Surprises reign in the garden

Scripps-Howard News ServiceNovember 22, 2013 

One activity that is inherently full of surprises – gardening. It keeps us wondering what the next day will bring.


With all the uncertainties life has to offer, you would think finding a way to reduce the number of surprises would be a desirable goal. Yet there is one activity that inherently is full of surprises, and I welcome every one.

Gardening always keeps us wondering what the next day will bring.

Looking back on the year so far, I’ve had plenty of surprises, even though my time of digging in the dirt for 2013 is far from over. In fact, my vegetable garden is fully planted with a wonderful assortment of cool-season crops, my lawn was recently reseeded and I’m about to take on a massive planting project of many trees and shrubs. Still, even a single week in any garden or landscape provides enough aha! moments to fill a page. Here are a few such moments from my garden, and what I’ve learned.

Know the source of the manure you use: An odd way to start, I know, but my biggest game-changer of the year happened this spring. The manure I sourced right from my own property, from my horses and goats and chickens, contained a persistent herbicide that was sprayed on the fields of the farmer from whom we buy our hay. This herbicide (along with a few others) does not break down easily, even through the composting process, and can still remain active in finished compost, months and even years later. It only takes a few parts per billion to severely affect your plants, and some are more sensitive than others. If using manure, know where the feedstock comes from, and what was sprayed on it. It may not be an easy task, but if you can’t be sure, don’t assume your manure will be fine. I did, and I was wrong.

Prepare for water woes: This spring and summer, we broke all-time records for rainfall. A few years ago, we broke records for the amount of time without rain. Going without makes you appreciate, even more, when you do get rain. Yet this year, I found myself cursing the rain, and feeling a bit guilty for it. But time and again, I talked to so many gardeners who had given up far too soon this year, because their gardens were saturated and the plants were waterlogged. Fortunately, I made sure I had soil that drained well yet would still hold sufficient moisture in the event we had the opposite problem. Ultimately, my garden thrived, in spite of the ridiculous amount of water we had. It was an excellent reminder of time well spent investing in my soil.

Don’t fear the deer: Deer can devastate a garden. When I built my garden, I placed a 4-foot-high fence around it. That’s a height for deer to scale easily, and I knew that when I installed my fence. Yet so far, deer haven’t touched my garden, even though they walk by it all the time. My theory is holding up. Because my garden design is rather tight within the border, I believe the deer choose not to chance jumping into the confined space with an irregularly shaped bed layout. Although I’m growing everything they like to eat, the configuration is everything they don’t like, so they move on – for now.

Fall is for planting:

Right now I am reminded how much I love to garden in fall. It is completely satisfying to grow entirely new crops with no pests and no heat. Plus I thoroughly enjoy the flavors of fresh cool-season vegetables. Please don’t let the season go by without taking advantage of this special time in the garden!

Joe Lamp’l is host and executive producer of “Growing a Greener World” on PBS.

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