Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Summer Garden Vacations

Saturday, July 22, 2017


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Photo courtesy of Leonard Moorehead

To so many now is the penultimate garden season. All is lush, sunflowers reach skywards, their golden blooms follow the sun’s arc across the day. Annuals are in full bloom, perennial balloon flowers offer cool blue accents and all seek shelter under cool shady arbors. Many of us flee hot cities to the seashore or mountains, to swim in salt water or crystal clear inland lakes. Sailboats lure us offshore, surf resounds with youngsters delighted squeals, our feet walk off pavements for the softer, gentler hiking trails and green lawns. How does one abandon the garden for days or weeks untended? What happens when our communion lapses?

In our shorts we consult festivals, art shows, concerts from our garden refuges. Hummingbirds dance among the red beebalm and brightly colored hibiscus, Rose of Sharon, honeysuckle and hollyhocks on holiday. Their territorial contests with other hummingbirds swirl upwards nearly out of sight above as we sit under cool arbors, iced lemonade sweating in the heat. Dare we leave carefully tended tomatoes? Will poppies come and go? Don’t hesitate, yes, venture out of town and renew connection with the natural world. The half-moon and Venus signal it’s time to refresh ourselves, visit new places, put aside ordinary concerns. Containers of Mandeville vines, passion flowers, geraniums, calendula, and for me, large clay pots of hot peppers, each shape and eclectic color a hint of their inner powers, all require watering. No one leaves a lush garden to return to a wilted Mojave, the archeology of former glory. Is there defense? Yes.

Water is the crux. Thick permanent mulch is our vanguard. Tuck spoiled hay, often free for the asking, between tall rough sunflower stalks. Expand perspective, roam through the garden close to the soil, get down on hands and knees, explore under the rampant growth. Thin out those cleome or overplanted zinnias, remove once promising spindly seedlings. With your new outlook discover the errant crab grasses, grip firmly at soil level and pull completely out of the soil and lay on top of the mulch. Explore the salad patch. Harvest salad greens fast bolting to bloom and seed. Again, tuck these mature plants under mulch or pressed for time and eager to depart, simply lay on old mulch. Be confident their green will disappear long before you return, fast becoming nutrients for future growth. Give the garden a good soak.

Fill water cans. Most of my containers sit on saucers or bowls of some fashion. Soak. Ask a friend to stop by and give every container plenty of water. Not all share our obsession. Forgive lapses and accept some hardship as part of life. Do not despair; all containers are full of vigorous petunias, pot Marigolds, Margarettes, Mandeville vines, and many wax begonias. Faith will sustain them during our absence; our return will be the quiet peace that passes all understanding. Watering is at essence calming. Purposeful intent will conserve our valuable water, our plants understand our closeness. Most containers will prevail, perhaps checked only delayed. Offer ripe fruits, flowers, vegetables to your friends. No loss is total, sturdy clay pots are good investments for use season after season. We have lots of gardening left before the winter equinox. Grieve momentarily, start coleus cuttings in water, left in the shade, they’ll be rooted when you return and thrive in suddenly vacant containers.

Grooming is important. Comb through the garden and remove blooms. Snip off delphiniums and foxglove flower stalks gone to seed. Leave in place close to the mother plant. The seeds will settle through mulch and colonize around the mother plants for future loveliness. I am not shy at pinching the apical meristem, the leading growth tip, from lemon verbena, coleus, and a bit more challenging, chrysanthemums and asters. Pinch back fall blooming plants and double their bloom months away. Lateral stems will shoot outwards to form dense thickets of chrysanthemums. Often my apricot colored chrysanthemums bloom through the first frosts into cold weather.

