Getting to Know You

| January 25, 2007
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Spring is the worst time to leave a garden, but that's what I'm about to do. My publisher is sending me on a mad dash across the country from February through April, with just a few short stops at home to catch my breath and do my laundry. I'll be on the road talking about flowers - that's the subject of the new book - but I won't be growing any. The garden is sure to suffer.

There's just no good way to prepare for a long absence from a garden. You can't get the work done in advance even if you wanted to: The weeds that will sprout in a month are not up yet, the annuals that need to be planted are simply not ready and it would be foolish to prune off the winter's dead, frost-bitten limbs until new spring growth arrived. So I'm stuck.

This year would have been different even if I hadn't left for a couple months. Last fall I ripped out Shasta daisies and other perennials that only bloomed over a short season, and replaced them with ornamental grasses, gaura, salvia and euphorbia, which I hope will look interesting for more than a couple months. The problem is, they look like absolutely nothing right now. Little twigs sticking out of the ground. There will be some flowers in May, but it won't be the kind of show-stopping display I've enjoyed in the past.

So: Garden, look after yourself. As for this column - I've left it in some very capable hands. Every other week, in the space where I normally rant, a group of brave Humboldt County gardeners have agreed to air their own horticultural opinions. To get them going, I sent out some questions. I've learned a lot by the responses, and I hope you will, too.

Here's the common thread that ran through every gardener's answers to my questions: They don't garden so that they can have a pretty yard. In fact, the garden's appearance was hardly ever an issue. I think this is significant in an era of HGTV instant backyard makeovers that seem to be all about "decorating" the outdoors. None of the women who submitted responses - and they were all women, for some reason - seemed to give a hoot about how anything looked. We garden for ourselves, and to improve the environment and create habitats. We're not decorators.

We also don't expect immediate results. Those garden makeover shows give the impression that you can go out on a Saturday morning, load the car up with plants and by Sunday night you'll have a finished garden that you can relax in. But people who have been gardening for a long time know that this is never the case. A garden is never finished. It's a place you go to dig and prune and plant and harvest and water and feed, but it's not a showcase. My own garden is far from what I'd like it to be, but "finished" is not the goal.

So I hope you enjoy the insights that these thoughtful gardeners sent to me. If some of the questions inspire you, write up your answers and send them to the Journal. I'll run them in a future column.

One last observation - for now - about how we garden in Humboldt County. For the last few years, I've gone to both the San Francisco and Seattle garden shows. (I'll be speaking at both again this year.) I'm surprised at how different the plants (on display and for sale) are at each show. The Seattle show emphasizes natives, acid-loving plants, colorful foliage and shade plants, while San Francisco's show is all about happy, sunny, flowering perennials. Why? I suspect it's some combination of aesthetics, attitude and climate. But I've come to realize that even though we are probably more influenced by Bay Area tastes and trends, the Pacific Northwest climate dictates that we consider following Seattle's example. So if you're up for a road trip this spring, check out one or both of those garden shows. Be sure to come during the week, on the first day or two, when all the hardcore gardeners show up. The weekends are for the HGTV crowd. For details, visit www.gardenshow.com

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