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Down to Earth | Confessions of a gardener

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By Cynthia Olsen

OK, I’m going to tell you the truth. I’ve made mistakes — a lot of them. As gardeners we tend to boast and show off our largest tomatoes and most gorgeous blooms, but we rarely discuss our foibles and foul-ups, out of embarrassment.

I come by gardening naturally. Growing up, my folks always had a garden. Once settled in Madison County, Ohio, the four kids were expected to tend the quarter-acre vegetable garden, small orchard and critters. It’s where you learned that you must wear long sleeves when baling hay, even on the hottest days. Never turn your back on an angry rooster — that’s a whole other story. Reconsider planting Jerusalem artichokes, unless you really want them everywhere.

I started landscaping and tending a vegetable patch on the south end of the village 25 years ago.

The topsoil had been scraped off, and restoration has been a long process. I’ve gathered every leaf and organic scrap available for compost and have returned it to the hard, clay-bound ground, while retrieving buckets of stones along the way. The first mistake I made was thinking that rototilling would help by putting that organic material into the ground. Maybe it did, but I never saw much improvement over the years. Water still sat on top, and the earth remained compact. I was going about this all wrong. I was breaking up the delicate micro-rhizomes year after year and making a mess of things. Then I switched to raised beds with wood mulch on the ground and saw a turn-around. Better drainage, better productivity, healthier plants and much easier work.

I also compiled a list: “Plants I wish I had never planted.” We could probably make a lot of lists like this that would be far more interesting. “People I wish I had never dated,” “Parties I wish I had never gone to.” “Movies I wish I had never seen …” Yes, this would be great dinner conversation.

But back to the plants. I wish I had never planted yucca (Y. filamentosa) that shrubby, evergreen perennial better suited for the arid lands of America. Their leaves are like metal blades, ready to take out an eye. I started with one and ended up with a dozen that won’t go away.

Just when I think the lamb’s-ear (Stachys byzantina) is gone, little plants emerge in the most unlikely places. This wooly flowering mint from Central Asia has found a home in U.S. nurseries because it takes hold in gardens rapidly and is just cute. Why wouldn’t something fuzzy with a name like “lamb’s-ear” be cute? If it was “sheep’s-ear” or “goat’s-ear,” it’d be less cute and might not sell as well. Though not listed as invasive, this plant is favored by new home owners because it handles poor soil and direct sun, needs little watering, and doesn’t require pruning; but behold, it will jump its garden borders and end up all over your yard and your neighbor’s yard.

Bugleweed has taken up too much space for other precious planting. Rose of Sharon has crowded the driveway and makes unwanted saplings. The barberry is pokey and the bunnies can’t hide in it, so what is it good for? One year I planted 18 Swiss chard plants; what the heck was I thinking? I even tried to make chard chips, like kale chips. They were terrible.

But here is what works, and I hope to write more about that. Just plant! Make blooms that pollinators like. I am at it everyday and have changed what I do time and time again, and have kept a gardening journal since 1997 detailing what works and what went wrong. Blooms are food — if not for me in the end as vegetables, they can be for a bee or another insect or a bird, and that’s OK. So I plant as much as possible. I’ve looked for excess dirt along the borders of the property and planted buckwheat and Hubam sweet clover. I’ve learned to plant more native plants and stay away from the fast-growing, showy ornamentals unless I stick them in a pot for the deck.

I put up lots of bird houses, at least six feet high — if you build it they will come. And I offer water to nature because who doesn’t need a good drink and bath once in a while?

In the words of the great local poet and philosopher Robert Paschell, “Loam was not built in a day.”

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