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Photo courtesy of Leonard Moorehead

Harvest herbs at their prime and hang to dry from beams in dry garages, cellars, or rooms left vacant while we frolic away. Tie bunches of beebalm, anise hyssop, the mints, Artemisia, borage, lavender, and other herbs at their prime. Hang them where they’ll be undisturbed and in shade, safe from sunshine and rain. Return home to their persuasive grace, our homes redolent with healing fragrance. Separate herbs while drying and if unconvinced, label. Some herbs are undistinguished when dried. Never brew teas from medicinal herbs such as wormwood, foxgloves, painted daisies or datura without consideration. I cultivate them for fragrance, color and form but also for their powerful companion planting benefits. They and others such as Monk’s Hook or the aconites are botanical progenitors of poisons. Their presence in the garden is beneficial as hindrance to insects and vandals such as woodchucks. Teas made from their flowers, roots, stems, as well as tobacco, are lethal to common infestations as well as innocent gardeners.  I keep the poisonous dried plants in separate wicker baskets found at flea markets for little money. Steep the dried plants in a watering can marked for the purpose as needed during the year. Repeat as needed or compliment their use with release of affordable ladybugs and praying mantis. Exercise judgment. For example, praying mantis devours virtually all insects they encounter, beneficial as well as undesirable. Many beneficial insects are already among your garden plants. Be selective if using poisons. Commercial varieties are long on initial promise and behind the hype is a stark fact: they endure long past their original purpose. Soluble in water, they percolate into ground water and re-appear in estuaries, lakes, bays and oceans. Some make their way into gardeners.

Let’s look forward. Dwarf fruit trees are productive and to me, surprisingly productive in confined urban spaces. My Korean pears, grown for their late ripeness, apparent immunity to squirrels proving some prayers are answered, and pricey market values, produced 22 fine pears the first year of planting. In the years since that yield has exponential increase. Thin through the Asian pears, snip away malformed or weak fruits. This requires fortitude. I am vulnerable to the Charlie Brown and Nancy affection for the homely last Christmas tree. Harden your heart. By deadheading past or full blooms and thinning before vacation, larger fruits and fresh blooms will greet your return. I regard optimism as a top garden harvest. Not all garden benefits are measured by weight. Emotional and spiritual rewards cannot be under estimated nor calibrated in ounces or pounds.

Pears are old world fruits, European pears were brought to New England with the Great Migration of Puritans to the Massachusetts Bay colony and Plymouth in the 1630’s and 40’s. They were widely cultivated for their ability to keep over time and especially for beverages and vinegar making. Perry is akin to cider; both apples and pears were grown since pre-history for their healthful juices, both fresh and fermented. Eaten out of hand was happenstance, rarely true from seed, desirable qualities such as sweetness or cooking were discovered mostly by accident and often named for their discoverers. These varieties are kept “true” by cloning or grown from cuttings rather than the stacked odds of seeds. When apples and pears were mostly pressed for juice and the pulp fed to livestock, all were grist for the mill.

I grow Bartlett, a Puritan who planted this pear in his Boston garden in 1640. It is sweet and a lovely pear with lots of virtues, abundance, disease resistance, resilient recovery from deer and hurricanes, hardy through frigid winters and long lived. European pears ripen from the inside out. They are looking very fine now although rather small. I must contend, like so many urban gardeners and perhaps our country cousins, with squirrels. They have no conscience. Soon, I will pick the still solid pears and put away in the cellar to slowly ripen or speed things along and put samples as needed in brown paper bags with a banana. Gases emitted from the banana will naturally help along ripening.

Pears are easy to can. I am tolerant of fruit skin, often reservoirs of nutrition and taste, others more accustomed to processed foods mechanically skinned and marketed as stereotypes suffer from a more restricted concept of foods in general. Let your common sense and taste guide you, after all the home garden offers invaluable freedom, the freedom to choose rather than conform to corporate idealizations. Pears are not quite so urgent to preserve as apricots and peaches when ripe. Home canners or those who freeze or cook pears may enjoy their vacation without remorse. They are delicious stewed in syrups and naturally shaped to contain raspberry sauce or ice cream. Tough, hardy pear trees often remain in vacant lots in my home city, reminders that people and their houses have come and gone yet pear trees endure, full of fruit.

Gardeners, enjoy vacation. Travel, see new places, meet new people, try new activities, take the mind away from the familiar and return better for it. The garden will be there for you. Enjoy your return with a good watering. I find myself in awe whenever I return from away. The sunflowers are so much taller, the fruits so much larger, the blooms so thick and full. Watering is a peaceful act. May all of our garden efforts reflect peace within and without. Gosh, it’s hot. Let’s head to the beach!  

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Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


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