Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Short List: Three New Year’s Garden Resolutions

By Ron Sullivan
Friday December 29, 2006

Yes, there are New Year’s resolutions for gardeners. We’re prone to every other bad habit known to humanity; why not resolutions we know perfectly well we’re not going to keep for more than a month or two? 

Number One sounds easy: I will not work on my garden or tread on its soil until it dries up a bit after any serious rain.  

Those of us who’ve managed to arrange beds with paths so well laid-out that one can reach everything without getting muddy, well, those get a break on this. Takes a long reach or lots of ground to spare, in my experience, but it’s a good idea.  

However industrious we are, our clay soils need a break from being stepped on when they’re soggy. Walking on the bed that you spent last fall fluffing up with amendments and a spading fork will wipe out your work in minutes. Time to put your feet up, not down.  

Number Two relates to mud too: I will mulch mulch mulch, and I’ll get a move on about it.  

Leaves are still falling; tree crews are still chipping; the garden store’s still selling bags of ground-up assorted stuff. (But avoid the cypress mulch, please. That industry’s wreaking hell on the beautiful, irreplaceable, and protective wetlands of the Southeast.) Rain falling on bare soil actually compacts it, which is exactly what we don’t need here.  

If you’re growing dryland natives or desert plants and don’t want to add fertility (and are lucky enough to have soil that doesn’t need repair and rehabilitation) you can mulch with gravel or rock. That will keep down the dust and mud, and good-sized-rock mulch will give the squirrels pause when they cast covetous eyes on your calochortus bulbs.  

Just keep the mulch pulled a few inches back from the bases of your woody plants—ceanothus, manzanita, oaks—because they usually resent living in turtlenecks. You can push your microclimate boundaries a bit, too, with sun-reflecting pale or heat-absorbing and—retaining dark colors. It’s worth an experiment. Out of kindness to your neighbors, just avoid those blinding white “marble” chips. 

Number Three’s where I start losing my resolve: I will limit my purchases to plants that will actually fit in my garden, and that includes how big they’ll be in five years.  

Someone gives me a pack of seeds or a ginger pup and I have to give those room. Some new heuchera shows up in the nursery and how can I live without that intriguing combination of burgundy and silver? Joe wins a door prize and it’ll be absolutely perfect if we can build up a little drainage for it. And that waning houseplant turns out to need only a change of scenery and suddenly we have a new look out there.  

Well, something else is bound to die and leave room. Or I can subdivide something and pass my “problems” along. What goes around comes around, whether it’s pass-along plants or a tired old tradition like this.