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Leonard Moorehead, The Urban Gardener: Fall Gardens Flush and Full

Saturday, November 08, 2014


Urban gardeners enjoy subtle advantages as days shrink into Standard time. Darkness hovers around headlights, red brakes, and commercial districts are neon bright. Time is tight, calendars iron clad. Retreat and defense is thick in the cooler air. Not all march to this drummer, the canny gardener moves into gear. Neither for the faint of heart or timid, street lights shine and I cannot ignore the drama. True darkness lurks in the hearts of men, not the sidewalk plots, community gardens or containers of our lively city. Street lights are gardener’s friends. 

I have gathered every brown bag of leaves my friendly neighbors have collected from the enormous red oaks a house or two down our short side street. A dozen here, a dozen there made the short trip down to the far end of the driveway. Squat and silent, they are egg like, each laid by New England hens hunkered down for the winter. It’s a lonely job, combing the juxtaposed sidewalks decades apart in the making. Yet very satisfying. And I confess, I cannot  resist raking the sidewalk under the street light. For this task I pull out the sturdy painter’s canvas, laid wide impervious to passing traffic and like silent gravity, powerfully strong. 

Rubber tined rakes with thick handles for easier grasp and cotton gloves from the flea market are your best friends. Fall into raking, release thoughts and enjoy the timbre and fiber of movement. Breath. Practice helps. Style and technique are humble achievements measured among increasing hordes of golden oak leaves piled up on the canvas. Exhale. Each street light is a pool of opportunity. Rake tossed onto the pile, a knotted corner in hand, we thread our way past a parked car or two home.  More organic material for the compost heap arrives with the November full moon. 

Constant mulch develops a strong appetite for more. Gardeners who funnel the torrent of biodegradable materials in cities are richly rewarded for their efforts. Shorter days stimulate creativity. It’s immensely rewarding to engage with natural seasonal cycles. Fruit trees, grape vines, autumn blooming clematis, goji berries, raspberries and many other plants are easy to distinguish in the dim light. Each tree, shrub and vine offer profiles long shielded by foliage. Now is the time to evaluate, calculate, and sharpen the pruning forks. Where ever branches cross or weedy water sprouts are wrapped in tenuous vines waving above, prune. One of gardening’s great pleasures is to think through the growth. Each plant emits persona. Ever watchful for good husbandry, colder weather is perfect to shape, guide, support growth. 

My sharp hand clippers are never far away. Clean up your gleanings before leaving the garden. I snip larger pieces into smaller and smaller pieces and toss right onto the mulch surface of the garden. Time becomes less essential when the horizon is always months into the future. I pile layer after layer onto the planting beds. The mulch offers year round texture to the garden. Shapes are more defined. The eye is drawn towards the cool weather champs like parsley. The parsley planted last spring is intensely green. Tolerant, I grow plain leaved and curly leafed parsley in abundance. Pull back the mulch and tuck parsley among more transitory coreopsis, asters, marigolds, portulaca or Kerria and sage. I follow the golden rule. Trios of each plant create harmonious gardens pleasing to heart and soul. Followed out of long habit, a fascinating matrix of prime numbers tames the red clawed savage beast. As infinitesimal leaves fall away, the gardens’ shapes continue to engage gardeners and passersby. 

Herbs are powerfully beneficial to the garden. A glance at November’s sage leads inevitably to pick a fragrant branch for the kitchen. Not as eager for rich soil as others, the salvias ask only to be loved for themselves. Their green foliage is legendary. Mine enjoy a sometimes shovel of sand and request less of everything except sunlight. Propagate by layering. Lay low branches in contact with soil, heap sandy soil a few inches over the stems and secure down with something common like an old brick or cobblestone. Next spring, snip the stem from the principal plant. Be patient. Your sport is just about ready to move into another trio. Or please the unsuspecting with a new sage plant. Sage is as New England as it gets, brought by the Pilgrims. Its purity survived their strenuous censor of all that is hell bent. Garden herbs are good for you. 

Weaving wreaths is as natural as can be and a heartbeat away from joyful. People are always delighted by simply woven herbal wreaths. Gardeners can twist one as casually as hippies at a Grateful Dead concert.  Give them away. Sage, wormwood and lavender brought into the house are never moody. Their benign aura reaches into every corner. Woven on the kitchen table the herbs are not ordinary or dreaded cliché. Rather, once again the garden touches everyone on those secret sweet spots of joy. Surrender. Grin if you must. Grown outside, it’s an inside job. 

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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