The Self-Taught Gardener: Gardening with resolve

Gardeners make new year's resolutions, too, and those of our Self-Taught Gardener Lee Buttala may surprise you.

Gardeners love to lament – it has rained too much, or too little, and my plants are suffering; it has been too hot, causing things to pass over so quickly; or it is too cold and growth has been stunted. This year, however, I am resolved to stay in the moment, to see the glory of the flower, the beauty of plants passing over to seed, and to foster my property’s transformation into a garden. Having been away for the past few years, I have much to do. What better way to begin the new year than to have goals for bringing my landscape around and for caring for the world around me more generally, while also celebrating each moment in the garden as it passes before me?

While most Americans are pledging to hydrate more in the coming year, I am hoping to hydrate my plants less, by selecting plants like prairie clover, lavender, and other drought-tolerant plants that will survive primarily, even in my sandy soil, on the rain that falls throughout the season. And as the prairie clover starts to bloom, I may sit back and admire it from my back porch with a glass of water in hand for me. And if I sprinkle about the seeds of some California poppies into the same beds, I can even daydream while I hydrate about last winter’s trip with Fred to see the super bloom in California desert (or about Meghan Markle’s wedding dress which was embroidered with this California native flower.) If left alone, these poppies will set seed and come back in future years. Did Markle hope that, by using these flowers on her dress, she would be as prolific as this impressive self-seeder?

I look forward to seeing the blooms of prairie clover take hold in my sandy soil, with minimal watering.

As others make gym plans, I plan on getting my exercise in a different manner. First, I will build some muscle by removing a stump or two each day of the old false-cedar hedge that bordered my property. I know this is effective exercise by the muscle strain I feel the next day. I like the idea that my exercise will do more than get me in shape; it will get my property in better shape by season’s end. And while one may think that digging out stumps is mind-numbing work, observing the root structure of plants and how they lock themselves into place is a good way of building up my understanding of how plants work beneath the surface of the soil, something that we often ignore as gardeners. I will also leave a few snags or tree stumps about to provide food for local insects and fungi (and to give my back a break). Next year, I will use some of these unearthed stumps to create a stumpery, providing me with an exercise plan in 2021.

The native cranesbill fills the roadside in spring with its bright blooms.

My cardio will be gotten by doing an elliptical of a different sort than those found in the gym. In addition to walking around my property each day to see how things are progressing and where invasives are attempting to get a foothold, I will walk around town and roadside botanize with an occasional side trip to Bartholomew’s Cobble. I will not only be getting in my steps, but I will be observing plants, such as the native cranesbill, trilliums, hobblebush, and squirrel corn that I hope to introduce to my garden. And as if the plants themselves are not enough of a motivation to bring more natives into my garden, the birds and butterflies that they attract and that I see along the roadside, will heighten my desire to grow more of our local flora. Hopefully, I can convince my friend Elisabeth to join me for an occasional walk as the company will be good for the soul as well as the heart.

I will also burn some calories removing my old decaying fence, and planting shrubs such as doublefile viburnum, inkberries and bayberries in its stead. I am willing to hedge my bets that fences do not build better neighbors, hedges do. And they also invite new visitors to the neighborhood by providing shelter and forage. And they do not require repainting or staining, although an occasional seasonal pruning may be in order in the years ahead. It is my goal to plant small and plant more, with the future, not simply the present, in mind.

I hope to manage to get a chestnut or two from my trees for myself but need to beat Fred and the squirrels to at least a portion of the harvest.

Lastly, I plan on investing wisely in the coming year, but I am not thinking of my 401k. I plan on buying a rechargeable chainsaw, which will not contribute noxious fumes to the atmosphere, but will allow me to take down some Bradford pears and a few weedy invasives. This will make room for fringe trees, chokecherries, cornelian cherries, shadbush, native stewartias, and a few nut trees, with a goal of beating Fred, the birds and the squirrels to at least some of the edible fruits and nuts. My neighbor, Chuck, is taking the pear wood to smoke meat and fish, so even the trees being taken down will help feed the world (and hopefully me).

Hobblebush is seen throughout the region in spring but is rarely found in gardens. I hope to remedy that at my own home.

So, all in all, my resolution for the coming year is fairly straightforward: to care for myself, to care for my garden, and to try and see something more of the world around me. And most importantly, to realize how wonderful it is to be back home in the Berkshires, a place that rests so dearly in my heart.

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.

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