Monday, December 16, 2013

The moist-garden returns

Despite ending a growing year, fall's dramatic changes prefigure the next garden iteration

In most places in the Northern Hemisphere, November is an inhospitable month that signals the beginning of winter’s icy grip. But here in temperate Victoria, November marks the end of one garden year and the start of another, forcing complex transitions on both garden and gardener. The mood can be rather somber, as this is the debut of our wet winter, bringing stretches of showery overcast skies and periodic downpours. By week three in 2009, it had already dropped over twice the average November rainfall, and still it came down. The run of rainy-grey days can feel psychologically confining, a depressive start to the season of ‘affective disorder’ where mood tends to be a drag on initiative. Driven by shortening days with lessening light, gloom eats further into the meagre intensity of fading daylight hours. Feelings of hopelessness can take root if this continues without breaks. Some lucky ones decamp for sunnier climes. In the event of no reprieve, consolations simply must be actively sought out.

A fire burning gamely in the grate is far and away the best counter to any signs of cabin fever, but there are some consoling aspects to the rains themselves. One is the welcome sound they make at night: a soft drumming on the roof, metal downspouts gurgling audibly with the runoff. Such sounds cause sleep to come more readily, drive it deeper and make it last longer for those hunkered safely in dry houses. Cloudy skies also darken the night hours, holding circadian rhythms at bay far longer. After the short nights and early starts of summer, whose short-slept habits trail on into fall, sleep is finally sustained and restorative. In longer stretches of wet, an urge to hibernate and slow the pace of life affords a certain pleasure – if we allow ourselves to give in to it! And while November is very wet indeed, even its dampest iterations offer some clearings, with reassuring rainbows and occasional sunny patches. And at such moments, where sun suddenly appears and moss on the oaks glows appreciatively, one is immediately reminded that seasonal chores await attention and finds that the energy for tackling them often readily returns. Sunlight has that sort of effect on gardeners.

Subtle November lights bring out pastel-tinted skies in cool, moist landscapes

Rainfall from November to February delivers the bulk of Victoria’s annual water supply, stored in our Sooke Lake reservoir as run-off from the surrounding hills. But feeling put upon by rain and with so much yet to come down, gardeners aren’t the least concerned about water storage at this point in the year. We’ll be more grateful when suddenly we need water for plants wilting from drought, as happens so rapidly when our climate swings dry. For this moist coastal paradise we inhabit rests on a perennial climate paradox: the illusion of verdure in winter, cast abruptly aside as late spring turns dry and green grounds fade suddenly to buff. Drought takes hold quickly, some years as early as late April, then stretches deep into autumn before the land greens up again. Landscape veers from lush spring plain to baked summer prairie in what seems a blink. Grasses retreat deep into their roots and only reappear when the fall rains entice them back, often far into October.

Dry summer landscape pallette: wheatstraw and caramel share space with arborial greens

This wet-dry climate triggers abrupt changes in the landscape, requiring adaptations on the part of gardeners. Fall rains intensify throughout November and continue into December, typically our wettest month. Experientially though, November often feels wetter than December, as it tends to be less punctuated by periods of open sky (2013 turned out to be an anomaly, more like December). Grey, dreary November can send even seasoned residents packing, in search of sunnier days to offset the blahs induced by contracting daylight hours. Despite November greyness, the return of greenery to lawns and the lush mosses and striking funghi that adorn the Garry Oaks stun the viewer when sunshine returns to the landscape. The plant world glistening moistly in brilliant sunlight is captivating. Even a dreary November sees sunny breaks, due to our fortunate geographic position within the Olympic Mountains rainshadow. Combined with a marine climate that moderates winter effects and keeps us mostly free of snow most winters, the rainshadow effect delivers many more sunny stretches here than either Vancouver or Seattle see. 

Sunny breaks in dreary November bring fall plants to life, here dust lichen tracing mortar bands

Come wet, grey November our climate more resembles that of England, easily fooling us into believing that the English garden is our proper design inspiration. It’s a powerful illusion, comforting psychologically, but a complete misfit ecologically in the long dry season to come. Not surprisingly, many do strive to model gardens here on rhodos, azaleas, hydrangeas, hostas and other exotics that need year-round moisture to really thrive. This choice is often to the detriment of plants and the dismay of admirers come June, when green exits the landscape with jarring finality and moisture-loving foliage flags and yellows. 
Winter colours, here thickets of native Nootka Rose

Not so the native, drought-adapted trees, like oaks, firs, big-leaf maples and the exotic arbutus, nor their natural understory of snowberry, Oregon grape, Indian plum, Nootka rose and ocean spray, which form pleasing thickets wherever we allow them space. Some gardeners do succeed in making facsimiles of English garden borders work tolerably well, abetted by sufficient moisture and mulch to keep their plants from burning out. But this is a running challenge that takes tremendous investments of time and resources to meet. If I’ve learned anything in my decades in a Victoria garden, it’s to fight neither site nor climate by preferring exotic choices. I will always hanker after hydrangeas, but in this climate on this site, the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze.

