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Learning to work with a new climate

The gardens I grew up in and near were in southern NJ, on a barrier island where if you dug too deep, you’d hit soggy brimed soil.  The property was one block from the bay, two from the ocean, on the northernmost part of the island which was narrow there compared to most of the island.

Despite that, my maternal grandparents had thriving gardens full of ornamentals as well as food crops, though we didn’t have a lot of tall trees.

It’s been many years since I lived there and helped with their gardens, and over the years as I moved many, many, times, I rarely gardened because I knew I’d be leaving soon enough so it was easy to be lazy about it.

I have forgotten a lot thanks to that laziness.  Planting a few bulbs here and there, and having cherry tomatoes in a pot one year really didn’t help.  It’s frustrating to know you learned something, but can’t recall it and have to relearn it again.  I wonder sometimes what gardening know-how I’ll never get back, as it might have been a lesser common practice, but worked for my grandparents.

One of my goals when we finally made the move to where I wanted to “retire” was to start gardening.  Although I’m still on the eastern side of the US here in Gardner, now I’m in the 5b hardiness zone instead of 7b, a lot higher up than sea level, and most definitely in a landlocked area.  I’ve been reading books and sites for a long while in preparation for this, but since I’ve still done so little practically for so long, I still lack confidence and those deeply seated memories other gardeners have that I envy to bits.  I know both may come in time.

The location here does make some things easier overall than my grandparents’ land, but I’m also still adjusting to the seasonal differences.

We rarely got snow where I grew up, and when we did, we were lucky if it stuck around thanks to the salt air.  One exception was a storm in the late 70s which was a joy to every child in my neighborhood then, because one of our side streets was a dead end, and they piled up all the snow to give us a mound high enough to sled down.  Every other year, when we were lucky to get some snow that stuck over on the mainland, families would pile up in the family car, and drive over the bridges to the mainland to sled down the slope just off the Garden State Parkway exit nearest us.

Last year when the snow finally gave way for real in April, the grounds were such a mess than I barely could even think about planting anything new.  What you don’t see below is both the fire pit where former tenants had burned furniture, as well as all sorts of mechanical related rubbish, including some buried in the woodsy corner you can see below.  At some point, I’ll post about the sheer terror that is finding safety glass in a garden bed, and how we finally started getting it out with slow but meaningful success.  (Yes, we still have more to sift out.)

My beautiful picture
We’re pretty sure there was a swingset here once.

There was too much that had long been neglected with overgrowth added for dire measure, though it seemed evident that at some point, the gardens had been well loved and cared for.  The unknown years of neglect presented us with a much larger challenge than we realized since we had looked at the house only when it was snow covered prior, and of course we moved in when it was still late winter and still lots of snow.

The only new to the gardens plants we managed to get in the ground last year was a few flower transplants from our former apartment here in town (a few celosias and a young patch of day lilies); a high bush blueberry we bought in June; bee balm; some old sunflower seeds it took me too long to find so they went in the ground late and did not do well; and later in fall a pot of coreopsis (Cosmic Eye variety) that easily split into three, and two herbs (lemon thyme, rosemary) which froze to death soon after when I wasn’t watching the weather reports, and we had a surprise night time temperature plummet.

This year, it’s been almost like playing tag with the waves when I was young.  The weather warms up, the snow recedes, and I think I could maybe rake the winter fell oak leaves or finally plant what I meant to in fall.  Then the temperature plummets, the snows return, and like the waves rushing back over the sands, the areas I’d hoped to work on are covered once more.

It’s one of the reasons I’d been planning to build a Walipini when we moved north.  Since I was determined to start a kitchen garden as my grandparents did, and at least knowing enough that the growing season would be shorter, what better way to extend my season than with an underground greenhouse?  (Some call them underground cold houses here–though the ones I’ve seen called that are never near as big nor deep as a Walipini.)

The last few weeks have reminded me of last year as far as the snow’s ebb and flow.  We keep having 50°F days, only for the temperatures to plummet soon after, with flurries or a few feet to temper my thoughts of getting back to work out there.

Today is supposed to reach 61, but will then veer back to the forties with snow predicted for Friday.  We’re also supposed to get a lot of rain today, so I doubt I’ll get anything done despite the temperature.  Thursday will be a reasonable for me outdoor temperature in the 40s range, and sunny.  So my hope is to make another leaf mould bin for those winter strewn oak leaves.

The nights all week are still predicted firmly below freezing, so I’ll likely wait to try to dig for my lily of the valley pips (which are old and were poorly stored for a while, so who knows what might grow?).  Farmer’s Almanac says our last frost should be late April, but I’m still hoping to at least get them in the ground and covered with compost next week if the weather doesn’t swing for the better.

Time will tell.

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