Round Robin: Gardening Tips

Notes from regional herb gardeners.

| April/May 1995

Geography lessons

Denver, Colorado—I love the mad rush of spring planting. It’s exhilarating and exhausting. I would garden twenty-four hours a day if I could. A miner’s helmet would make a really dandy present for an obsessive-compulsive gardener like me. I have been known to run extension cords out and plant by spotlight, but neighbors find this disturbing. My night planting must look like some weird cult ritual.

At least I keep my clothes on. In days past, some farmers used to sit down naked in their fields in spring. If they felt comfortable, it was time to plant. If they got too cold and wet, they knew that seed would rot. We’ve made some technological advances since those days.

Even though I’ve been making plans all winter on paper, only so much can be planned. The spontaneity of spring planting is intoxicating. I’m juggling hundreds of facts in my head, preparing for height and spread of new plants as well as weighing the aesthetic consequences of situating plants. The biggest consideration is what conditions a new plant needs. Do I give it full sun or a degree of shade? Can it fry, or does it need plenty of water? Does it need humus-enriched soil, or would it do better in unamended soil? It’s much easier if I’ve done my homework.

I learned that from Sister Josephine in fourth grade. I owe much of my gardening success to her because she made me love geography. It’s an immense help to know where a plant comes from. I set out the Mexican plants late (they stunt in cool weather) and give them plenty of sun and water. The Mediterranean plants bake in lean, well-drained soil. Most English natives need some protection from the blistering Colorado sun. The more I know about a plant’s native habitat, the better my chances of making it at home in my garden.

Not long ago, I saw a story in the news about how American students’ skills in geography compared to those in other countries. A small but alarming percentage of American kids could not identify the United States on a world map. They had even more trouble with Portugal and Greece. It’s too bad that they didn’t have Sister Josephine. Her freshly mimeographed maps had a magical sweet fragrance (which modern copiers lack), and I’d label and color the countries carefully because neatness did count. I especially liked doing topographic studies with blue for mountains, green for plains, and yellow for deserts. I had no idea that geography would come in so handy.

Most of us could use a refresher course in geography. Our plants come to our gardens from around the world, but it seems that some of us were daydreaming during geography. After I gave a talk in Virginia last October, a woman, discouraged by the state of her garden, said to me, “You grow so many interesting plants. You must not have cold winters like we do.” I didn’t know quite what to say. According to the USDA plant hardiness map, which is based on average minimum temperatures, Denver is in Zone 5. Most of Virginia is in Zone 7. I tried to explain that it’s not the severity of winter that makes or breaks a garden; it’s growing plants that will prosper under your conditions and taking extra steps to ensure that plants from radically different climates will have a chance.

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