Hello and welcome to Attack of the Killer Thumbs!
Hello, my loves! November has arrived! Autumn is coasting inexorably into winter, although we’ve had a few surprisingly warm stretches to soften the blow. We’re kicking through leaf piles on sidewalks! We’re enduring nonsensical mandated clock adjustments! We’re wrapping ourselves in the golden light of unseasonably warm fall afternoons and trying not to think too much about what they mean! We’re celebrating family, biological or chosen, and wondering how to reconcile Thanksgiving’s horrifying origins with the necessity of taking whatever scraps of leisure time late-stage Capitalism still allows us! We’re explaining to grandma why cousin Terry isn’t invited to family holidays anymore!
Seasonal vibe check
Regardless of dodgy holidays with horrific pasts, autumn is for FEASTING. In and out of the garden, babes, this is a season of indulgence and coziness. We haven’t yet had a hard frost — although one is coming soon — and my garden is still doggedly churning out tomatoes and squash and green beans. Milk everything you can out of those veg beds! Don’t throw the towel in until nature does it for you! And it’s not too late to take advantage of this unseasonal warmth to start some winter crops, especially if you have the means to protect them from frosts. (Frost fabric is super cheap and makes a huge difference. And you can 100% DIY a frame with hardware store stuff if you’re clever. Word to the wise, though: buy twice as many metal clips as you think you’ll need to keep the fabric in place.)
I know it’s a Law of Suburban Dads that leaves must be raked and bagged by sullen teens in order to build character, but — color me shocked — dad was wrong about this one. Leave those leaves in the yard! They’ll rot away just fine, and your soil will thank you for all the nutrients they provide. Mulch them, compost them, run the mower over them to break them up, whatever. Plus, fallen leaves provide all kinds of beneficial habitat for insects and other yard friends. Fireflies reproduce under leaf litter, and suburban dads love fireflies. If you can’t bear to leave the leaves everywhere, try picking a few out-of-sight corners to let nature do her thing.
As the sun shifts closer to the winter solstice, a reminder to go around and check on all your houseplants — depending on the orientation of your house, stuff that thrived in that window by your desk might get roasted now that winter is coming, or vice versa!
Finally, it is BULB SEASON. Bulb! Season! Time to plant your daffodils, your tulips, your alliums! Crocuses and snowdrops! Ranunculuses and peonies! It’s one of the nicest little treats you can give yourself now that will pay off big time in spring, especially those early bloomers — just when the winter sads are really getting vicious, there’s nothing like stepping out on a nasty February day and realizing there’s life stirring in the garden.
Your quandaries, conundrums, queries, and cares
What actually are the differences between growing flowers and produce?
Flowers are such Scorpios, am I right?
Okay, fine. That is not a real answer. But this is simultaneously a very broad, unwieldy question, and kind of an “I feel like the answer is going to be dumb and obvious and boring” question. So here goes!
For the first few years that I was gardening on my own — first on balconies and porches and then, later, in rented back yards — I was almost religiously zealous about only growing stuff I could eat. Money was tight, space was at a premium, and I felt like I couldn’t justify growing anything that didn’t “earn” its keep. And it was fine, I guess, but it was also kind of joyless. I was coming down on myself really hard for “failing” when things went wrong, or when plants weren’t as prolific as I’d hoped, or when they out-and-out died. I had trouble attracting pollinators. I got my shit wrecked by pests. It all started to feel a lot like work, and not in the good way. More in the “middle manager breathing down your neck for failing to meet deadlines” way.
And then I impulse-bought a rosebush at a hardware store. Had I been day-drinking before going to the hardware store? Mayyyyyyyyybe. (Don’t worry, I wasn’t driving.) Did I have anywhere to put a rosebush? Absolutely not. Was it the most exciting thing I’d done so far that summer? 100%. Did I eventually accidentally kill the rosebush? Also 100%.
But! The rose (RIP) brought a little of the joie de vivre back to my gardening. I had a thing that was just pretty, that didn’t serve any real purpose besides looking nice. It did help attract pollinators, which was great. Mostly, though, it took the pressure off. And it reminded me that produce is rad, and growing food is extra rad, but plants are also just … nice. For their own sake. And this is an important thing to remember! You’ll hardly ever swear at your flowers as much as you do at your vegetables. It’s okay to do things for pleasure, not practicality. Especially in the garden.
