Thomas Christopher | Be-A-Better-Gardener: A gardener's New Year resolutions

This, of course, is the time of year for resolutions. These are notoriously easier to make than to keep, and I'm a prime offender in that respect. Still, I find resolution-making to be a useful process. It helps me take stock of what I have and haven't been doing right, and focus on the challenges of the year to come. Even if I don't succeed in becoming the horticultural paragon envisioned in my New Year resolutions, still they may help me to be a somewhat better gardener in 2018.

- Keep a garden diary. This is a resolution I make every year; it usually goes the way of my resolution to go to the gym three times a week. For several years, when I was caring for a greenhouse, I did manage to keep a daily journal of the seeds I sowed, when I started cuttings of various plants, when I transplanted various crops, and the maximum and minimum temperatures experienced every day, as well as notes about how each type of plant responded to my care. I found such records from past years invaluable when I set out to plan a new year's campaign. Surely, if I kept a similar record of what I did and observed outdoors, that would prove equally useful. I know by now that won't happen. But perhaps if I limit my assignment to keeping a record of my vegetable gardening, of when seeds are sown and when crops ripen, I could succeed with that. I'm going to invest in a pocket diary and keep it next to my gardening knife.

- Work out in the Gym. I've already alluded to my past failures to keep this resolution. Perhaps, though, if I merely resolve to maintain an exercise regime through the six weeks before my outdoor gardening explodes in mid-April, I can keep the resolution. Strengthening my back and stomach muscles after the winter hiatus would quite likely forestall the back spasms I normally experience when I launch into digging and lifting without preparation.

- Control myself when it's time to order seeds for the vegetable garden. Every year, I fall prey to the dreams promulgated by the catalogs and order enough seeds to stock a garden twice the size of my own. Some types of seeds keep their vitality from year to year, but many do not, and I end up throwing those packets into the trash. Given what seeds cost now, that's an expensive, as well as wasteful, habit. The intelligent way to handle this problem would be to make a map on graph paper of my garden and then note down on it what I will plant, in which beds and when. Such a plan would help me keep my planting timely. It would also help me to plan for second crops, such as bush beanS, to deploy when the spring plantings — lettuces and peas, for instance — fade with the summer heat. I could even, if I get to feeling ambitious, insert reminders drawn from the map into that vegetable garden diary I'm resolving to keep. But even if I don't manage more than the map, that should force me to confront the fact that my space is more limited than my dreams and to shop accordingly.

- Plan ahead enough to order trees and shrubs bare-root. Last year I did this and it saved me a good deal of money. I have wanted for a while to plant a little grove of paper birches in my yard, and last winter decided that the spring of 2017 was the time. I immediately ordered bare-root whips 3 to 4 feet tall, which were delivered to me while still dormant, by mail, for $7 apiece. Surely I would have paid several times as much later in spring for container-grown or balled-and-burlapped equivalents. I should add that all of my little birch trees survived transplanting. My experience has been that, over time, bare-root transplants tend to root in better than their container-grown or balled-and-burlapped fellows, so I should be ahead in two ways.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, one of the nation's oldest botanical gardens in Stockbridge. Thomas Christopher is the co-author of "Garden Revolution" (Timber press, 2016) and is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden,


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