Gardening for One & All

Stereoscopic view (detail) of Horticultural Hall, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, 1903. Courtesy of New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection.

Stereoscopic view (detail) of Horticultural Hall, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, 1903. Courtesy of New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection.

By Carol Cavanaugh

In the depths of winter, huddled in my basement as winds howl and freezing rain prevents departure from my house, I embark on a project of sorting through old slides. Boxes of unlabelled slides from the pre-digital era surely must be candidates for the bin...except suddenly, without warning, I am thrust into the peak of summer. Visions of a friend’s garden at peak bloom in a past July almost make my eyes hurt…such vibrant colors! Such a distant memory, the sight of flaming reds and pinks and purples outdoors!

Summer is coming, folks.

photos by Carol cavanaugh.

photos by Carol cavanaugh.

A conversation at the recent Burleith gløgg party points me toward this column’s topic. A neighbor was saying she would like to garden but has no idea what she’s doing. She is on the mailing list for the Burleith Garden Club, but figures that everyone is way ahead of her in knowledge so she’s never come to a meeting. I respond that members of the club are at all different levels of involvement with gardening, and that everyone is welcome. That’s true, and I invite you to join our garden club as well!

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But the real answer is that in gardening, most of us don’t know what we’re doing! This uncertainty comes not just from lack of study or experience. It comes from the reality that every soil, every site, and every plant is different. You may hear a certain plant definitely needs shade. Then you unavoidably have to cut a tree down and find that the plant underneath it never got that message: it is doing just fine with a fair amount of sun. Perhaps another plant should need well-drained soil, but is doing okay in Burleith’s heavy clay. Right now I have a tree and a shrub that were supposed to be miniatures. Unfortunately, neither of them followed instructions, and both are growing rampantly…in the wrong places. After some years of juxtaposing the study and the practice of gardening, all I can do is repeat John James Audubon’s famous disclaimer, “If the bird and the book disagree, believe the bird.”

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Now, I am not saying to do just anything. It is wise for the new gardener to put a shade plant in a shaded location. You are much more likely to have happier plants and be a happier gardener if you follow basic rules. But as you go on, you will find that the spot in your garden that is sheltered from the wind and next to your house is a special place. Here, a more tropical plant just might settle in, though it would croak anywhere else. Just as in your yoga class, where the pose that helps you may hurt the person next to you, plants are individuals and growing situations are unique. You just go by trial and error. You nurture a plant as best as your situation and location allow. Then you sit back and wait for the plant’s verdict. You can see this as annoying, frustrating, or discouraging. Or perhaps you may find it intriguing, a chance to engage with the natural world on its terms even in the heart of an urban area.