first is providing enough space for what you want to plant. To do that, you need a plan drawn to scale. (One foot to an inch is a good one.) And what better time to do this than January?

Whether or not we will have the luxury of the kind of space Coleman and Damrosch recommend, the most powerful wisdom I take from them is the benefit of soil preparation.

To plant a few apple trees, for instance, the authors spent two years preparing the ground. The first spring, they tilled in compost, rock powders and limestone and planted a cover crop of buckwheat. By summer, they had tilled under the buckwheat to add fertility to the soil and added some composted animal manure; by late summer, they had sowed in a mixture of oats and field peas. The next spring, they tilled that crop under and planted biennial sweet clover, a deep-rooted legume that takes nitrogen from the air and makes it available to plants. The clover grew all summer and remained in the ground the next winter. Only the third spring did they till that crop in and plant their apple trees.

Years ago, I would have found this regimen too tedious. But after planting a little apple tree in heavy clay and watching it founder for four years, I can see how much time we wasted in our haste. We also neglected to spend the requisite time talking to local apple growers or a savvy cooperative extension agent about which varieties would do best in our climate and soil.

It was an impulse buy, a love affair sparked by a fast-talking heirloom apple grower we met at the Herb and Garden Faire, at the Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum in Lancaster, Pa. (An early May event not to be missed, but a dangerous place for gardeners without a plan.) I came home with Ananas Reinette, a French apple first noted in the 1500s that is supposed to taste like pineapple — that is, if it ripens before rust and insects get to it.

When I think of how many years I spent to find the right partner, I could have surely taken the time to prepare the soil for an apple tree.

If I am lucky, my new garden will have room for tree peonies, especially Snow Lotus, a semidouble white with a maroon-black center and golden stamens.

Whenever I float one in a bowl, I think of my mother doing the same thing, in the same bowl, on a mahogany table that was too big for any of her children or grandchildren to keep. We sold it for a song at a Baltimore auction, but the bowl will go with us.

If we also have space for sunflowers like Torch, Autumn Beauty, Evening Sun, Lemon Queen and Velvet Queen, they will remind us of the summer we planted a whole field and watched the colors change with the light. When we brought them in as cut flowers, the luminous petals and centers brought uncanny life into the house, their friendly faces nodding across the room.

Near my new door, wherever it is, I will have to have a Viburnum carlesii, or Korean spicebush, for its fragrance. And a Nyssa sylvatica, or black gum tree, for shade — if, by some miracle, we have room for a specimen that can grow as high as 50 feet and span 30 feet. If we don’t, Cercis canadensis, the Eastern redbud tree, is my choice for a smaller space. This native understory tree, which flourishes in the forest in the dappled shade of beech and oak, looks like it’s dancing, and the purple-leafed cultivar, Forest Pansy, is a beauty.

This time around, I also want an asparagus patch. We went without one for a decade, because waiting the requisite three years to harvest always seemed too long. Rutgers University has developed several all-male varieties that don’t expend energy on making seeds, so their stalks are plentiful and delicious: Jersey Giant, Jersey Supreme and Jersey Knight.

But even if I have to make do with just a whiskey barrel, I will plant my favorite herbs — sweet basil, cilantro and Italian parsley — as well as tasty lettuces like Spotted Aleppo and prickly seeded spinach, an heirloom variety with tender green leaves the size of dessert plates. And surely there will be room for a few Brandywine tomatoes and some turnips (maybe Hakurai, a creamy white, or Detroit Red, a prolific workhorse).

I know, I know. This dream garden may not have room for everything, once it finally lands. And if we are lucky enough to be able to plant a magnificent black gum tree, we won’t live to see it reach 50 feet.

But someone will.

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