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Leonard Moorehead, The Urban Gardener: Winter Blooms

Sunday, January 14, 2018


Many urban gardeners endure winter’s snow and slush. Our fortitude is strong. Polar gales push wind chill factors through warm coats. Mittens, scarves and ticking furnaces defend us. All is not stiff. As ever, our Eden remains. Dormant outdoors, comfortable under thick mulches, our carefully nurtured plant beds hibernate. Slower rhythms prevail. Beneath insulating layers of shredded leaves, straw, and snow the soil remains active. The pace is glacial but relentless. Life goes on. 

Garden life

Garden life, like justice, must be seen. To the casual observer conventional wisdom dismisses the garden as a seasonal affair. Unlike summer loves that end with return to normalcy horticulture ignores cultural mores. Or rather, we are penultimate sentimentalists who rely upon past visions to create the future. While snow and ice are now, the future is bright with promise. Sketch out your future on the kitchen table. Free the imagination and soar.


Speculate. I draw up herbaceous borders on yellow legal pads. It’s a short leap from two dimensions to three. Plot out ratios, one in three is the classic. Divide planting areas into variations of three. Favorite plants or high need crops alike benefit from this approach. Make a list of past successes, add notes such as “likes sun” or unimproved soil. Please yourself. Your wish list will evolve over time and experience. Be open-minded. Why grow potatoes cheap to buy when the same space will allow scarce purchases such as heirloom tomatoes? Don’t ignore classics, do examine varieties for disease resistance or increased bloom. Planning out the garden plot is subtle joy. Settle into the magic realm of the future. 


Plan for the future garden and act now. Keep a scrapbook. Mine is full of clippings from seed catalogs, exclamation points for successes, puzzled question marks next to those that never thrived, comment. Add a new leaf for future goals. Dwarf fruit trees with many grafted varieties on one condensed tree have always intrigued me. Plants from zones marginally close or far off have the compelling allure of the forbidden. Just what is a paw-paw for this New Englander?  Urban gardeners must exercise discretion, often our choices are cabined, cribbed, confined. Do your best to match your growing space’s qualities with plants’ needs. 

Map out

Map out planting spaces. I never quite remember just where I’ve planted daffodils. My fate is to dig up random bulbs to promptly replace. Aha, as I reach for this year’s additional bulbs, I planted daffodils here before. The best predicate for the future is the past. A map will record where memory fails. Maps guide gardeners past the rocks and shoals of error.  My map, drawn to scale and always conforming to the one in three rule, includes much variety. Our enthusiasm surpasses mere rote. Rather, indulge your passions and seek color, scent, and form. Sensitive gardeners rely upon the nose, ears, and eyes. 

Overlook favorites

Overlook favorites? Somehow I just plain forgot to put in rose scented geraniums last year. Did I refer to my stained and tattered scrap book? Of course I did. We are human guides for our plants, not machines. Indeed, for many urban gardeners, gardening is respite from the endless spreadsheets of current life.  Be gentle on yourself. Simply replace past regrets with optimistic futures. I’m certain to grow rose scented geraniums this season. Their musky rose scents are more faithful to the rose family than many showy hybrid roses. Tuck rose scented geraniums among rose bushes more noted for their bloom or disease resistance than fragrance. Yes, it is possible to combine very separate plants to achieve fantastic results. 


Impatient? Wisdom dictates turtle like pace. My energy is has always urged me forward, to take action. Like me? We’re hardly unique. Gardeners have always expanded their local growing conditions. Cold frames and greenhouses are old favorites, long before air transportation enabled global transport of blooms from any climate or climate controlled shipping loaded green bananas in Central America.  Deep within the garden are a few tricks of the trade available for gardeners of every stripe. 

Force forsythias

Force forsythias into bloom right on the window sill. Forsythia, an East Asian shrub brought to America by intrepid Victorian botanical explorers has made itself at home. Once ubiquitous foundation plantings in new suburbs, the forsythia became so familiar it bred contempt. Rarely planted by recent gardeners, old forsythia prevails in abandoned house lots. Consider this old favorite for the right reasons. Gently harvest and never clip other’s shrubbery without permission. Do not scwander the resource but guide the main plant into pleasing shapes. Urban gardeners do not hack. Surely, the world has plenty of old scars. 

Prune recent growth with a nice sharp pair of clippers at an angle to the main stem. Don’t cut an armload at once. Rather, select several likely branches, those that overhang a sidewalk or crowd the parking space. Bring indoors and put in a pleasing container that does not allow sunlight to reach the base of the cuttings. Let’s keep the cut in the dark. Place the container in your sunniest window and keep full of fresh water. Change the water every other day. Forsythia, like chrysanthemums, encourages sour smells in water. Do keep the cuttings wet. Seven days afterwards, repeat the process. (aren’t you glad you didn’t cut all branches at once?)  Soon after the second clump of cuttings is in a container the first batch will bud out and burst into golden bloom. 

Gleeful yellow

Gleeful yellow blossoms are good for all. Forsythia’s original appeal is restored. Their elegant simplicity inspires all, including the perpetually dour. Snowdrifts, slips, falls, power outages, all recede into perspective. Repeat as needed. The stems can be snipped into smaller pieces and thrown right back onto the garden mulch when blooms are replaced by green leaves. Those branches forced in late February or March may be put out into the garden or given to the friends who so enjoyed this golden treat during the long cold winter. 

Sprawl naturally

Forsythia shrubs sprawl naturally. They form large clumps with ease as long as there is plenty of sunshine. Some clip this forgiving shrub into geometric hedges. Ugh. Do guide this vigorous shrub. Associate a pair with enough room for two gardeners to walk between. Bind the fast growing stems together. This pedestrian shrub does well in ordinary soil. Feed it? It will grow three or four feet in a summer!  I entered a community garden planted in a house lot. All that remained from the old house were twin forsythias planted at the foot of the granite front steps. A gardener from the past guided the sprawling bushes into a lovely archway. I fed them a bit, a careless handful of 10-10-10 once in a while. Each spring, the golden yellow blossoms brought much needed color and joy to our neighborhood. 

Other blooming

Experiment with other blooming shrubs using the same technique. Quince does very well using this method to produce exquisite Zen like blooms certain to bring meaning to the most house bound soul. Remember to keep your garden notes in a safe place. When frost and freeze are long forgotten, the notes will keep the faith. 

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. 

This article originally ran on January 17, 2015


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