I can hear you, though, as loudly as if you were shouting at me from behind my vegetable beds: I wanted actionable advice, dammit, not your EMOTIONS. And that’s fair.
To really dig in (suburban dads, that one’s for you) to what separates ornamental from productive gardening, I find it easier to think in terms of annuals, perennials, and sun requirements. Reminder: annuals live and die in a single season; perennials come back every year and may outlive us all and feast on our corpses in the end times.
The majority of your standard, everyday vegetables are annuals. They live fast, die young, and leave behind an edible corpse reproductive organ. Most fruit, and many herbs, are perennials. In the garden, the difference between a bed of zinnias and a bed of tomatoes is fairly negligible, although they have slightly different appetites for acidity and fertilizer. A fruit-producing shrub and an ornamental shrub will have pretty similar footprints.
There’s one very straightforward differentiation between Stuff We Eat and Stuff We Don’t that I’ll knock out quickly: producing fruit & veg takes a lot of energy, and a lot of water. As a result, most food-producing plants require a lot of sun and irrigation to be viable. It’s much easier to find shade- or drought-friendly ornamentals than shade- or drought-friendly edibles. But that isn’t a completely hard-and-fast rule, and it’s also pretty well out of your control. Especially in urban and suburban environments, most of us have sun or we don’t, and few of us are going to make massive changes to our living situations in order to install a vegetable bed.
The most meaningful difference that is in your control, then, is how annual and perennial beds are laid out and maintained. Beds meant to be cycled out season to season have different needs and different design considerations than sections of the garden whose occupants are not only permanent, but grow more slowly.
Annual beds are at their best when they’re:
1) Clearly defined, and confined, with some kind of physical barrier setting them off from grass and weeds. It’s much more difficult to keep weeds at bay when you have a lot of small, fast-growing plants. As plants cycle through the seasons, the soil is repeatedly disturbed and exposed to sunlight; you can mulch as much as you like, but the mulch will, by necessity, be shifted every time you put in new seedlings or clear out old plants. This means annual beds will always, always require more maintenance and weeding than perennial beds. This is why raised beds are ideal for annuals; the height and physical separation make them easier to weed, and help keep creeping weeds from spreading.
2) No wider than a comfortable arm’s length. Weeding is one of those tasks you want to make as frictionless as possible, or — from experience — you’ll put it off until your cucumbers have been physically consumed by crabgrass. And annuals are more sensitive to root damage from soil compression, because they don’t form the vast and hardy root networks that perennials do; there simply isn’t time. You don’t want to be physically climbing into the beds to pull weeds, cut flowers, harvest produce, or prune dead/diseased foliage. A good annual bed should always be narrow enough for you to comfortably reach everything inside of it.
3) Filled with rich, moisture-retaining soil with a high organic content and plenty of available nutrients. This goes back to the “live fast, die young” thing — annuals grow quickly, and they’re hungry. They have a finite amount of time to hit that growth spurt and show up their middle-school bullies, and you need to make sure they’re set up for success. Again, annuals don’t have the time to create the sort of broad, deep, resilient root systems that perennials do; they dry out more quickly, and once they’ve used all the nutrients in the top layers of soil, they can’t access what’s hiding farther down. This is yet another reason why raised beds work so well; even if the soil in your yard sucks, you can build on top of it or use store-bought soil mixes in a finite, easily-contained area.
4) Mostly, or entirely, composed of other annuals. This might seem like a real “duh” thing to mention, but if you’re going to do a bunch of annuals — like, enough to produce a crop, whether it’s flowers for cutting or lettuces for eating — keep them together! You’re going to be disturbing the soil regularly as you rotate your crops, and you don’t want to be tearing up the root system of some perfectly happy plant when you do. Plus, you can maximize your space (and budget) by taking advantage of perennial plants’ relatively chiller needs and keeping that fancy, purpose-built annuals bed for the plants that really need it.
Perennial beds are best when they’re:
1) Playing the long game. If your annuals are living fast and dying young, your perennials are Gandalf, smoking a pipe on a sunlit wagon, surveying the wide world with both amusement and foreboding. They are survivors. They have seen some shit. And they are patient. Perennial beds, by extension, are spaces you develop over time. It takes years for a tree or shrub to reach maturity. You have to maintain the balance between leaving enough space for its final, mature form and coping with the big ol’ gaps you have because your fifteen-foot tree is currently three feet tall. It’s a process, not an event. Where an annual bed can be slapped together in a weekend, it can take about three years for a perennial bed to look like much of anything. The good news is that perennial beds require less maintenance as time passes; they’re a bitch to establish, yes, but as the years go by and the plants mature, you’ll need to weed less and feed less as the root systems dig deeper, weeds are outcompeted/have less of a foothold, and your soil becomes a healthy, sustainable biome.
