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The Numbers Game


I was reading a gardening book the other day (yes, I occasionally do research – don’t start on me this early in the column, okay?) and I came across a tip for how to buy the right number of plants for your garden. Unfortunately, it involved unnerving words like “numbers” and “measurements” and “calculations.”

Of course, the tried and true way of figuring out how many plants are needed is to eyeball the garden, go to the garden center, roll out a couple of Radio Flyers full of plants, take ’em home, put ’em in the ground, and try to return the extra plants … for credit, of course. If you undershoot your mark, head back to the garden center. If you’re doing this via the Intertubes and mail, add a few weeks and a couple of emotional meltdowns to the process.

In the case of this otherwise excellent book, I was advised to calculate the area in square feet for my garden bed, which is usually done by multiplying (one of those words again) one side of the space by another. When your garden is 10 x 10 feet, it’s really, really simple: whip out your smartphone and use the calculator. (I think the answer is somewhere around 82 square feet. Maybe less. Frankly, my smartphone ran out of power at that critical juncture.) But when your bed is roughly the shape of the Crab Nebula in the constellation Taurus, as it is in my yard, it’s time to panic.

Next, I was told, inexplicably, to multiply that figure by 144, which I think is a reference to something in the Mayan calendar. At least that’s what I infer from a very big movie that I saw recently, where things were blowing up and collapsing and the world was about to end. On the other hand, that’s the description of about 90 percent of what comes out of Hollywood these days, so that might be an indication of nothing in particular. The number 144 might also have something to do with square inches, if only because that’s what was on the printed page. So I whipped out my smartphone to do the math but I got distracted by the weather app, and I never did figure out how many plants I needed for my garden.

By the way, that same book, which added twenty points to my blood pressure and subtracted ten years from my lifespan, also said, seemingly without irony, “Gardening should be fun!”
As you’ve probably surmised, if numbers, figures and calculations were on Facebook, I would have unfriended them long ago.

“You’re anti-science!” I can hear my many critics cry. Really, I can hear them right now, even though I’m in a quiet room with my laptop and my cat. My cat doesn’t seem to be able to hear them, which makes me question her powers of observation.

I’m not anti-science. I’m just anti-math. Especially when it comes to gardening. For instance, I saw this rather common question on a website: “You have a 50-lb. bag of 26-5-10 fertilizer that you want to apply to a lawn at a rate of 1.0 lb. nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft. How much of the 26-5-10 fertilizer will you need to apply per 1000 sq. ft.?”

Aside from the SAT flashbacks that many of us suffer on a regular basis, this poses other questions. For instance, did you ask your lawn if it wanted 1.0 lb. of nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft.? What if it said “no?” What if it said, “I prefer 1.3 lb of nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft.?” What if it said, “I prefer compost?” What if it said, “Huh?” I’m not trying to be a marriage counselor here but this is the kind of thing that can create a wall between home owners and their lawns. Are you sure that’s what you want? And what the heck are you doing trying to lift a 50-lb. bag of anything? But perhaps I’m projecting.

Obviously, another way to answer the fertilizer question is to find some of the finest Scotch whisky available and add it to the equation. But, as I always say, when applying toxic chemicals to the garden or to one’s self, read and follow label directions.

Not that any of you ever listen to my advice. My cat doesn’t either. Which is why I don’t let her near the Scotch.

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questions

What three dwarf shrubs do you think gardeners should know about and why?

I have a nicely sheltered, rounded 7-foot tall Japanese red maple on the southeast corner of my backyard. Half of the tree has lost its leaves, the formerly red bark is turning gray, and a good-sized square of bark has been stripped off on the side that faces the yard. I sprayed the exposed bark with black pruning spray to close any entry for insects. I have not cut off any of the branches.

Does the winter have any effect on the tree? Should I look for some insect infestation? What should I do now?

Must I mulch my garden and, if so, when is the best time to apply it? What are the best materials to use?

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