Tag Archives: gardening in a small space

July Garden

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July can surely make or break a small garden. Because it’s July I have mustard greens, Swiss chard, rue, apple mint, begonias, a kiwi vine/tree, and black-eyed Susan all bursting out of a 2-foot by 2-foot section of garden. It’s a potential tangle that somehow works with something akin to forestry practiced on a tiny scale. The edibles can all be gradually harvested, and the big leaves of the Swiss chard and mustard greens keep the soil cool and shade the begonias. The pink and fuchsia begonia blooms peek out ever so sweetly among the reddish and purplish veins of the mustard and chard leaves. The mustard greens are starting to flower, and I let some of them go to attract pollinators. Not a typical sprawling garden mint, this apple mint grows fairly upright on thick stems and responds to being cut back by continuing to produce attractively woolly, rounded leaves that taste subtly fruity deep into the season. More slow-growing rue spreads its blue-green, delicate-looking foliage throughout. (I say “delicate-looking” because rue, Ruta graveolens, is one tough plant, tolerant of hot and dry conditions and harsh winters. Quite toxic when consumed in large doses, it has been used medicinally in a variety of ways. I first planted it to make a tincture for treating my cat’s ear mites. It can also cause skin blisters when touched. I’ve never experienced that in the many years I’ve grown it, but I try to touch it as lightly as possible.)

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Springtime alliums and columbines have given way to summer coneflowers.

On the other side of the plot, wild asters and purple coneflowers have lured painted lady butterflies and bees of all kinds into the garden. I leave the dried allium flower heads up as long as their stalks can stand. I like how their spiky globes contrast with the spiky disks and petals of the echinacea. The brilliant color of their spring is gone, inherited by the coneflowers.

Cleaning up July’s overgrowth has its drawbacks, as I was reminded this morning. Last week, I cut back aggressive plants, took some out, and tied others back, all in the name of offering more space, light, and air to half-hidden plants. But with more ground exposed, the garden was suddenly much drier. In its jungly state, the garden had resisted our streak of 90° days handily. I came back to wilting herbs in my opened-up garden. Luckily, I caught them in time to give them a good soaking, and we got a good two inches of rain over the last two days.

July is also having its way with the balcony garden, where things can get hot, dry, windy, and sometimes irresistible to pigeons. So, of course, I try to plant what likes these conditions—or doesn’t mind them. They all need extra water on 90° days, but as with the garden plot, placement helps retain moisture. The tropicals are good at shading the more delicate plants and the soil they’re in. The tough leaves of many of my current plants seem to have discouraged the pigeons for now.

Succulents, cacti, coleus, begonias, caladium, elephant’s ear, scented geranium, Dracaena marginata, and a saucer of mosses all do fairly well here, and I even have some seedlings going, an attempt at succession planting. I have no idea why the pigeons are leaving the seedlings alone. Maybe they taste better in the spring? With any luck, the bean plants will be producing in a couple of weeks, and some tender nasturtium leaves will add a bite of pepper to our salads.

The July garden is about eating for many gardeners, and for me though it’s not a standard vegetable garden, my plot and balcony do provide edibles that are usually ridiculously expensive or plain not available in the supermarket. These are things you don’t need in great quantities and taste best when picked fresh: greens, herbs, and ripe raspberries. Not a bad trade off.

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The July garden on a plate: A tender mustard green leaf cradles rice and beans with fresh-picked oak-leaf lettuce (above, right).

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Taking advantage of the range of shade to bright sun offered by a balcony corner. The wall offers protection to bean seedlings. Elephant’s ear and caladium below.

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The Brutality of the Gardener

My community garden plot is at times enormous and others minute. Enormous is when I’m waiting for things to come up—how can I have all this space and not be filling it? Minute happens fairly quickly afterwards when I in combination with nature have filled it and I begin to realize that if I don’t do something soon, nature will keep filling it to bursting. That’s when I become a brute, cutting back luxuriant foliage, digging up plants and demanding they live elsewhere in a spot that pleases me, tying up floppy leaves and stems that prefer lying down, pulling up plants and sending them off to the compost heap. Inevitably during these activities of beautification, I injure something beautiful. This morning for instance, I backed into and broke off a sprig of columbine that I had just finished photographing. It sounds silly, maybe, I did get a picture after all, but it pained me: the delicate, searching tendril had held a perfect pale green bud that hung over the stepping stones so trustingly.

Purple columbine.

Elegant, wild columbine.

After that and some other acts of destruction, I took myself out of the garden and stretched out on the sun-warmed brick path. No other human was around. I looked up to top branches of a large beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) where a catbird sang mightily, his beak opened wide. It’s a good thing there are trees and birds, I thought. They take your mind off the ground.

Catbird in beauty bush.

In the catbird seat.

A little bit of the sky helped me get back to earth, remembering I still hadn’t watered and there were potted plants that were still waiting to go in the ground.

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Vitex with columbine, lavender, and iris.

So back to the garden I go to put problem solving above plant bullying. The eternal issue is, of course, space. In a small garden plot (6′ by 5′, maybe)  surrounded by other small plots, it is perhaps the height of vanity to attempt to grow food “crops” and domesticated herbs together with wildflowers and ornamental plants. I would like to say I’ve been practicing companion planting, but this is just something that has happened in the last 20 years. Plants have come my way—through other people and of their own accord (those columbines). Very, very slowly I have begun to understand them better partly by making all the mistakes of the brutal kind described above and partly by looking at this little space as a complete thing and wondering what’s happening there from way below to just below the surface to high up in the leaves and stems. Much as I sometimes long for the chance to start over with straight rows of tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, and lettuce, I think I would have missed seeing what my wild-ish garden has given me, beauty of the aesthetic kind as well as of the food-for-thought, puzzle-solving kind.

And with that, I offer this puzzle to be discussed next time:

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What’s this? Send in your thoughts.