Berries add to the fall colour palette, warming the landscape

Yet, for five-to-seven months a year, depending upon seasonal variations, we do seem to be kith-and-kin of moist olde England and the traditional landscape park can seem a fitting Ur-garden. And this illusion intensifies in our moist coastal spring, which thanks to warm marine air comes early, advances exquisitely slowly, and in most years enables us to relish clear separation of the early, middle, and late varieties of many types of plants (among my favorites: quince, iris, lilac and peony, and simple versions of all the spring bulbs). This slow-release spring allows exceptional flowering complexity in our regional plant palette. Places that jump right into full spring from snowy winter, like my native Ontario, rarely see such a slowly unfolding panorama of blooms. 

Daffodils come early in spring, subject to adverse weather but reviving immediately it melts off

Early spring, daffodils, bergenia and quince provide flowering incidents in the greenery

And how England-like it is when the bulb clans launch their succession of cameo appearances, starting with aconites and inching into daffodils before going over-the-top in the colour-riot of tulips. Until end-April at least, occasionally as late as early June, we inhabit oak parklands carpeted in meadow flowers edged with shrubbery borders. Then ‘poof’, the grass suddenly dies, buff tones appear and we’re as bone-dry as southern California. This plunge, cold-turkey, into near-desert conditions is not for faint-hearted gardeners, and can only be countered by designing with more drought-tolerant plantings. There can be as many as six, and certainly not less than three and a half, months of parched conditions, during which many plants require watering regularly just to survive. On sites with thin, spare soils like mine, stunting is a possibility that stalks the garden. In such conditions it pays to minimize the number of plants needing their hands held day-to-day. Finally after the long months of dessication and watering, fresh rains effect our gradual return to greenery, culminating in these very November downpours just now weighing so heavily on my mood.

The dessicated landscape: beautiful, but not apt for gardening

November – hardly a promising garden month for getting outdoors – also sees the bulk of our annual leaf-fall on the wet coast. By end of week one in 2010, the Garry Oaks were already two-thirds finished shedding. By the end of week three, following several windy storms, they were pretty much done. Ditto 2013.  Individual specimens of sweet gum, big-leaf maple, and trembling aspen may hold their yellow, orange or crimson displays a while longer, but most leaves are down and carpeting lawns and beds, or piling up in wind-driven drifts in corners and crevices. This year there’s a bumper crop of deciduous leaves, courtesy of a long, moist, warm spring – a boon in the garden as leaves are the principal ingredient of fall compost that will be ready in time for dressing spring beds. But these same leaves can seem a bane when weather and lack of inclination prevent getting them cleared from the scene.

Towards end November, the oak leaves are all down and awaiting raking and composting

Twenty years ago the accepted wisdom here in Saanich was that you had no alternative but to burn the oak leaves. So fall typically gave rise to a prolonged period of mostly ineffectual burning –  or ‘smouldering’ to be more exact. People spent days on end stuffing paltry quantities of leaves into back-yard burners, only to release copious quantities of heavy grey smoke. It was widely held you couldn’t decompose oak leaves and that burning was the only effective means of disposal, belied by the choking results but mythically clung-to anyway. Wet leaves simply don’t burn well, period. Back then, many a November weekend was ruined by conditions far too smoky for working outside. Paradoxically and perversely, the few sunny times in a gloomy month were eclipsed by choking smoke.Today such fires are wisely banned in suburbia, there’s more knowledge of composting, and our enlightened municipality offers free curbside collection of piled leaves to anyone disinclined to work them on site. I myself rarely have spare leaves for Saanich’s pickup, but it’s a godsend for many!  To me it’s far too satisfying to return them as finished compost to waiting beds in early spring, and remarkably easy once you acquire the knack.

