Gardening For Idiots, Written By The Biggest Gardening Idiot of Them All

Let’s Jump Right In With January!


If you live on the Island and you’re not constantly yammering on about your acer rubrum or hammamelis japonica, you clearly need to go back to whatever misbegotten suburb or metropolis you came from. In other words, you are making no effort to fit in.

So let’s get fitted. First, to assure you of my own bona fides as the Island’s most idiotic and clumsy gardener, I started out in 1981 with a quaint little cottage in East Chop. The front yard faced the frigid winter winds they call the Canadian Express. The only things we could grow there were a green lawn and a white picket fence (yes, white picket fences are one of those perennials that hold fast year after year, unless a tour bus smashes into them).

I also had some luck tending hydrangeas. These shrubs with the big bulbous buds love our sandy, acidic soil, Canadian breezes be damned! Also in our garden, day lilies poked up their orange and yellow frilly caps every July, just like characters in an old Disney cartoon: you could practically see them batting their eyelashes.

Green lawn, white fence, a few flowers. We were set.

Yet someone in my family believed more could be made of our spare plantings, My father was a devout gardener from Lowell, Mass., and during his spring or summer visits he’d pop another noble experiment into our sad soil: roses, raspberries, peonies. Sadly none of them made it through the ghastly winters in what had to be one of the freezingest spots on the Island: Bye bye baby goodbye.

Over my Vineyard years, my homes got smaller, my gardens shrinking proportionately until at last, I washed up here in my darling apartment in the old Oak Bluffs Library. For the first five minutes of my residency here, I had a husband, a truly lovely chap named, uh, named Jack! Yes, I'm pretty sure it was Jack! who contributed, among other things, a small beige ceramic pot with an avocado sapling grown to a proud two-foot height. Jack called his plant Buddy. He’d watered it and loved it for many years. His devotion to Buddy ran so deep that during the summer of 2010 when we decamped for Paris to spend July and August in a cute little student’s apartment in the 7th arrondissement, Jack put Buddy into the care of the West Tisbury librarians. They must have fed it vitamins and minerals and Big Mac hamburgers because when we returned Buddy had grown another foot!

Now, of course, after a long and bloody custody battle, Buddy is gone. But now I do retain a small backyard shared with my neighbors. Nothing much has been done to it so far, other than super storm Irene blasting through in September 2011 and shearing off one of three mighty oak trees. The macerated oak now looks like a wooden sign pointing towards the road out of town; we’ll deal with it; maybe saw it down to a stump and stick a cute cushion on top.

So now I’m rolling up my sleeves and giving my all to this little plot of ground, and whatever I learn, I invite you to follow along.

And what better time to start than in January when, I’ll bet you anything, expert gardeners will say, “Put your feet up and enjoy the third season of 'Downton Abbey.'” 

The other day at Chicken Alley Thrift Shop, I came upon a slim (slim’s good with books) paperback volume entitled "Cape Cod & Islands Lawn & Garden Almanac / Manual," by Jack Youngman MCH (Massachusetts Certified Horticulturalist – oh man, are we in good hands here!), 6th printing, copyrighted in 1997.

OK, everyone who has a copy, please turn to page 17, JANUARY. Mr. Youngman cites the average temperatures in our area at this time of the year: daily maximum, 38 degrees, minimum 30 degrees. We can expect a snowfall averaging 5.4”. More excuses to stay indoors!

Mr. Youngman sets us two tasks. Number One: Clean and repair garden tools. Excuse me? How are we supposed to accomplish this? We turned off the outside water faucets in mid-fall! Perhaps we’re meant to haul our muddy shovels and rakes indoors? Possibly shower with them, giving them the old rub-a-dub-dub with an industrial brush? Okay, we can do that, but not right away. Not, in fact, until we decide #1 is absolutely necessary. The time to take action might not declare itself until, oh, I'd say late April. Maybe the day after we've turned the outdoors pipes back on?

Task Numero Due: Force cut branches into bloom. Oh dear, I have no idea what he’s talking about. Where’s Lynne Irons when I need her? Or Rebecca Gilbert? The last time I force cut anything, it was a big bright cucumber with the new mandolin food slicer I’d ordered on-line. A chunk of thumb met the blade, but even as I clenched a dish towel to the hand squirting blood, I had to admire the perfect thin disks of cucumber resting below the diabolical machine.

My friend, Barbie., slashed a large enough piece of her thumb with her new mandolin that she brought the wedge of detached flesh with her, packed in ice cubes, to the ER to see if they could stitch it back on. They said no, it wasn't big enough; she'd be fine. Ask her to show it to you sometime, the deformed thumb, I mean.

In other words, force cutting -- whatever that entails -- sounds too drastic. May I suggest we carry this exercise no further until we learn more? All the same, should you personally know by long and hard experience how to force cut branches of your poor grey dead-looking perennials, using tools you’ve only just painstakingly scrubbed in the shower, as opposed to slipping into your jammies and reading James Patterson’s weekly thriller, it may pique your interest to know that, if you do make this heroic effort at the end of January, your prunus sargenti will bloom within 32 days, the forsythia suspense (no suspense here!) in 20 days, the cercis canadensis in 39 days, so we’re basically talking about late February to mid-March for our first glimpse of spring blossoms; kinda nifty.

I hope I’ve been of some help to the green-thumbed among us. My basic message at this time of year, viz a viz gardens, is to cultivate a charcoal-stained thumb from the turning of pages of the January "Vanity Fair."

And keep clicking on Patch pages because the only stain to your fingers will be that peanut butter and jelly sandwich you foolishly ate the last time you tried to snack and tap your key board.

P.S. I wonder how Buddy’s doing?

Michael West December 24, 2012 at 10:01 PM
I'm trying to imagine taking a shower with my favorite pitchfork. Oh and didn't I tell you not to order that mandoline.
Holly Nadler December 25, 2012 at 01:48 PM
Michael, you and 20 others who lost pieces of their thumbs! Still, I've learned to use the food-handler, and I'm ensorcelled by those haute-cuisine thin slices! Exquisite! Still, the mandoline manufacturers should place a huge skull-and-bones on the box and on the machine itself.
steve auerbach December 27, 2012 at 03:33 AM
Holly, Forget about gardening until you return from sunny California. I'll give you "Gardening for Idiots" lessons then.
Holly Nadler December 27, 2012 at 05:08 AM
Steve, you're on!


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