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Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Borrowed Time

Sunday, November 05, 2017


The gardener’s clock has no digits. Sunrise and sunset ignore us. Dawn is never late or sunset early. Night dominates the skies, urban gardeners have LED streetlights nearby. Darkened school children shuffle windblown leaves underfoot. We must adjust our rhythms.  Let’s change the clock. Children learn better in day light, let urban gardeners gather fallen leaves for compost during the day. 

Time and tide wait on no one. A sharp frost is yet to crisp foliage across the garden patch. Pole beans still produce fresh beans for savory kitchen stews. Parsley is the deepest green possible, full of vitamins and robust flavor. Swiss chard offers colorful thick stalks, purest ivory, beet red, tight thread like veins lace their wide leaves in rich textures. Kale curls its leaves into fluffy ruffles, its firm grip upon shorter days complete. Gardeners don’t really fuss too much with official times, our circadian rhythm is evident in the garden. 

Most of us coax along outliers, the potted geraniums stand alone, each in full bloom. We’ve brought in potted plants once or twice per frost warning and moved them back out doors. Or we’ve covered the tomato pots with sheets. Baskets of green tomatoes are our harvest, we debate which plants to bring indoors for the winter. Some, like fuchsias, have grown large, our nature is to provide warmth and shelter for our companions. Will they survive outdoors? Do we coddle rosemary? The fig? Huge fig leaves are fallen, their roots congest the large containers, and enormous Little Shop of Horrors are more skeletal. Surely they must be covered at least. 

Geraniums do very well as pot bound plants in bright or direct sunlight, they prefer well drained soil. Let the pots dry out before watering. Geraniums offer many colors and fragrances for us. A sturdy group, geraniums store well in dim cellar windows for the winter. Remove most foliage and dry. The scented types hold fragrance for months, reserve for winter shut in days.  Geraniums may be removed from pots and kept in brown paper shopping bags, hung from clothes lines in cool basements. Or if the labor is not too much, store pot and all in the basement, water once a month through March. The green stalks will wither and leaves fall. Each stem however with a hint of green will revive with increased water and rebound outdoors next spring. Keep a small pot or 2 of geranium for your brightest window. Cut back most of the summer growth. Water after the pot dries out and only enough to moisten the soil. Give the pot a quarter twist each watering. A few weeks after the winter solstice potted geraniums lean towards the winter sun, new growth will begin. Blooms will cheer up those who must remain indoors on cold, snowy days.

Rosemary is difficult for me indoors. It seems to dry out or there isn’t a window bright enough for its sun-loving ways. Sometimes we surrender and find sprays of rosemary at the farmer’s market. For the true DYI gardener, rosemary will winter in cold frames. Sheltered spots in direct sun protected from wind are second choices. Bury the rosemary pot into the soil right up to the brim. Mound mulch around the shrubby plant, particularly on the northern quadrants. There is no need to water the buried rosemary. Although some winter damage is likely, buried pots of rosemary can endure for many years. Remove the buried pot into its sunny summer residence next April. 

Fuchsias and lemon verbena are long time garden favorites. Prune back the summer growth until the sturdy stems are compact. Both will winter in dim basements, water before utterly dry or once a month. Fuchsias buried in sheltered compost heaps are often pleasant spring time surprises. Protect colorful fuchsias from wind and ice damage under compost in the garden. Heap up the compost and bury the pots deeply into the soil. A heavy mulch around and on top of the pots will keep plants viable over the winter and prevent frost from cracking the pots. 

Clean containers and precious clay pots, let dry, store under shelter now. Stack pots upside down, any left upright are destined to become wet, freeze and crack. Garden sheds are clutter magnets, beware any rakes, hoes, shovels or stakes poised above head and shoulders. All will eventually clobber unwary gardeners. Wear hats and gloves while puttering around storage, properly dispose broken pots and useless tools. Get rid of single gloves, like socks, pairs mysteriously separate ne’er to return. Odd lengths of twine? Out! Bits of rope? Good bye! 

Bags with token amounts of bone meal, dried blood or partial bags of Milorganite? Spread directly into planting beds or onto the compost heap. 

Close, don’t push the shed door shut.. Breath a sigh of relief. 

Still have day light? Keep turf leaf free. Leaves best role in the garden is as compost although they make a very effective mulch. Leaf covered turf soon dies out. Save future time and labor with a flexible tooth rake. Gather leaves onto cotton tarpaulins, drag away to the compost pile. Kept moist, leaves transform into nutritious humus, dry leaves endure for many months. A level of soil on top of leaves is usually enough to inhibit evaporation, provide shelter from wind and inoculate the leaves with soil borne micro-organisms and egg cases. 

Scan left over seed packets. Plant beets, kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach, peas and any green leafy vegetables. Fall and winter plantings often offer pleasing results. Although many seeds have long shelf lives, most suffer declines in germination rates. Make the effort to plant seeds as fresh as possible or discard seeds left over from many seasons ago. Time touches all of us. 

We’re close to the Frost moon. Harder, colder days and nights will banish the long fall. More rain will keep soils moist. Shorter days are upon gardeners. Walk along sidewalks and gaze upwards at Orion’s Belt, turn to Polaris. Our compass set, enjoy the crunch fallen leaves make under your feet. Whatever clocks may say, we’re here on borrowed time. Cultivate a garden and mark the seasons, one by one. Tick tock. 


Leonard Moorehead is a life- long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence, RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit tree.


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