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The Urban Gardener: Hunker Down, Look Ahead

Saturday, November 15, 2014


Happy are urban gardeners. We adjust to shorter days. We watch more of Orion’s Belt than endless sunsets. Silent airborne leaves swirl then gather in heaps on sidewalks, thick musky music orchestrated beneath endless shuffling footsteps. Color defies decline, rich crimson maple, golden gingko and brazen oak leaves tangle underfoot. Long lasting chrysanthemums still endure. Defiant snapdragons sport lovely blooms from hidden volunteers. Roses continue to please pensive gardeners. We walk out onto the streets, happy to greet the world. 

Urban gardens are green gems, each a peaceful oasis between red arteries of brake lights. Their silent reminders subdue traffic noises, memories of other seasons, other colors, other scents, older memory. Deep within each urban gardener are the steps of different drummers, steps far from the Google pace of instant comment. We reserve our attention for rhythm of far deeper timbre. Our vision is inextricably linked to an older calendar, one independent from war, conflict and chaos. Our sights are aimed towards a hopeful future, enforced, enriched by our past experiences. Each green gem is full of lustrous promise. Red brake lights are the stops in the now. Our steps move forward through the hours. 

Most urban gardeners have stepped back from their plots.

We no longer rise up early each morning in the dawn and greet the new day. Morning is dark. Our pace is now shrouded in dim light. Streetlights guide us before sunrise. Our commute from workplace to home is often one from lamp to lamp.  Earth’s orbit hurls through space and time through another measure of eternity. For some of us, shorter days and longer nights are bearable only through our garden plots. Our feet are happy upon unpaved ground. Strength rises up through the soil. Rooted in place we are cheerful melodies of gravity’s cousins, planetary orbits, moon filled nights, seeded capsules. We have stepped back from our grounds, we have not left them.

Rather, hopeful and full of promises, reserve daytime for the outdoors. Go out into cities. Pound pavement, join in the human fray. Drive onward, each of us a part of the greater whole. When gardeners are alone we welcome brisk cold weather in peace. We know the grasshopper, we know the ant. Blow northern gales, bring us fresh polar air, wake up our hearts. Not for gardeners the dismal or hibernation. Our days are jubilee, we have only to engage, encourage our community plots onward for the colder times. Sadly for some, a garden suffers as a momentary phase of blooming glory or bountiful harvest. Joyfully for most of us, gardens offer constant inspiration. Our spirits understand the resolve within the cold; we know the complex promises within each seed, bulb, and mulched planting bed. Seize the day. Go outside. 

Urban gardeners are industrious folks.

Do you collect pots, planters, or build trellises to utilize precious space, both vertical and horizontal? Of course you do. If you’re like me, I remember to pull on gloves last. Don’t. Let’s think a little of the future before defending garden and body from winter’s approach. Put your ideas into action.

Gather pots, I favor old fashioned red clay pots but all sorts of plastic forms are readily available to us. Snip off old frost bitten growth from pots and throw stems and faded flowers into your ever present re-cycled five gallon bucket or if you’re lucky, the quiet sturdy plastic wheelbarrow. This debris is for the compost heap or if you wish to skip a few spring chores, bury now in the garden plot. Clay pots last for years. Remove the soil. I am a bit lazy about this and you can be more diligent and reserve the potting mixtures so carefully prepared last spring. More chained to the moment, I dump the pots right into the nearest planting bed, kick it about in my rugged garden shoes maybe scratch back the mulch, maybe not. Bring the pots into shelter.

Storing pots is ordinary enough but important. Free from rain, sleet, snow and worst: ice; pots will last a long time. A long time that is if kept dry. I tip mine upside down and try not to stack them too high. Clay pots are oddly brittle, cracks can be repaired with epoxy glue, some I simply accept as charming aspects of character and ignore. Consider space, as all urban gardeners must, and store the pots far from doorways, passages, and carelessness. Practice judgment here, safely out of the way, handy for spring use. Broke a couple? Save the pieces. Chards are perfect to cover drainage holes or to layer on top of filled pots to prevent splashing from rain or the watering can. Some very particular folks scrub and rinse their pots. Bless you if you have the time. Care now is important for future use. Urban gardeners turn further from the throw away mentality. We can do this in ordinary ways that achieve important results.

Fill a few pots with the excess potting soils.

It is easy enough to mix your own potting soil. Get things going with large bags of perlite, peat moss, and a big tub of compost. A trowel or forked hand tool are fine for stirring the ingredients, I enjoy using my hands for something beyond the keyboard or cooking. Reserve a small metal barrel with cover, I like old fashioned aluminum trash cans for storing the ingredients as well as the finished mixture. They are affordable and last forever. Feeling retro? Go ahead, kick one or knock one over for sound effects that startle feral cats and if you’re lucky a voice will call out and ask, “Are you ok?” Wipe the smirk away and set the cans upright. Dump perlite and peat moss into their separate 20 gallon cans. 

I mix potting soil in the wheelbarrow. Urban gardeners master methods. More perlite, a form of glass that mimics pumice, molten, gases form complex but strong, matrixes of sterile light weight spaces within each peas size pellet. White, perlite at a glance appears expensive. Go for the largest bag you can afford. Its shelf life is eternal, its uses multiple. Friable soils allow rapid root growth unhindered by rocks, pebbles, or clay. Perlite mixes easily with peat and compost. Less perlite more peat or compost? Trial and experience will enrich an error free experience; the only wrong decision is not to enjoy yourself. Turn away from labor and face love. Each ingredient creates a uniform medium that retains water, sustains looseness for root growth, and stores easily.  Intrepid gardeners keep a barrel more or less as needed for one pot or dozens. Why now? Put to immediate use or keep handy for impulse and certainly next spring. 

Reserve a few pots, cover the drainage holes with one or two broken clay pot chards, and fill half way. Reach for those daffodils, tulips, crocus, or the classic, paper white narcissus, you haven’t planted yet and tuck closely together in a 2/3 full pot. Cover with potting mixture, firm all with gentle hand pressure. Water. Dig out spaces in your creative cold frame and bury up to the pot’s rim or find a draft free cool place in the basement or garage. I’ve buried clay pots of bulbs directly into the garden, into compost heaps, and more extreme, during more carefree bachelor days, the vegetable bin of the refrigerator. Urban gardeners are adaptable to circumstance. 

After at least six weeks of cool dormancy, bring a pot out into a sunny, warm place like my kitchen windowsill. Within days, sprouts will merge and soon, glorious blooms will encourage urban gardeners of every stripe to happily gaze upon winter scenes. Make a few pots and space “forcing” a week or so apart for prolonged pleasure. Everyone deserves happiness and urban gardeners are luckier than most, we have connections to life far deeper, more ancient and profound than the ordinary. Most urban gardeners are happy folks, you can be too. 

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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