Saanich crew uses a leaf-vaccuum to collect all the leaves people push to the road edge

Recently, with weather fronts scrimmaging determinedly back and forth overhead, I felt frustrated by the gloomy persistence of showery overcast. Just at a point of despair, the clouds parted, sun appeared, and the idea of raking leaves moved from abstract burden to boon. Working outside, exposed to benign weather, on a productive task and at a congenial pace, to me offers a consummate enjoyment of gardening. Of course, nothing compares with a good outcome that evolves the overall composition. But everyday gardeners tend to see their creations more while beavering away at them than as the leisured observors of finished wholes described in garden books.  No matter, we finally get to be out in it, making it, enjoying the creative act of tweaking the next edition. 

Raking is a prelude to a more thorough pruning and tidying that brings out garden structure

Form re-emerges, the bones of the garden appear in sharper relief

The ground now is often too sodden for many garden activities – often the soil is simply too damp to work. Bulb planting and division for next spring’s early show have ideally been done long before it gets so wet. I say ‘ideally’ because I rarely get to this in a timely way, so find myself waiting and waiting for clear patches to drain soils sufficiently for planting, which hardly optimizes results. But raking leaves on wet lawns is far more feasible, so long as one has water-proof boots ready to hand. Duck boots with warm felt inserts are prized by wet-coast gardeners!

Moss that recedes to a brown rind in summer bulks up and returns to green with fall rains.

Spattered flecks of lichen
The return of the rains and lessening of sun intensity revives a plant realm that should be welcome in our gardens (if not on our roofs and lawns): a complex ecology of mosses, lichen and other plants that adds texture and subtle coloration to rock outcrops and tree limbs. Contracted to a mere rind for the long summer drought, moss is a sponge that bulks up quickly with rainfall while adding a unique aerial dimension to the return of greenery. Moss serves as a green backdrop for the emergence of tiny mushrooms and lichen, coating tree trunks and limbs with a glowing aura when sun immediately follows rain.  Powder or dust lichen appear as spattered flecks on oak trunks or spread themselves extensively on rock outcrops and stone walls, preferring spots that offer sun and damp in a vertical plane. These subtle plants add depth to the return of fall’s colour palette: aquas, greeny-blues, mustard yellows, burnt orange and off-white. They comprise a mysterious world involving complex and poorly understood dependencies with hidden algaes and molds, one I won’t pretend to understand but whose presence adds elegance and dimension to the fall/winter garden. If a garden offers them suitable habitat like rocks and Garry oaks, they will gradually occupy it as naturally as they do our wilder spaces.

Colonies of crepe-like funghi and lichen adorn moist specimen rocks

I’ve been known to select a rock with an embryonic lichen colony to place among new stones and confer a sense of belonging and long habitation to a new garden wall. There are over 1300 species of lichen identified in B.C., classified into orders by their form: dust, crust, scale, leaf, club, shrub and hair. Lichen proliferate widely in wilderness areas but have more difficulty surviving urban conditions. Suburban gardens with rock outcrops and native species are more amenable milieu to them. Because these plants exercise a subtle effect, they don’t leap to the eye with showy display but rather require a viewer’s discerning attention in order to be seen. Noticing algae, funghi, lichen and mosses is for me an active part of the return of ‘looking’ in fall – that facility of becoming able to see the garden anew and imagine fresh possibilities. Because these plants emerge at exactly the moment our deciduous trees are losing their annual growth and heading for winter dormancy, they embody a sense of fresh possibility and signal that the annual cycle is beginning once again. 

A strange world of plants that are extensive but are not erect or showy

Tidying and ordering the garden scene – however fleeting the effect in stormy November where the next event buffets and rearranges everything – brings visual clarity to our arrangements. One begins to see the garden anew, as if it were being inspirited once again, and from here one can again look forward and visualize how it will be come spring. For it’s against this backdrop that spring’s changes will pencil themselves gradually into the landscape. The garden’s bones – its paths, walls, steps and the plants used deliberately to shape spaces – come into sharper relief with the tidying and pruning, unified by the returning greenery. Garden objects made to recede by blankets of leaves and fall litter suddenly rise to the eye as context is restored. A feeling of repose and fitness returns to the scene.

The bones of the garden re-emerge after leaf-fall

Snow makes structure even more evident

Pruning is another activity awaiting rainless breaks. Some of summer’s departed luxuriance is yet to be pared back – shrubs like lavender, santolina, and rosemary all benefit from being pruned to shape, gaining in longevity what they lose in bulk; boxwood responds positively to a tightening of its form; spent flowers need to be removed and many perennials cut off at the soil. All this clipping and pruning effects a return of underlying structure, buried from spring on by waves of fresh growth and flowery exuberance, bringing simplicity back to the fore, which is further resolved by the return of green and the freshening of colour appreciation it begets.