2) Full of variety. Unlike those annual beds, it can be useful to mix annuals and perennials together in perennial beds. Shallow-rooted, single-season plants are a great way to fill in space around maturing shrubs and trees, or to buy time while you figure out whether a particular perennial is worth planting again. This is especially useful if you’re not sure what will thrive in your space! If you want to experiment with lavender, for example, you don’t want to go all-in on half a dozen plants only to discover that they hate your soil. Start with one experimental perennial, surround it with cheap and easy annuals, and if it thrives, great! Go buy more! With annuals, you’re modifying the environment to suit the plant; with perennials, you’re better off modifying the plants to suit the environment. Find out what succeeds and go from there.
Perennial beds also, generally, want different kinds of plants — different heights, colors, textures, and growth habits — both for aesthetic and practical reasons. You want a mixture of trees, shrubs, bulbs, tender perennials, woody perennials, and everything in-between. This encourages the garden to become a healthy, cooperative organism, attracting a variety of beneficial insects and, hopefully, not harboring too many of the same pests or diseases.
3) Dug once, but dug deep. One of the most important steps, if you’re starting from absolute scratch, is to dig the ever-living hell out of your bed. Make your neighbors think you’re burying bodies. (This doubles as a handy way to discourage them from getting all up in your business.) Dig down at least a foot and — look, I know it sucks, but it’s so worth it while you have a big blank space to work with — pick through the soil, by hand, and remove all the rocks, random garbage, undiscovered corpses, and every root you can find. Yes, even the little teensy-tiny roots. Then rake it and pick through it again. Amend the soil, especially if it’s clay, with lots of compost and maybe some screened topsoil, for aeration.
After you’ve dug and planted the bed, try to disturb that soil as little as possible. You’re building a biome here, and the best way to do that is top-down. Mulch heavily, avoid tilling or turning the soil, and let those root networks get established. (REMINDER: HAVE YOUR UTILITIES MARKED BEFORE DIGGING, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.)
I realize this is not quite the question you asked. You can have perennial beds full of edible things — fruit trees, perennial greens, asparagus, berry bushes, herbs — and you can have annual beds full of things you can’t eat. And all plants have their own particular preferences in terms of nutrients, soil acidity, sun, and water. But in terms of planning, building, and maintaining your garden, these are the delineations I think are most helpful — and most likely to set you up for success.
Well. That and remembering that vegetables are, like, total Virgos. Can’t tell them anything.
What I’m pondering in the garden this week
Y’all, I don’t think it’s going to be news to any of you that — while this isn’t the place to get into why — it’s looking like the coming year is going to be kinda rough, economically. Or maybe really rough. I don’t know, I am not a math guy. Or a budgeting guy. Or an economics guy. But I am a guy who pays attention to other, smarter guys, and it looks like stuff’s about to get wibbly.
Why am I, a purveyor of bad jokes and middling garden advice, talking about the economy? Because, if the economy is about to go to shit, we will probably see an increase in two things:
First, the general public will broadly become more interested in gardening. That’s what usually happens when stuff goes sideways; it’s a reasonably cheap hobby, it produces stuff you can eat, and it provides that ever-important illusion of control in the face of uncertainty. See? I’m doing something! I am the master of my own destiny! I created life! LIFE, I TELL YOU!
Second — inevitably, as if they can scent opportunity on the wind — there will be an uptick in survivalist grifters. Specifically, the kind of grifters who are shilling a romanticized, impossible, emphatically white-supremacist vision of “returning to the land” and “self-sufficiency.”
This “back to the land” stuff can be so seductive. It can feel like common sense. Remember when things used to be less complicated? Remember when food was food? Remember grammy and pappy, back on the farm? They knew what life was supposed to be like, right? It doesn’t matter if you, personally, didn’t have a grammy and pappy on a farm; you have the cultural memory of someone’s grammy and pappy, and man, it’s an appealing vision.
The problem is that “self-sufficiency” is a myth. I’ve said it before: even with land, you can’t possibly grow and make everything you need to survive. To even come close requires an enormous investment in capital, and specialized knowledge, and the kind of nuance that comes with years of experience. And even then, it’s impossible to get by without a community. Or, you know, a society. Broken as late-stage capitalism might be, that’s why we have societies. To spread the work of survival.
