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5 Universal Truths of Gardening

About a year and a half ago, my brother and I bought a small home on an acre lot on the Caribbean island of Montserrat.  Our parents had once had a home there, as did my brother.  We thought the time was right to buy a home that might serve as a retirement home, or at least a place to visit as we are able.  It’s been like an HGTV show, with discoveries of unexpected repairs and unanticipated decorating touches by my wife, Carolyn.  (As my coworkers can attest, I am clueless when it comes to colors and design and other subtle nuances of decorating.  And, they downright laugh at the idea of me tackling projects with a screwdriver in one hand and…a screwdriver in the other.  Of course I know that one is to tighten and one is to loosen.  I know SOMETHING about repairs, don’t sell me short!!)

Rainstorm Over Sea
Montserrat Volcano

We did some planting of tropicals in the yard in January, and returned a few days ago, after the driest spring in 80 years, I am told.  This has led me to some thoughts about “universal truths of gardening.”

Plum Rose before drought
Plum Rose Today

1) If a plant is at a home, and has been for a long time, and it looks good, it is probably going to survive a hot/dry spell, if not thrive.  Alternating wet and dry seasons are typical of the tropics, and plants often adapt by shedding leaves during droughts.  Many of the big mahogany trees have shed leaves, and we can see things we couldn’t before.  And I know they will leaf out.  There is one big weeping fig on the property, not native, and actually considered invasive.  You know how they shed leaves in your home at the drop of a hat? Well, this is the happiest plant on the block; it takes it bone dry with no complaints.

Banana before it wandered off

2) Plants evolve over time.  We planted a dozen banana trees in a lower corner, and they seem to have grown feet and walked away, I suspect, as the first representatives of the new species of Walking Banana.  If Darwin were only here.

3) Gardens do best when the gardener is present.  Even with the best of intentions, other people don’t quite do things the way you would.  It’s the frequent walking of the garden, observing, and puttering that makes a garden function and gives you ownership.  You discover insect problems before they get out of control, for example. (Hey—you, with the brown spots on your evergreens back there in Maryland?  Look close, you probably have bagworms.  If you spent more time in the yard and less at the computer, you would be a happier person.)  The half dozen gingers I planted in January seem to have gotten smaller rather than bigger.  Would they be thriving had I been here?  Maybe not, but I would have realized something was wrong, and maybe moved them. Or maybe put up a protective fence, because…

Baby Goat Eating a Shrub

4) Something always wants to eat your garden. Deer and rabbits at home?  Here we have flocks of sheep and goats.  Not only do they love the plants in the garden, but they are noisy at night, unlike deer, which are stealthy. There are about ten sheep of various ages, and they “baaah” from base to soprano.  My brother, who is gifted with age-related hardness of hearing, thinks there is a church service going on somewhere.

I hasten to add that these are not our animals, but they live in the neighborhood and sometimes just drop in.  Last night I heard them in the lower yard and went out with a flashlight, and they all came up to me baa-ing like I was Larry Bo Peep.

5) If you don’t write it down or label things, you’ll eventually forget what you have.  This accelerates with age, when you can remember all the words to some songs you wish you could forget, but not names. If you really enjoy gardening, at some point you will want to know what variety of azalea you planted in “Spot A” ten years ago, because your new neighbor likes it. Or, let’s say you just spent the morning looking for survey markers that you were going to mark in some obvious fashion the last time you were here because they are below grade, and now the holes have started to fill in.  You just forget stuff.

Gray ash garden beds

6) It usually helps to incorporate organic matter (e.g., compost) into your soil. It helps retain nutrients and water in sandy soils, and it helps to flocculate clay particles in clay soils and allows them to drain better. (Takes clay particles and causes them to clump together, thus forming larger air spaces between clumps,which in turn drain water faster.)  Where our place is, the top 6 inches to two feet of soil is very recently deposited volcanic ash, which is like powder.  Organic matter really helps retain moisture. Not adding OM may have been the issue with the gingers mentioned in #2. I may be blaming the sheep for something I should have done, but, they’re sheep.

So there are some perhaps “universal truths” about gardening; hope you agree. I threw in one extra, just in case.

From the Montserrat Desk of Behnke Nurseries, Larry Hurley, Behnke Horticulturist

Know anyone who would like to stay in a beautiful villa in Montserrat for a vacation? Here is a short description of Larry Hurley’s rental property….

Located on one acre in the Old Town section of Montserrat, this peaceful Montserrat villa holiday rental has an open concept living/dining room, den, full kitchen, two bedrooms, and two bathrooms.  A covered deck leads to a swimming pool.  There is cable TV and  wireless internet access.  Laundry facilities are located on the lower level. 

Find out more on Larry Hurley’s website: Montserrat Villa Holiday Rental. For more pictures and contact information you can visit Moonshadow Villa Holiday Rental on facebook.

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Just wanted to say I enjoyed this article. It was written with your usual combination of wit and wisdom. I also learned a new word: flocculate. I am going to use it in a sentence today to impress a librarian (not easy). Congrats on the Montserrat acquisition!

    XO Lori

  2. Hi there, just found this article by googling, “truth about gardening.” Everything you wrote is correct – especially about being present in your garden. We have a cabin up in Maine and I tried to plant garlic there last fall; we just went to see it last weekend. It is growing well but the weeds are taller than me. Same with fruit trees we planted there this spring. Here in NH, we have deer like you read about eating every single hosta I own, and a fat, plump rabbit eating all my beet greens. Evades all methods of capture. One of the hardest truths I’m discovering about gardening is that you can’t save everything. Plants you put in and prayed they would take, 10 years later are now an invasive PIA that you have to rip out and throw away. (Mayapples and mint).
    Anyway, just wanted to say I went to Montserrat in 1988, before the last eruption, and remember hiking into the volcano. Amazing island! Did not want to come home. Good luck out there.

    1. “Like you read about” , that was a phrase that we used a lot in my college days in the late 60’s. Haven’t heard that in a long time, brought a smile. Found three deer in my fenced back yard yesterday afternoon [that was a first, usually they sneak in at night like muggers], turning the hostas into mere stalks. Egged on, no doubt, by the rabbits.

      Mayapple and mint, they certainly can be successful to the point of trying one’s patience. Especially mint, which will easily grow out of the bottom of a pot and establish itself in the ground if there is ground contact.

      Glad you enjoyed your trip to Montserrat–it is still a very cool place for independent travelers to visit, it’s just that there are different things to see since the volcano changed the landscape. You can take challenging and beautiful hikes in the rain forest (with a guide, for a quite reasonable fee), and never see a mosquito (unlike Maryland or New Hampshire), and there are now tours down into the buried capital city of Plymouth. You can rent a house for a week or two, with a pool and great views for a very reasonable rate (disclaimer: I have one of those myself.). Nice beaches, and you might be the only person there.

      I hope you’ve had a good gardening season in New Hampshire. In Maryland we went from drought to more rain than we know what to do with, in other words, a typical atypical growing season. That’s what makes gardening so much fun–you never know what to expect!

      Larry Hurley

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