Maple leaves edge a woodland path

Raking leaves stands as one of my absolute favourite ways of working in the fall garden. With deciduous trees it really cannot be avoided anyway, so we may as well learn to enjoy it. Raking lends itself to rhythmic movement, the tines of the rake sending swaths of leaves fluidly into lines and piles. A good metal rake is indispensable if one’s to get lost in the exercise. I see people awkwardly struggling to do this job with the rigid plastic rakes so common nowadays. No wonder they’d rather avoid it! Fighting the tool is never fun. Rigid plastic simply isn’t springy enough for this task, making it something more endured than enjoyed. If you have a plastic rake, ditch it right now and go find yourself a classic metal-headed, wood-handled rake. One with a spring across its back, to give you some twitch when you send the leaves towards your pile. Choose a width that fits the spaces you’ll be working in; too wide and you won’t find it convenient enough to use. A small hand rake is also useful for clearing beds and crevices. You’ll be amazed what a difference quality makes, how much more control over the action you develop, how much more gets done in a given time! With developing skills your metal rake will soon give you access to a workspace that’s known in artistic circles as ‘flow’. Flow is that coveted frame of mind where skills, purpose and ambient conditions come together to achieve outcome and provide enjoyment. The space known as flow can be cultivated, just like the garden itself. In time you’ll find yourself immersed in the activity, body and rake working as one, dancing the leaves along.

Leaf fall (sweet gum) coupled with fresh greens creates striking contrasts in the moist garden

The ultimate reward of raking is the store of raw material accumulated for fresh compost making. In clearer periods, I’ll moisten the caramel-coloured oak leaves with the hose, coat them lightly with damp soil and blend in the clippings from our fall tidying of beds and shrubberies. The wet soil scuffs the leaves, opening their surface for ready invasion of organisms and breakdown. This labour of compost-making is among the most satisfying and enjoyable a gardener knows – easy to do, but not to be hurried. Now it’s a matter of aligning your free time with breaks in the weather so compost can comfortably be worked up. Taking it slowly and methodically, establishing a rhythm with watering, mixing and piling, is the ideal way to make compost.

Mossy oak branches tinged with frost bathed in sun

Composting uses natural agents to break down organic materials. Because I don’t have the nitrogen-rich materials to create a hot compost (best for killing weed and other seeds and for breaking down the tougher materials), I’m building one that will work using the cooler forces of decomposition. I try to keep seeds out of it entirely, and not to inadvertently introduce plant roots that could re-establish themselves in the heap. My goal is to make a tempting hotel for worms and the many micro-organisms that will, over the ensuing months, consume every scrap of green kitchen and garden waste we care to mix in. Forget buying compost ‘starters’, they’re absolutely unnecessary. It’s a matter of getting the right ratio of green and brown materials, coupled with soil and moisture. You bias your pile via composition towards hot or cool; it’s a conscious choice with implications for who/what consumes the edibles on offer. Available nitrogen is the decisive determinant; if you have little, you are running a cold heap. Once made, your pile largely takes care of itself. You can make quite adequate compost heaps with just soil and carboniferous materials, adding the green component with kitchen scraps and garden clippings over time.

You can rely on your heaps to recycle everything from the kitchen that’s not fat, meat, or a dessert leftover. The trick is to establish the pile with a good balance of materials and moisture, making it a virtuous cycle. Then it’s ready to take as much green material as you care to throw into it, with only occasional forking-over. I feel that whether you do or don’t create a formal bin to contain your compost is a site- and person-specific choice. You can keep it as simple as building a pile directly on the ground, which is what we do. You may need to cover it with something to protect the nutrients from rain, but be careful that your cover doesn't tempt rodents to nest there! When it comes time to fork your heap over (a natural accelerant), a pile on the ground is the most convenient to deal with. Box and bin or drum structures make it more awkward to fork things over, mix and aerate. A pile accessible from all sides is most efficient, and can easily be remixed by forking it along a couple of feet. This is especially true when you have large volumes of material, like the leaves from dozens of Garry oaks.