But, of course, it’s exhausting to be part of a society, sometimes. Part of a culture. Part of a world. Other people are complicated, and frustrating, and sometimes shitty. And in times of tumult, people will come crawling out of the woodwork to tell you that you don’t, in fact, need a society at all. They’ll show you carefully curated images of beautiful landscapes and happy children and hard-working men and tell you how easy it is to step away, to wall yourself off with so many miles of cattle fencing and “no trespassing” signs, to build your own little eden away from the corruption of modern life. And then, once you’re listening, once you’re lulled into the sense that maybe they really do have all of this figured out, well — they’ll have some other ideas they’d love to tell you about, if you’ll only be kind enough to listen. They’re not telling you how to think, of course. They’re just telling you how the world looks to them. And they have some great reading material for you, too, actually — and a couple videos you might want to watch, while you’re at it.
Selling people the myth of self-sufficiency is a great way to steer attention away from the dissolution of the society they need to survive. And it’s an even better way to mask the damage of cutting away the social safety net. You don’t need other people, you just need a happy nuclear family and a horde of blonde children to help you do the farm chores! And in an internet fame economy, all they need to sell you is an idea. The illusion that there’s a better way — a simpler way — if only you’ll give them your clicks, or your loyalty, or if you’ll just subscribe to their Patreon (only five dollars a month!).
And, of course, there are plenty of people who have chosen rural, agricultural lifestyles, and who are sharing those lifestyles online, who aren’t necessarily grifters. I follow a lot of very cool people who are doing cool things and trying to reduce their participation in our very broken systems of consumption! But, as much as I wish it weren’t like this, it’s as important to read between the lines of gardening and agriculture content as it is anything else. Anyone telling you how easy it is to live off the land is lying to you, and if they’re putting in the work to sell that lie, there’s a reason for it.
I am NOT saying “listen only to me,” because I’m one of God’s Perfect Idiots, and I am barely keeping my own life together. But there are lots of people out there who are thrilled to be listened to. They want your attention, and they want to use it to coax you into thinking about the world in a certain way. If anyone is telling you that you don’t need society — that you can step away from your communities and support networks and yes, your struggles too, if you’ll only listen to them — that should always worry you. It worries me.
You might already know all of this. You might already be well aware of the shittiest corners of the internet, and well-versed in all the endless varieties of dog whistle the people in those corners have perfected. But what about your friends? Your parents? Your weird-but-harmless cousin who actually has a pretty big yard and has vaguely mentioned an interest in gardening?
When things get hard, people cast around for solutions. People take up new hobbies — and yes, they get interested in gardens, and permaculture, because they can save you money, and even if they don’t, they’re hobbies that don’t require leaving the house and can be undertaken with pretty minimal supplies. But thanks to the cesspool of the internet, it can be a weirdly short path from “here’s how to harvest rainwater” to “here are fifty reasons why [minority] is coming for your [basic privilege] and only helping me fund my off-grid paramilitary compound will save you.”
So, keep a weather eye out. Call it out when you see it. Make sure the people you give your attention and time to pass the sniff test. Are they admitting how difficult their lifestyle can be? Are they telling you to build and invest in your community and your social circles, instead of cutting them off to focus on yourself? Are they engaging with systemic failures in a way that seeks to improve the world around them, rather than waiting — even hoping — for that world to come to an end?
In times of crisis, we need each other. We keep each other safe. By sharing knowledge and swapping seeds. Starting goofy little gardening clubs and asking each other for advice. Volunteering at community gardens. Dropping by our friend’s houses to help out. Reminding each other that squash bugs aren’t a sign of personal failure. We need to remember that the work of survival is shared — and then we need to do the work to share it.
I’m thinking of you, my loves. Thank you for hanging with me every month. Keep each other warm when the winter weather does come, and I’ll be dreaming, with you, of spring.
Got a plant question you’d like answered here? Spent the afternoon making houseplant memes and none of your friends are finding them as funny as you hoped? Send queries, conundrums and inside jokes to Grace on Twitter @MissHelleborus, on Instagram, also @MissHelleborus, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top Photo: “Goodbye cruel world! Goodbye, life! Good-byeeeeeeee!” — My tomatoes, at the end of this week, doing their best Winifred Sanderson impression. Photo by Grace Todd.