In this column, 10 years ago, I wrote “North County gardening is not easy. The Adirondack gardener must be patient, persistent, and mentally imbalanced, and even then there is no guarantee of success. In fact, attempting to coax a garden into fruition in zone 3 is a chancy proposition, a primrose path strewn with heartache. I don’t recommend it.”
During the intervening decade, the town of Keene has apparently become warmer, progressing from zone 3 to zone 4, but my advice remains fundamentally the same.
Still, if you plan to grow things in your yard — against all odds, despite the advice of friends and the dictates of common sense — I offer here a few pointers, all of which I learned the hard way.
First, you must realize that good gardening proceeds in an orderly fashion, by stages. Spring fever is all very well, but it won’t take you far when the time comes to dig rocks or weed out cow parsley.
When I say that zone 3 has progressed to zone 4, I am not referring to the Twilight Zone, or the School Drug-Free Zone, either, although these may well be the subjects of future columns. No, gardening zones are climatic areas numbered from 1 to 10, going from coldest to warmest. That’s what those little multi-colored maps on the back of seed packets are meant to illustrate. The higher numbers do not concern us here, because, as I mentioned above, we are in either zone 3 or 4, but I will tell you, for the sake of interest, that zones 1 and 2 refer to Reykjavik and the Polar icecaps. Or used to, before they started to melt. Now I’m not sure.
Stage one begins when the seed catalogs arrive. It continues, step by step, through seed acquisition, the planting of seeds in flats, the emergence of tiny sprouts (you’re supposed to plant only one or two seeds per unit, you know; next year read the directions on the back of the package, next to the little map), and ends when the last seedling dries up, damps off or perishes from whitefly or other causes, such as your dog knocking the flat off the windowsill while trying to break through the glass to attack the UPS man.
Don’t mourn those first seedlings. The whole point of growing them is to keep your faith in spring alive. They never had a chance of making it in the real world. Throw those flats back in the garage and sweep up the potting soil if you have company coming.
Stage two: It is truly amazing that the six feet of snow in the yard have melted, more or less. Time to weed.
You will never get every last weed out of your garden. There will always be one survivor, just like in “Jurassic Park,” crowding out garden plants and cloning itself to beat the band. Interesting that human beings are appalled by the proliferation of successful life forms, like rats and pigweed and those horrid web caterpillars, yet mollycoddle exotics like orchids and chijuajuas.
After preparing the soil you can plant radishes, poppies and alyssum, plants that don’t mind a little frost. As you sow, you may get the creepy feeling that you are being watched. No, this is not your imagination, and you are not in the Twilight Zone. You are in zone 3 — or 4 — remember? The truth is, you are under the surveillance of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of birds.
It’s not personal. Robins want worms, and others want the very seeds you have just tamped into the earth. They are waiting until you go back into the house. Something for nothing! that’s their little game.
This is the fault of human beings who keep bird feeders going all winter, then act surprised when the birds consume any seeds they find on the property. These same birds will raise generation after generation of fledgling freeloaders with no work ethic, sense of responsibility or goal in life but to wallow in the public trough, like common squirrels.
Later on, deer may loot and pillage your garden plot, and dogs will almost certainly wreak havoc among the petunias. But don’t worry about that yet! We’re still in stage two.
Stage three: In a couple of months, when the earwigs, slugs, aphids and Japanese beetles are really gearing up for summer, you can buy flats of annuals to replace your original sacrificial seedlings.
Have a good week!