Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: Garden reflections for 2021

  • The 2022 garden calendar produced by the UMass Extension Landscape, Nursery and Urbran Forestry Program is available now.

Monday, December 13, 2021

When a gardening friend recently told me that she was “sadly watching the seasonal demise” of her garden, I began to examine my own feelings about this time of year.

I’m not a big fan of ice and snow. But I confess, I’m not particularly sad about the dying back of my garden. I enjoy the moment when I’ve finished outdoor chores (mostly) and put away trowels, weeders and pruners. I need a rest, and the plants do, too.

Looking back on my year in the garden, I can say we had a pretty good go. We were blessed with enough rain that I didn’t have to constantly drag hoses around to keep everything alive. Some of my plants put on a meh show, including a seemingly thriving oakleaf hydrangea that had only a handful of blossoms. My one rose, a stately Grandiflora “Queen Elizabeth,” produced lovely pink flowers until a horde of hungry insects chewed it bare around Labor Day. But I had several return delphiniums — score! — and my aconitum (monk’s hood) was truly spectacular, topped with luscious, deep lavender blooms that seemed fuller and more vivid than ever before.

The fall was unusually mild this year, allowing flowers to continue blooming for weeks longer than usual. Although it was nice to see hardy geraniums brighten the border that’s usually slumbering by mid-November, I was dismayed at the sight of snowdrops pushing up out of the soil and forsythia swelling with yellow buds. I hope that the unseasonably warm weather hasn’t ruined these harbingers of spring we will be hungry for next year.

Which brings me back to the seasonality of gardening. Garden writers often organize their books by the month. For people who garden (as opposed to those who simply enjoy looking at gardens), it’s how we think.

One of my favorite such gardening books is “The Countryman’s Year,” written in 1936 by Ray Stannard Baker, a brilliant author and journalist who wrote under the name David Grayson. Baker eventually settled in Amherst on several acres on Sunset Avenue where he raised bees, fruit trees, flowers and vegetables. (His house was cannibalized by a UMass fraternity sometime in the 1980s, but that’s another story.)

“The Countryman’s Year” is not exactly a gardening book, but rather a year of journal entries chronicling his beekeeping and gardening, punctuated with astute observations about life and the state of the world. His entry for Dec. 13 begins: “A surprising fall: no really cold weather and the days crisp, sunny, delightful. All the countryside is full of the sounds and sights of thrifty farm activities which the mild weather so gloriously invites. If a farmer or gardener can go into the winter with his ‘fall work’ well out of the way he feels comfortable indeed.”

Another of my favorite month-by-month gardening books is about as far as you could get from Grayson’s thoughtful meditation on his year in the garden. Martha Stewart’s “Gardening” is a guilty pleasure. It came out in 1991, the year after she launched her celebrated magazine, Martha Stewart Living. The book is eye candy, packed with recipes and lavish color photos of flowers, vegetables, rustic hand tools, Easter baskets and holiday wreaths — all the accoutrements of the Martha Stewart lifestyle.

As I leafed through the book recently, I noticed a photo of Martha effortlessly wielding a long pole saw. The caption reads, “With the correct equipment, I can prune most of the orchards myself; hard work, but I remind myself that it is excellent upper-body exercise.”

So Martha! Her book is hard to beat on a snowy winter day when you’re dreaming about the perfect garden you’ll have next year.

As I finish up my “fall work,” I cheer the arrival of the garden calendar published by the Landscape, Nursery and Urban Forestry Program Service of the UMass Extension. Every month provides a gorgeous color photograph and every day offers a piece of advice or information on a wide variety of topics including vegetable and flower gardens, lawns, trees, birds and bees. The calendar also gives daily times of sunrise and sunset as well as the phases of the moon, keeping us in touch with the planet’s rhythms no matter how inclement the weather.

Like Grayson’s and Stewart’s books, the calendar reminds me that every month of the year is significant in the life of the gardener.

Even when we’re not planting or weeding, we’re feeding birds, perusing seed catalogs and planning for the next growing season. The calendar is a perfect holiday gift for the gardeners in our lives. If you’re like me and abide by the “one for her, one for me” rule of holiday shopping, consider throwing an extra calendar into the shopping basket for yourself. I promise it will enhance your gardening year, day by day and month by month.

Ordering information is available at umassgardencalendar.org. The calendar is available at Hadley Garden Center in Hadley and Broadside Bookshop in Northampton.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.