New Year Portfolio Analysis ( Garden Division)

( For the pizzelle recipe, please scroll down)

It’s hard to think coldly about the garden just now, when the catalog stack is approaching tilt and there’s not much else to think about warmly, but this is an ideal time to take a hard look at your return on garden investment. A little abstract evaluation helps ensure high-performing options are not overlooked, and that the resources locked up in losers will be re-allocated to something more profitable.

And we will stop here with the analogy; finance not being my long suit.

Nevertheless. It really helps to list assets and liabilities before you plunge in, and it helps the most to write it down, however roughly, instead of just thinking about it in the shower for a couple of mornings. Unless your garden is confined to 3 or 4 containers, human nature more or less ensures you’re not counting everything. (Think how few calories most of us think we eat and how wrong we are about it almost all the time).

Items It’s Useful to Reassess Yearly:

Space: Not only is there never enough, what there is is not usually tabula rasa. For instance, there’s a 3 X 10 foot strip in the front shade garden completely open for something new, but that something must remain no more than four feet tall without any help from me. By writing this down, I am reminded that it’s not happening with witch hazels, and that time spent mooning over Fire Charm (brilliant red fall leaves, copper-red winter flowers) and the super-fragrant Moonlight should be devoted to the hunt for plants that will actually fit.

You probably have a rough layout of the annual/vegetable garden – or so I hope – so the allocational trick here is simply to fill it all in, in as much detail as possible, before looking through the saved seeds or ordering any new ones. Our roughly 4000 square feet sounds huge, but given how much of it must support tomatoes, corn, garlic, greens, etc. ( including flowers) there’s only a rather small area for the winter squash. As most of it will be filled by super-sweet, long-keeping Cha Cha, from Johnny’s, and Tetsakabuto, from Pinetree, it would be better if I didn’t even LOOK at the Baker Creek catalog (85 winter squash and 80 even more tempting – and space-hogging – melons).

Time: it’s not that writing the truth on paper reveals anything new about “not enough,” but rubbing it in can be bracing. Almost all our new plantings have been and will be shrubs because last year I finally inventoried the gardens, assigning each the time it should have to be at its best. Duh of the week? Even under ideal conditions, it’s impossible for someone with a day job to have more than one complex tapestry of annuals, perennials, vines, grasses, bulbs and shrubs and small trees.

Mulch keeps weeds down and drought at bay; healthy plants resist pests and disease. But some weeds always make it through – that’s why they’re weeds; baby vegetables must be watered by us if nature is disobliging; resistant doesn’t mean immune and anyone who says organic pest control takes no more time and attention than blanketing everything with noxious pollutants is lying. Plus if you don’t formally assign some time to simply enjoying the damn thing, you may find when you look back at season’s end that all you did – however enjoyably – was work.

The bed that used to hold these cheerful perennials now features a dwarf Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia), with white-edged leaves on lacy branches and patchy bark that will grow more and more lovely with time. It is nicely surrounded with mulch and very little else. The carefree echinaceas went to the rough edge of the field, where they’ll be fine, and the yellow Asiatic lilies have been consigned to the compost. They were nice, but not THAT nice, and getting rid of them makes it easier to keep the evil lily beetles from doing in the far rarer L. henrii (barely visible at the far right and slightly more visible below).


Money: a yacht is famously defined as a hole in the ocean into which one pours money. A garden is a hole in the ground which serves the same purpose – except that you have to dig the hole before throwing the money in. Less than romantic necessities like pest control products, compost, twine, fertilizer(s) and gloves are inexpensive individually but they do add up. Add them up before the season starts and you may be unpleasantly surprised, but you’ll also have a better idea of when it’s time to start saying “ I really shouldn’t, ” when visiting the nursery.

When it comes to impulse purchased winter orchids, my advice is to buy ‘em in bloom and then throw them out when they’re done, a great saving of space and time if not, admittedly, money. But I don’t always listen to me. This cymbidium came home with the groceries in February last year, and when it finally finished flowering 2 months later went into the enclosed porch we keep at about 40 degrees to use as a walk-in refrigerator. Come spring, we stuck it in the vegetable garden. In fall it returned to the porch, where it remained until a couple of weeks ago and thereby hangs the tale. With these increasingly common orchids, finding a winter home that’s cool enough is often harder than finding one with enough light, so if you have a reasonably bright spot that stays between 45 and 55 degrees you might as well give it a shot, especially if the spot is somewhere out of sight. Non- blooming cymbidiums aren’t as ugly as non-blooming phalaenopsis,but they’re not all that lovely, either.

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  • minnie Said,

    lily beetles, and elsewhere, asparagus beetles? These may be the only two predators we do NOT have in Australia (West of Sydney, base of the blue mountains, Kurrajong to be exact). One of the killers we have everywhere is the funnel web spider- instant death- and that fear has introduced me to garden gloves (see elsewhere in your blog) which I have gone through like an emetic. Those lined green ones are good indeed, and at least one pair of stronger goatskin or tougher (do you know Elke?) for pruning, But, hey , Leslie, for every day, have you tried regular rubber gloves worn over plain Chinese cotton ones as liners? They get wet with sweat after a while but easy to change and dry fast. Really good for fine weeding or planting as the fingers have full movement. They look so funny, pink or yellow hands, on this tough old land. My gardener helper (buddhist/artist/teacher) used them first and I innerly made such fun of them, soooo silly, and now am a total convert. I buy packets of the white liners at the Chinese or Vietnamese suburbs for pennies. And the colourful rubber ones at market stalls.
    Your orchid, benevolent neglect. My rule also. If and when they decide to come back , what a treat, otherwise ,no care. This year I did re pot them all with proper mixture, lugging it from the cleapest Franklin store , and expect to be gloriously surprised next year. Speaking of glorious, how about the gloriousa lily? What a knock out! Someone brought me one years back and it was fantastic, and then I forgot about it, til one of those catalogues joggedmy memory, and my pocket book! But its worth every penny. Will it return next year? any special instructions??
    will buy another anyway, too spectacular and pretty easy to jump up out of that pot!

  • leslie Said,

    Wow, Minnie – never thought I’d find anything good to say about lily OR asparagus beetles, but compared to the death-dealing spiders they don’t sound quite as bad.

    Interesting tip about the rubber gloves – I’ve always hated ’em even for dishwashing exactly because I can never feel anything; the loose rubber slips every which way (They don’t seem to be marketed in kid size which is actually what I need). Cotton liners could be the answer, although it’s hard for me to believe anything’s as useful as the nitriles.

    As for the gloriosa, I don’t grow them because they’re one more thing to dig up and store ( not reliably hardy north of US zone 9 – some say 8). But it seems like where you are you might be able to just leave them in the ground. Full sun or very light shade, plenty of organic matter and some cow manure or similar when they start growth in spring which I guess would be fall. Good drainage is, well, good, especially in winter but they don’t need as sharp drainage as things like daffodils and tulips. Tubers slowly multiply, so you can divide them every few years; but they bloom better when semi-congested so don’t get carried away.

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