Winter Wondering

THE REAL DIRT

January 31, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Winter gives gardeners time to pause and wax philosophic about issues that summer won't allow. I relish these months of meditative bliss, and the chance to clean my nails. Winter is a time to cultivate cosmic questions, not cosmos flowers.

Today's topic is garden design. Why do folks plant their beds in different shapes and sizes, and in different spots in the yard? Some people put their gardens beside the house; others like to dig in the next ZIP code. Some beds are round; others are square. Mine fluctuates between a rectangle and trapezoid, depending on how well I've weeded the edges.

Some gardens are planted to hide gas meters and utility boxes. Others spring up in spots where grass won't grow. My friend Ralph put a flower bed alongside the driveway, where he can see it when he gets home from work. Ralph says this reduces his stress.

Where does your garden grow, and why did you put it there?

Ours is a backyard garden, close enough to the kitchen that you can -- out for fresh chives at dinner, but far enough away that you can't smell the horse manure that's dumped there each spring. The garden is one long shout from the house, but sometimes I'm hard of hearing. I was weeding tomatoes when my wife screamed that the dog had just ralphed on the cat. I cupped my hand to my ear, then shrugged and smiled, Reagan-style.

Heaven knows why I chose that spot on our 2/3 acre lot. The garden is too close to a maple tree whose roots have invaded the bed. After 17 years, I can't recall the reason for digging there. I suspect it was the first place I could break ground without striking rock.

I began plowing the garden the day we moved in, against the advice of a wise old gardener who suggested I study my yard before ripping up turf.

"Take notes as you walk around the place," he said. "See where rain puddles form, and where the snow melts fastest. Pick a spot facing south that gets at least six hours of sunlight; 12 hours is best. Morning sun is cooler; it doesn't wilt the plants.

"Don't plant on sloped land; it'll cause soil erosion. And staaway from that spot at the base of the hill, unless you want to lose everything to the first frost. Cold air hangs out there.

"Oh, yeah. Kids and animals play havoc with gardens. Don't ever mix 'em up."

By sheer luck, I averted most of those horticultural boners. In retrospect, however, I suppose it would have been wise to study the traffic patterns of children and pets. Our asparagus bed sits at a crossroads for bats, balls and an occasional cat fight.

Smart gardeners also examine their soil before digging in. Is i mostly sand, clay or loam? Sample different parts of the yard. Lawns keep secrets. I know a man who repeatedly tested his soil until he found what he had been looking for -- the site of an old outhouse. Eureka! His garden did beautifully there.

If you're new to the area, ask about the history of your yard. In winter, when plants are dormant, neighbors can point out sites of bulb or perennial beds that could alter your planting plans.

Locate all underground utilities before digging. Where are the sewer lines, septic tanks, water pipes and electric cables buried? Also, check property lines. Neighbors won't appreciate your rototilling chunks of their lawn to plant brussels sprouts.

When planning a garden, consider the water source. Why put the bed 75 feet from the house if the garden hose is 50 feet long? If you have a sprinkler system, stay away from clotheslines, swing sets and the neighbor's driveway.

Keep food crops clear of garbage cans, if you're pestered by raccoons or rodents. They'll eat the fresh veggies as well.

My garden is close enough to the house that I check it daily for pests, disease and weeds. I'd rather do that than clean off the cat.

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