A beloved little tree died last year, and once again the garden offered the same message as Buddha that it always does when it brings a loss: "Let it go."
The red horse chestnut (Aesculus pavia) had come in the mail from across the country decades ago, a tiny whip whose root system was confined to a cardboard tube no larger than the one in a roll of paper towels. My baby tree.
We'd been happy together, I thought. And then apparently one of us wasn't. It was early in the year, and so its decline marked the official start of the inevitable list of regrets a gardener harvests – one at a time – as they are dealt with each season.
Trying to collect all conventional wisdom answers, I took my cheeky voice and announced, "Room for something new!" But against the backdrop of the excruciating volatility in everything in 2020, the tiny tree's hole felt too big to fill.
Still, I'll try. And so begins the annual exercise of making a list of garden resolutions, with "Replace the Red Horse Chestnut" on top.
The next entries on my “What went wrong and what to do instead?” List strangely seem familiar: working (again) on eradicating a year-old soil cover that turned out to be a racket; reclaim overgrown paths; and to take a firm hand to the beds that have become misshapen.
I swear to address these issues in the coming growing season. But now, as the garden alternates between uninviting bouts of ice and dirt, I'll just give voice to the victims, my shortcomings, and possible remedies – and yes, to remind myself what went right.
“Get out, damn ground cover. Get out, I say! "
We spend the first few years of horticulture waiting for things to grow and the following years pushing them back when they go over the top.
It is easier to turn an eye when certain plants are pursuing a doctrine of overt fate than it is to be the enforcer. But I've looked away long enough.
Many garden shrubs that have long been popular and are considered to be ground cover are not indigenous. They promised to be helpers – to tie our gardens together and make maintenance easier, with fewer weeds and rare mulch – but they have become villains.
Miles of real estate have been consumed by culprits like Vinca, Japanese Pachysandra, and English ivy. These plants can still be purchased, although they are classified as harmful weeds or invasive plants in a growing number of states, where they frolic in natural forests and suffocate native vegetation. (The ivy, Hedera helix, can climb and strangle large trees.)
Even if they just walk across our backyards, such land cover has little to offer pollinators and other beneficial insects. Forget it? In this case, happy.
My special villain is the brightly colored yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon or Lamiastrum galeobdolon), a European and West Asian. My plan: to replace it with native ferns or other perennials such as wild ginger (Asarum canadense) or foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia).
But first the planting out. My herbicide-free approach is to dig and dig and dig again – to loosen up dampened soil and then crawl around to pull out roots so that there is time between attacks for any leftover pieces to sprout again. And they do it with relish. I estimate I will need to make three or four passes of each area – spring, fall, the following spring, and possibly the following fall – before any replanting can begin.
One caveat: disposing of the remains is not an easy task, especially with stoloniferous plants like the lamium or those that are rhizomatic. You would survive my passive compost heap to re-root. They need to go to a burning heap, or at least pile them on a tarp in a sunny spot where they cannot take root, like the driveway, then safely covered with a second tarp and boiled to death – a bit like solarization for Chemical-free weed control when making a new garden bed.
Before adding any of these invasive measures to your household or roadside trash, do the following research: Some communities may have specific rules for disposing of such materials.
One area at a time
My ambitious land cover campaign has its own conclusion. As with any other large gardening task, I am overwhelmed by the scope, even paralyzed. Yes, I will recruit help – but still.
There are swaths of unwanted land cover in several areas, but my best chance of success is to focus on one point at a time. Only when the first area has been tackled and is almost ready for planting do I start with the next.
Restore attractive proportions
Most years no formal resolution is needed to convince me to edging the beds. It is satisfactory to clean up the lines between the lawn and plantings that become blurred by the end of the season. Edges like weeding and mowing offer tangible signs of progress and mission accomplishment (as opposed to many other parts of life).
Almost imperceptibly, however, this essential annual task fails over time as a mere patch of lawn removed with each pass of the step nosing tool – and then another and another in the spring after spring – results in larger beds and other stains, tighter ones Paths and a loss of proportion. Time to fight back the escaped bed dwellers and get the grass seeds out.
Before you commit to redrawing the lines, however, there is one essential step you need to take: go back inside and look out the window. This is the perspective from which I will appreciate the restored proportions from later and a very different angle than standing next to a bed.
Plant it anyway
I found a new red horse chestnut that's bigger than the one I started with all those years ago, although it's barely fully grown. But even if all I found was a root pruning, I would follow the resolution proposed last year by a friend who lamented his own lost tree and longed for a quick fix, as I am now.
A picture from many years ago reminded him of the wisdom to resist this impulse. He had visited the home of a wealthy philanthropist who was about 75 years old and who was the patron saint of various botanical gardens. She planted magnolia whips – unbranched cuttings – despite protests from those who questioned her thinking, suggesting that she could afford an instantly more satisfying solution.
Her long-term view has paid off, and until the 1990s, it is said, she enjoyed sitting on a bench in the shade of these trees. The lesson is one I will take with my replacement baby tree in 2021: plant it anyway and watch it grow.
The little things that add up
Some of the promises I've made for the coming year are "buy" instead of "do" – to order seeds early, for example after I was banned from some varieties in the insane rush of 2020.
I miss my old cold frame to extend the vegetable growing season. So if I replace it, it'll be on the list too.
There will be new grow lights for starting the seeds, especially more efficient LEDs. The good news: the reflective hood that housed my older, high-powered T5 fluorescent tubes (or T5 HO) can be retrofitted with the LED bulbs so I don't have to replace everything.
I am grateful for the quiet, gas- and oil-free operation of my battery-powered lithium-ion mower and the minimal maintenance required, beyond the occasional change of the blunt blade. However, a single load does not cover the entire move. That's why there is another point on my list: "Order a replacement battery".
And the winners are …
The garden takes away and gives too. Yes the horse chestnut died, but there were plenty of vegetables and beans for all the vegetable soup I made and frozen. And the old apple trees that I inherited – estimated by a local expert to be well over 125 years old – were generous despite their age. There are also preserving jars with their pureed pink goodness in the freezer for a year.
Especially in the plus column: The garden was there day after day as a companion and refuge, steadfastly unimpressed by the headlines, unmoved by the occasional lost plant.
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