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I Sure Won’t Do That Again Next Year


This is the time of year that many of us look back in our horticultural rearview mirrors the same way we would if we’d just hit a squirrel. We think about the fortunes of our gardens and grimace a little, squint a bit, and perhaps even tear up a tad.

We recall the eagerness with which we approached the awakening of nature in the spring…“This is the year…” we said, “that I plow the north forty” or
“…I start my blueberry patch” or
“…I finally put in that pond” or
“…I learn what 10-10-10 means” or
“…I sharpen my pruners” or
“…I get a tetanus shot.”

And now, as the shadows grow longer and our dead shrubs are the scariest Halloween decorations on our properties, we pause—in that nanosecond before the holiday season whacks us over the head with a bag of garden implements—to take stock, to gather up the knowledge of the previous growing season and file it under “I dunno.”

This is when we say, “I sure won’t do that again next year.”

Since I’m the one out here on the gardening firing lines (I’m not angry about that, mind you, just a little let down and hurt), I feel it’s only right that I should offer my own experiences as a reminder to all of you poor, trembling

gardeners huddled in fruit cellars that we’re all pretty much clueless. Now get out of there and rake the leaves, ya mopes!

Here’s my (partial) list.

• I Won’t Trust a Redbud. You can’t. They’re sneaky. Mine up and died on me in the spring. I mean, that baby was deader than a hat rack. So, because I didn’t want to stare out the window every morning and be reminded of what a lousy gardener I am, I cut it off at the ankles. Buzz!

Well, “buzz” might make you think I did it with a power tool, but power tools basically scare the bejeesus out of me.

I used my pruning saw. So it was more of a voop, voop, voo-uh-oop… (“Dang! I should have gotten that tetanus shot.”) voop, voop. But that’s not the end of the story. It came back! Yep, pulled the old Lazarus trick on me. In one season it grew back to 9 feet tall. Healthy as a horse-tail fern. So next year, boy am I ready. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, I’ll dig your sorry butt out of the ground and toss it on the compost pile.

• No More Than Four—No, Three—Tomato Plants Per Square Foot. I know that growing more tomatoes in your yard in one summer than the entire population of Lichtenstein could eat in a decade is a sign of manliness, but there comes a point when you have to cut back, sometimes for practical reasons. See, my garage disappeared under tomato vines in July and couldn’t track it down again until after the first hard freeze in autumn. Very inconvenient.

• I Won’t Transplant a Beloved Specimen the Day Before a Drought and Heat Wave Begin and Then Leave Town for Two Weeks. It was a ginkgo tree and yeah, I know that my friend the ginkgo expert told me to transplant it just before bud-break in the early spring, but I think I was writing a column that day or something and suddenly it was June 1, and I really wanted to move the tree because it was growing smack under a crabapple, and I knew it shouldn’t be growing under a crabapple because there isn’t any room there, and don’t ask me why I planted it there in the first place. So I decided to move it, and I watered the heck out of it, and told my friend to water the heck out of it while I was out of town, and she did, and then called to say, “Uh, your tree doesn’t look very good.”
“How so?” I asked.
“All the leaves have turned yellow,” she said.
“Hmm,” I said. And when I got home the tree looked very, very dead, and I think it was because we drowned the poor thing but, lo and behold, it pulled a Lazarus on me, too!

So now I think the lesson is that you can’t trust a ginkgo, either.

You know, those scary Halloween shrubs are looking at me kind of funny, too. Tell you what. I think I’ll do some off-season cleaning in the fruit cellar for a couple of months. Call me in April.

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I have two 20-year-old pine trees whose needles are turning brown on the west side of the plants. On the east side I have a compost pile.

I live in the St. Charles region and my soil is mostly clay. What is causing the browning? Should I get rid of the compost? How do I correct the damage?

I have read that purple coneflowers (Echinacea) are a good source of food for birds in the winter. Will they be okay if not trimmed back until spring? If so, how early should they be trimmed?

I purchased some pre-chilled hyacinths and tulips for forcing but there were no directions with them. Does this mean I don’t have to chill them in the refrigerator, and will they just bloom in the house any time during the winter? The last batch of bulbs became moldy in the refrigerator.

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