There’s more than one way to do everything.
In gardening. In life. In planting an apple tree, or peeling apples over the sink. Certainly there are rules that guide us (don’t use a dull knife), and experts that sway us (use a 3 ¼ inch Victorinox, says the team at Cook’s Illustrated ). But the earlier we start to play a little and discover the ways that work well for us, the more flexible we become to take on new challenges – including the challenge of sharing what we’ve learned without ramming it down the throats of others as The Only Way.
Last week, I was fortunate to have another conversation with Margaret Roach on her excellent podcast A Way to Garden. We discussed what Margaret calls “The Mad Stash” – which is my new favorite term to describe the imminent autumn frenzy of finding winter homes for tender plants.
What she does…What I do…What we’ve seen done in the gardens of others… We also discussed some overall guidelines for gardeners who insist, as we do, on playing with plants that require life support in cold winter months.
After comparing notes and laughing a lot (my apologies to Margaret’s editor) it struck me how perfectly she has named her long-running website and podcast. Not, The Way to Garden, but A Way to Garden.
Rolling With The Punches
Gardening is not a precise and sterile process that happens in a lab. (Well, at least the kind of gardening I do.) There are hundreds of variables at play, from the pH of your soil; to the dappled light you get on one side of your porch but not the other; to the dry weather you had in July and August; to the flood you had in June; to the day of the month you chose to plant those clearance bulbs; to just how ‘clearanced’ they looked when they went into the ground. All these things come together in thousands of permutations to make this the “best X ever” or the “worst X ever”. The year you started gardening – or the year you gave up all together. (Until next spring.)
We’re all of us playing on a different field – quite literally. Even your neighbor, on a different ridge line or flood plain, or battling the compacted clay gifted by a disinterested developer, may have gotten all of the rain you got this year, but doesn’t share your soil – or your sun.
At the time of our conversation, Margaret (in New York) was tired of rain. I (in Northern Virginia) was tired of no rain. We’re facing the same job of bringing things indoors, but her tropicals might be a little stronger after a wetter summer than mine. Most of my bananas look like they’ve been intermittent fasting towards a lean beach body – I’ll need to keep a sharper eye on them over the winter months than I normally do. Hers might be shedding some water weight in the cellar and need a different kind of monitoring so they don’t rot in cold conditions.
She was curious as to what I do with my bromeliads, and I was curious how badly she treats her canna. Here I thought I was the cruelest canna wrestler out there, but it turns out I’ve got competition. And a license to get crueler.
So guidelines and experts are great, but we need even more. We need curiosity to help us identify and care about nuanced variables, and the courage to play with those variables, conquer them, be bested by them, and learn from them.
Hands on Experience Matters When Finding a Way
I can’t help feeling that, as our media moves increasingly toward 30 second reels and one minute listicle reads, not to mention a gardening culture more heavily weighted toward garden designers (as discussed by Anne Wareham on GardenRant recently), it becomes easier to believe that there is One Way. Gardening is easy. Gardening is simple. Here’s how to do it (or have it done). Here’s what to plant. Here’s The Solution.
No. If you’re all in, you’re in for a thrashing. Mentally and physically.
Because it’s not about one year (Like 2020). Or two years, or three for that matter. Because the things that may have been true during that three year period – lets say, our first three years gardening or the first three years in a new garden –– might not work so well when one of the moving parts mentioned above changes. And no matter how much you read or watch on YouTube, you need to experience that for yourself. And then you need to experience it again. And quite frankly, again.
Know Why It Works
For instance, I know that I can store dahlias in their quart pots in a frost-free basement in the dark. I water every four to five weeks and rarely lose one tuber.
I know this, not because I was told by a dahlia expert (I was), but because I failed at it the first time and paid more attention the second, third, and fourth times. I also know that I can store them in damp sand, or painstakingly wrap them in Saran wrap, or leave them in the ground and hope the voles don’t get hungry and the winter goes more 7a than 6b this year. I’ve done all those things, and they are all variations on a baseline of light humidity, frost-free temps, and dark storage.
There’s more than one way. I store dahlias in pots because I grow them in those pots – plunged into the soil – so storage is a quick dig, a cutting of feeder roots, and a stacking on racks until spring when they are divided and freshened. (If you’re interested, you can read about this in my book Tropical Plants and How To Love Them).
Granted it’s lazy. But it works amazingly well. It’s A way, not THE way to play with dahlias. If I was selling dahlias, or indeed the blooms, I might do something different.
Experimentation is Play
Yes there are rules you probably don’t want to break. If we’re talking tropical storage, gingers sitting wet in a cold garage would be one of them. Begonias sitting over a heating vent is a poor idea. A three foot agave in your bathroom is just stupid and someone’s going to lose an eye. Or a testicle. But when it does go wrong, if you’ve done a bit of research, or have smart plant friends, you’ll be able to identify why, and how you can tweak things going forward.
A way to garden. Isn’t it fascinating to figure out what works? – MW
FYI, Margaret will be giving away a copy of my book Tropical Plants and How To Love Them on September 26th – To enter, leave a comment after the podcast transcript about what you regularly ‘mad stash’ each season.