Pacific Madrone's peeling bark layers glow cinammon-red when saturated in fall and winter

More time is spent raking and tidying in November than in compost making. As I rake along I often find myself contemplating the challenges and opportunities offered by the winter months. Hardest of all is the adaptation to shorter days and grey, wet conditions. Yet to say ‘grey’ is to sentence November to a kind of dreary monotony that belies the beauty revealed at particular moments. Grey light can indeed be cheerless and cold, but it can also convey monochrome subtleties to a discerning eye. It’s visually refreshing after summer’s busy colour competition to see the world in a more restrained palette. Unexpectedly, sunshine appears, and monochrome gives way to lush greenery set off by glistening fall berries, glowing mosses, or saturated barks.

A mossy oak with deeply fissured bark lends a sense of great age to a garden.

Cotoneaster and pyracantha are the main berrying plants in my bungalow garden and around the entire region, colouring up in cooler autumn weather. But many plants berry or hip, from roses and ornamental crabs to hawthorn and holly. The berry crop, though restrained compared with summer flowering, distantly echoes its abundance. Deep reds, oranges, and yellows predominate, but delightful cranberries, corals and burgundies also show against glistening greens. 

Late fall end of day light reduces the world to elemental composition

Fall is a subtle, melancholic, but quite beautiful time in a westcoast garden, a season that may well prompt reflection on life’s glories and mysteries, its short course and potential for renewal. One could call it the Buddhist season par excellence, because things are briefly in balance and awaiting change. Berries on shrubs are emissaries and tokens of the annual cycle of growth and decay and rebirth, themselves the vehicle of new life. They’re a reminder to creative gardeners of the possibilities of planning garden events to occur across four distinct seasons. And in many cases they form an invaluable food store for the over-wintering birds that descend on them in waves at various points.

Near-surreal redness glowing in a moment of brilliant November sunshine

Subtle colour harmonies between rock, leaves and berries, set up by a recent shower

Overall, wet fall returns a balance and simplicity to the garden that’s satisfying to contemplate. After relentless chasing of new growth in spring, and the ensuing retreat from heat in summer, fall offers a welcome return of feelings of repose in the garden. Repose might best be described as a placid, serene, and peaceful feeling that is highly esteemed by creative gardeners. It’s the opposite of loud, showy, bright, metallic, and harsh effects. Feelings of repose are amplified when garden choices feel as if they belong as placed, where harmony of relationship exists among elements. In fall, with feelings of repose rising, it becomes possible to think anew about garden designs, to reflect on the experience of the past year, and to slowly draw conclusions: what themes to emphasize, plants to replace, structures to create, or effects to amplify next year; to consider the bones and axes, the steps and stairs, along with the greens of spring as a backdrop to flowering incidents. The rub is simply that most of the changes one would like to effect can’t be made until soils drain sufficiently for easy working. But fall’s slackening rhythms predispose the mind to return to musing about what a garden could be, an integral part of creative engagement in designing and maintaining one. Finally there’s no rush to complete tasks (except for the leaves). How fine, if infrequent in harried lives, to curl up on a couch with a blazing fire and let a garden text loft the mind into imagining what might be next year. Briefly the would-be creative-gardener trumps the slave to garden tasks, and possibilities can be imagined anew. Some part of gardening involves dreaming and imagining what could be; fall turning wintry sees the return of that desire to conjure more definite ideas as to what the garden could become, to aspire to shape one’s own anew.

Even monochrome light in November has its beauty

Fall also portends a return to reading as further stimulus to imagining next year’s avant-garden. I find reading about gardens and plants nearly impossible in summer heats – particularly as garden labour reduces itself to the watering of specimens, dead-heading of plants, and the removal of spent materials to the compost staging area. Come fall the survival imperative governing summer can be forgotten, a most welcome evolution. Come fall, green spreads itself anew throughout the landscape. And with fresh green comes new imagining, conditioned by the current year’s experience, but leavened by the exotica of thoughts captured in books. I’ve been enjoying browsing several books this fall, but I’ll leave that side of it to a future posting. Meantime, I’ve got to pick the oak leaves out of my fish-bone cotoneasters, to prevent them creating habitat for webworms next spring! And after that, the compost heap awaits my attentions. 

Sure hope it doesn’t rain!

1 comment:

  1. David,
    How I enjoyed reading your post. Hard to pick a favourite photo but I'd have to say the "Colonies of crepe-like funghi and lichen adorn moist specimen rocks"....absolutely breath-taking images of the seasons on the island.
    Thanks for sharing. If you need a leaf-raker, I'd love to help some time clad in high boots. I miss gardening and merely tend some herbs that don't mind me neglecting them.