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A Neglected Garden Fares Better than Expected

Submitted by: Carolee James

When I thought of the topic for this article, I was going to write about refurbishing or renewing my neglected garden.

I really hadn´t taken a good look at the garden and when I did, I was surprised at how well it had survived in spite of my neglect. I realized that all my efforts in planting natives over the last six years have really paid off.

After reviewing my garden journal I found that in 2007 I spent seven days total working in my garden! I knew that I had not been in the garden much, but had no idea it was so few days. In those seven days, between January and May, I planted several native plants and repotted (with my husband´s help) my collection of Japanese maples. That´s it! No further planting, no mulching, no pruning and no weeding! What hand watering needed to be done was handled by my husband.

Why you may ask would I not attend to the basic needs of my plants? It was not by choice, I can assure you. Illness early in the year, a very painful shoulder due to osteoarthritis, and then the extreme heat in the summer kept me from not only enjoying my garden, but also working in it. In October I had shoulder replacement surgery and now, three months later, I am pain free, healthy and ready to go work in the garden!

Although we live on three acres, I don´t have a true front or back yard, but rather a series of garden areas, each defined by their orientation to the sun and the amount of shade they receive. As I walked around the garden in December, it appeared that every garden bed needed some attention, a few more so than others, but not the massive overhaul I was expecting to find.

The native plants on the driveway hill, which is the largest of all the garden areas, survived the brutal summer heat and the lack of regular water unbelievably well. The natives include; Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), sages (Salvia clevelandii, Salvia ‘Bee´s Bliss´), Sugar bush (Rhus ovata), penstemons, Sticky Monkeyflowers (Mimulus), Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis), and Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis), to name a few. There are also some Mediterranean plants such as germander (Teucreum) and lavender and rosemary, both horizontal and upright species. Although my husband has installed a drip system with micro sprayers to this area it has yet to be placed on timers. In order to make use of the drip system one must connect the hose to one of three zones. Since watering early in the morning is best, there were days I just could not, or forgot to, go out and hook up the hose. Consequently the hill received water probably once every two weeks, if even that often. And the native and Mediterranean plants came through like the champs they are. Better than I expected!

The shade gardens are in much need of refurbishing. A gopher has raised havoc in one and a needed deck repair last summer caused problems in the other. I will be replanting non-native shade lovers like hostas and ferns that were potted up in late 2006 in preparation for the deck work. The year delay does not really make a difference other than a year lost in plant growth.

I had planned to add more roses to my rose and peony garden last year, but since that didn´t happen, I will be tackling that job as the rose selections hit the nurseries in the next few months. I´ll be looking for fragrant, disease resistant varieties in order to keep the maintenance low.

A small hill, behind a garage with a retaining wall, that receives sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon will require the most work. The plants that did well with the heat and a small amount of water were, once again, the native plants….Western Spice Bush (Calycanthus occidentalis), Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera), California fuchsia (Zauschneria species), and coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica ssp. Tomentella), as well as a few rosemary and lavender plants. The non-natives in the bed—daylilies, pincushion flower, and iris—did not fare so well. They will be removed as their water requirements are definitely not a good match with the natives. I´ll replace them with natives next fall.

So at last I´m back working in the garden. And boy, does it feel good! In the last two weeks I have planted the natives that I purchased at the fall native plant sale. And my next project is to complete the pruning, which I just started, in all the garden areas. Then I´ll run all the prunings through the shredder and mulch the beds with the shredded material. I also have bags of leaves from 2006 that never made it though the shredder; they will also be turned into mulch for the gardens. Once all the beds are mulched and a few new roses planted, spring will be here in time to tackle the replanting of the shade gardens!

As it turns out, it seems a little garden neglect was not so bad after all!

Carolee James, UCCE Tuolumne County master gardener, is delighted that her garden survived the year when she underwent shoulder surgery.