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Green Acre #379: Birth of a Gardener

The little backyard that started it all 39 years ago, in a picture taken this week. Here it shows the area covered with the blossoms of the Kwanzan cherry tree. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

. . . I am a no dig/no till gardener, so I suggest you don’t dig your garden at all, not even in spring.

Instead of digging in the organic matter (garden or local authority compost, well-rotted manure, Strulch*), lay it on top. The worms and the micro-organisms will work it in naturally.

Sometimes people say that they have to dig, because they have very heavy clay soil. However, the method also works for heavier and lighter soils. If you are in doubt, why not set aside one border as “no dig/no till” and see how it goes.

—Alexandra Campbell, The Middle-Sized Garden

This is a position I have espoused for the last 35 or so years, but Campbell is British so of course she knows best. Though I don’t know how she sounds, we assume the voice is Masterpiece Theater quality, posh, you know, the voice of authority, used to sell everything from Jaguars to Poo-Pourri, the bathroom refresher. Like speaking through a mouthful of marbles, not Marlboro fog.

I have a theory that the Brits have developed stronger chins than most because of this lock-jawed speech, Churchill the exception that proves the rule. I will research this further.

What I’ve said in at least one column is that we never bothered to improve our heavy clay garden soil when we bought this house nearly 39 years ago. Other than a spindly sapling of an apricot tree—the previous owner’s single attempt at livening the space—the plot was not fussed over, ever, from the time it was built in 1915. Thus, it was a pristine, hard-packed lot both front and rear.

As I’ve also said before, several times, I am not a gardener, or ever thought I was. I’m a decorator. Give me a blank space and I’ll tart it up. So I proceeded to tart up the yard, starting with eye-catching annuals, figuring we’d be living here only a few years and then move to Key West or some such.

As the years passed, the occasional perennial found its way in. Often as gifts, like the various hydrangeas. Year after year we remained and the garden grew, soil ball after soil ball, bag of mulch after bag of mulch. Until now when the soil has become so loose and rich that I scarcely need a digger to dig, my fingers will do.

And, as the years passed, technical difficulties arose, like the tree that grew to shade the ground like a giant umbrella, forcing the addition of shade-loving plants. Lovely but invasive plants . . . invaded. Flowers guaranteed to flower refused to, others so simple a child could grow them swiftly died. That sort of thing.

I read a book, then two, then more. Catalogues and magazines piled up. Websites and tweets were explored. And blogs like Alexandra Campbell’s led me to other blogs and books. In time, I know the aisles of garden centers better than those of Nordstrom and Macy’s.

Somehow the garden grew, and I grew into a gardener.

* A straw mulch for organic gardening manufactured and sold in the UK.


2 thoughts on “Green Acre #379: Birth of a Gardener

  1. Jean B. Gordon says:

    You have got to be good in the garden or with house plants, you inherited it from your beautiful mother, don’t sell yourself short YOU are the greatest in all that you do.

  2. Maggie Hall says:

    Amazing how, as a Brit (without a lock-jaw accent) in the good old USofA I find out about what’s going on in the gardens of my country from being an avid “Green Acre” reader. However Alexandra Campbell speaks – with or without a strangulated accent – I’m sure she writes beautifully. But I bet she can’t match “our” Stephanie for green-fingered humour!

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