Better luck next year

Sat, 12/31/2016 - 8:00am

It’s been awhile since there’s been a Garden Report. It was a year of drought and being busy with other things, it was a good excuse to drop out, however temporarily, of the 2016 gardening season. With the water being diverted almost exclusively to the vegetable garden, even the weeds in the flower beds hardly grew. There was the cleanup in the spring, and then again in the fall, and that was pretty much it for me. Instead, I knit.

There wasn’t even any fruit to turn into jams and jellies. The lack of fruit wasn’t necessarily connected to the lack of rain. Last year saw copious amounts of fruit, despite the same dry conditions. In our almost one-acre yard, we have apples, pears, peaches, plums and cherries. Usually I tie their success to the weather during the trees’ blooming period.  This year it was wet and cold, so there wasn’t much pollination going on. 

What was different in 2016 was a very mild early winter, and then a sudden onslaught of extreme cold at the tail end. Evidently that killed off the buds, which had really never gone dormant, as they should. The Valentine’s Day freeze in Connecticut wiped out almost the entire peach crop in that state. 

The implications of a year of no fruit go beyond the inventory of preserves in the cupboard and my lack of jars filled with jewel-colored contents to gift away at the holidays. Each year the deer consume the dropped fruits of the apple trees, fattening themselves up for the winter. With no such bounty, they are apt to be starving. Yes, we may have too many of the darned things, but starvation is a horrible way to die. 

This lack of food may, nay, will mean that the deer will feed on anything and everything, so if you haven’t already it’s a good time to secure shrubs such as rhododendrons and hydrangeas with some deer fencing. 

But, (air quotes) “hope springs eternal,” and so there’s always 2017. What I love about January is that there is absolutely nothing to do gardening wise except to peruse catalogs and read, and dream of the season to come. Even the earliest of seeds to plant indoors don’t need to go in some dirt until the end of the month, although I am tempted to plant some native, American holly berries just to see what happens. (The berries dropped to the counter when I was assembling my Christmas wreath.) Oh, and there are the two acorns that a co-worker brought from Vermont that I still have to bury in the ground somewhere. This evidently is the only way to really successfully plant an oak tree. They dislike being transplanted so much that nurseries don’t even bother with them. 

Before we know it, it will be February, and time for the annual Rhode Island Garden and Flower Show, that miraculous mash-up of spring and summer blooms that would absolutely, no way, flower at the same time in nature. Except, there will be no flower show in Providence this year. Due to declining attendance, 2016 was the last year for this time-honored tradition, the annual romp through fantasy land at the convention center, with its seemingly hundreds of vendors filling up the back half with everything from curvy willow branches, honey, and exotic mushrooms, to, yes, bed sheets for sale.

Flowers and gardens will instead be incorporated into the Home Show which takes place March 30 to April 2. That may be well and good, but February vacation will never be the same.

If you are wondering how they get daffodils and delphiniums to bloom at the same time, read the book “Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers” by Amy Stewart (Algonquin Books, 2007). It is a fabulous look into how the flower industry operates on a global scale, with the author travelling the world and getting behind the scenes, digging into the science, the shipping, and the stories of those who make it all happen. 

If you’re into dreaming big, say, farm big, another good book is Forrest Pritchard’s “Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm” (Lyons Press, 2013). Pritchard returned to his family’s farm in Virginia after attending college and chronicled his efforts to reinvent what he realized was a failing business model. There’s hope, there’s despair, and some truly hilarious accounts of experiments gone wrong. 

I have succumbed to dreaming about going back to the “family farm” occasionally, myself.  It first happened when my grandfather died, leaving 150 acres in Michigan. No one wanted to take it over and it was sold for a song. Still, I fantasized about what I would do with it — until, that is, when the family gathered one last time to spread his ashes in the back woodlot, along the stream that beavers sometimes dammed up. All that could be seen along the road to the farm was one collapsed red barn after another. The days of kids jumping in the hayloft were over. 

This year the dream returns, as a young farmer we know returns to his home in the mountains of Virginia to take over his own 150 acres after the death of his father. At this point, it’s practically a blank slate, and I have so many ideas for it you would think I was moving there myself. But I’m not, so I will content myself with continuing on with our own little, one-acre family farm right here on Block Island — sans chickens, but I will send him Pritchard’s book.