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Leonard Moorehead,The Urban Gardener: Minor Bulbs Rule

Sunday, November 01, 2015


The sun swings lower each day. Winter’s equinox is destiny’s punctuation. Long before us and forever afterwards the planet’s orbit is our guide.  Urban gardeners chafe for more daylight in the garden. We are hopeful folks and accept changes in the seasons. Resilience is deep within our bones. Urban gardeners are sensitive to the past, act in the present, hope for the future. Much gardening follows the seasonal compass. We know our garden plots, containers and sidewalk plantings are in constant flux seeking true north. We would have it no other way. 

I harvest leaves. Our green cities assign beautiful roles to trees; shade, clean air, noise abatement, are each alike yet different. Trees’ natural cycle is to replenish soil in an endless cycle of leaf transformed into soil to leaf. Urban gardeners and those in the country remove leaves from pavements and lawns. Their pungent colors offer shuffling music to pedestrians treading whole leaves into smaller parts. Gardeners make the same conversion. Our role is to enhance soils from leaves artificially re-located from first flight high above to below. Harvest is easier as others diligently pursue the fallen and pack leaves into brown bag purgatories. My leaf harvest is clustered near the sidewalk in neatly arranged brown bags. Ah for a full day in the sun among the leaves.

Hasten the transition of leaves into nutrient rich humus. Lawn mowers do a fair job of shredding leaves albeit noisy and reliant upon internal combustion machines. Leaf shredders are marvelously efficient at shredding leaves. Every interruption, each tear and pinch, of a leaf’s integrity is an opportunity for hosts of microbes to sort, sift, seek nutrients developed high above. We shred to expose surface area to microbes. There are great advantages to shredding. 

Huge mountains of leaves or regiments of brown paper bags shred into fragrant cohesive foothills. The resource is readily available, we engage with neighbors who over-come initial suspicion and rally to participate in clearing away their yards and sidewalks. Sure, some windblown litter is part of the bargain as are acorns and nuts. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Greet your neighbors over the fence and on the sidewalk. We are local solutions with global impact. 

Soil thrives best when covered in organic materials. Leaves, hay, paper, all absorb rainfall’s impact. No water borne erosion here. No desiccation for winds to blow away nutrients. No deep frozen ground. Rather, complex living communities rapidly multiply on the banquet. Silent persistent appetites restore nutrients to soils long exploited and sometimes abused from the slow starvation of leaf removal and construction. We have altered a natural cycle, redirected waterways, emit noxious fumes into air. With little change in habit urban gardeners offer solutions one small space at a time. It adds up. 

We have a cluster of weeks before cold weather slows but doesn't’t stop the life in our gardens. Each plant has its adaptation to the seasons. Gardeners assist and guide plants in conjunction with the season. The present always gives us something to do. As many plants enter dormancy for the winter we’re allowed time to protect their roots and offer substainence via humus enriched soils. A thick layer of shredded leaves insulates soil from cold air. Just a few inches beneath the surface, subterranean life goes on with gusto. My heavily mulched garden plots are rarely frozen. 

Happiness is easy to find outdoors. Sorry indeed is the person who ignores the joys of careful raking. Breath deep, exhale, relax, and wear gloves. Use a rubber tined leaf rake to clear leaves off turf and pavement. No rattling, scratching tines here. Think through each movement. Allow random thoughts to cascade away from intent. Repeat movements with the entire body. Rhythm becomes an end in itself. Our bodies and mind are better for these peaceful actions. Look up at the sky. Random thoughts seem inevitable but do not rule. Direct each thought towards ever receptive clouds moving across the sky. Clouds are perfect places to rest thoughts. Pear beyond the clouds, focus on the silent deep beyond. Peaceful concentration is available as our bodies tend the urban garden. 

Ideas arise as we garden. Mine drift towards the so called “minor” spring bulbs. Minor to some but not to me. Crocus, squill, and grape hyacinth, are hardly insignificant. Cold indeed is the heart immune to snowdrops bravely enduring a late winter snowstorm. Stunning gold, blue and white crocus are happy exclamation marks in melting snow drifts. Every gardener and those they teach quietly ask themselves, “Why didn't’t I plant spring bulbs?” It’s happened to me. Maybe you too. Indeed, why not? Timing has something to do with it. 

Crocus, snowdrops, grape hyacinth are famously free from complex garden practices. No special light, soil or vulnerability to insects here. Timing is the thing. Take advantage of late season sales and buy as many of each as you can afford. Season after season the expense is forgotten. In place are multitudes of offspring who flourish in soils covered in shredded leaves, hay, wood chips, manure, seaweed or whatever your available mulch is on hand. 

Do not be formal. Geometry has no place among minor bulbs. Plant as close to precious sunny frontage as possible. Toss the bulbs with some care; this is not baseball, and plant in place enshrining the random. Serendipity is pleasing in the garden.  Tolerance helps too. Allow for the happiest minor bulbs to expand and spread. Each variety has special appeal. Snowdrops compete with melting snow and hints of spring ahead. Crocus are colorful, hardy, and have the most golden stamen in the plant world. Grape hyacinth and squill are the cherubim and angelic hosts of spring. Their purely blue and sometimes white robes are choral rhapsody. No one can resist their benevolent influence. Plant the minor bulbs and form colorful major leagues. Gaze upon the future from your present leaf raking and shredding. I find bulbs relish a brief soak beneficial just before planting. After I dunk the bulbs, all smaller than turnips, I also roll them in bone meal much like a candied apple and again, spread toss for random free loving formation. Make an effort to plant in places largely immune from deep tilling. Allow the bulbs to form generations of families. Do plant each year to replace those found by errant squirrels or those who have finished their spell on earth. You will never regret those days in the fall when cold appears on the horizon, Orion’s Belt glows in the night sky and the equinox approaches. We live in the leafy present; learn from the past, happy indeed is the future full of well- nourished minor bulbs. Minor indeed. Small is important too. Many small things become great. 

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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