Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Foliage, Edibles, and Some Cheating: A New Garden Diary, 2010-2013

by janem on June 6, 2013

Story and photography by Michelle Sutton

Diary: May, 2010 — New Paltz, New York 

Dale and I got married in March without knowing if he’d move to Rochester or if I’d move to New Paltz. But now we’ve decided that I will move here in July. I’ve had my business for nearly ten years; it will be emotional to say goodbye to clients and gardens I’ve grown close to over time, not to mention friends and communities I’m a part of.

How did Dale convince me to move? He dangled several carrots, but one thing he did was especially canny. He latched onto a casual mention I made of wanting a house bunny, and then he effusively encouraged me to get one: “Why don’t you bring the bunny here? The sun room would be perfect!”

I promptly adopted Butter Buns (Butter for short) from Lollypop Farm and brought her down here, where she is free-range, basks in morning rays, and half closes her eyes in pleasure when the breeze comes through and ruffles her soft white fur. So, now my beloved husband and my little buddy (my first pet since childhood) are here. The whole family! Clever man.

I am here visiting Dale and Butter, and his (our! —that feels strange, but great) little house feels really naked without any garden beds. The view south out the kitchen window onto the neighbors’ is unmitigated, and one family seems to be hosting a continuous Monster Truck event in their yard. So what, in the latest lingo, is the “ecosystem service” I need from my new garden?

A buffer! I have a vision of a very comforting trio of purple smokebushes interspersed with ornamental grasses, all moving in the breeze and pleasantly distracting me.

But here’s the thing. The soil here is junk—low-fertility, sandy, stony mayhem. I can’t dig more than 7 or 8 inches before reaching impenetrable hardpan. As my horticulture training would indicate, I should bring in massive quantities of compost to build up the beds. But honestly, I am worn out from hauling heavy stuff over the last ten years. Also, I don’t know how long we will be here, so I don’t want to put a lot of money and effort in. Time to go pet Butter and cogitate.

June 2010

This feels like cheating, but I still can’t bear the thought of paying for and hauling tons of compost. I just want to get stuff in the ground and circle the Buffer Garden with loving energy.

I’ve decided to skip soil remediation for now and turn to good old plant-site matching skills, putting some favorite tough shrubs and ornamental grasses to the test. Plants, I offer you no amendment at this time, but I in turn covenant to water you abundantly, mulch you (with the most lightweight mulch I can find, in keeping with my laziness), and fertilize you with a treasured natural resource, courtesy of little 3 ½ -pound Butter Buns.

Bunny manure, aka “bunure,” is a type of cold manure that can be applied directly to new or old plantings without having to be composted first. Every time I watch Butter eat her Timothy hay, I think 1) “Good bunny, eating her hay!” and 2) “Oh goodie, this is going to generate awesome bunure for my garden!”

I have gathered up some of the loveliest, most rugged full-sun, drought-tolerant plants I know; I bought them all affordably in small sizes since the planting depth here is so limited anyway. As it is, I will be planting high in some cases and may even have to sever some roots (the worst kind of cheating).

Here are the plants I’ve amassed that will give the garden structure:

‘Royal Purple’ smokebush (Cotinus coggygria). My hope is that a trio will form a mass of beautiful foliage and be both backdrop and focal point. Smokebushes can tolerate a range of poor soils—in my case, low-fertility, excessively well-drained, “mayhemic” soil.

Rugosa roses (Rosa rugosa). These are so tough that they’re sometimes used in highway medians.

A Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) with speckled pink flowers.

‘The Blues’ little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium): blue in summer; bronze-red in fall

Big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii): elegant icon of the Prairie

Gray’s sedge (Carex morrowii): wet/dry, rich soil or boney soil – supremely adaptabl

‘Rotstrahlbusch’ red switch grass (Panicum virgatum): gorgeous burgundy in the fall

Dwarf eulalia grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio’): makes a charming mound

As I sit here visualizing what I want to put where, I am watching baby woodchucks come out from under the shed and frolic in the grass. They are so darn cute, yet it occurs to me I should go take a picture of the unusual, feathery-petaled prairie coneflower I planted this spring before it gets masticated.

July 2010

The plants are in and they look a bit forlorn out there floating in all that space, but I direct-seeded some red okra and parsley, two easy-to-grow plants with beautiful foliage that do fine with low soil fertility. In a few patches I put down tiny islands of compost to make things hospitable for some ‘Bright Lights’ swiss chard, which is adding some striking vertical streaks of color throughout the garden.

I also planted two hardy kiwi vines (Actinia arguta) along the front steps—one male and one female plant—after giving the site a bit of compost. It will be three to five years, I gather, before I see any of the grape-size, smooth edible fruit.

I conjecture the neighbors are thinking, “Where are the flowers?” More than ever, I am selecting on foliage appeal. Like a hipster saying “I don’t even own a TV,” a horticulturist is in danger of becoming a cliché when she says, “I don’t even care about flowers anymore.”

I do care about flowers, but I care about foliage more. Foliage gives me form and texture and color all summer and asks so little. It never clashes with its neighbors. It doesn’t need deadheading. It provides a superb foil to the flowers I do use.

October 2010

I’ve been strategically applying Butter’s bunure to the sections where I wanted to plant garlic, and now the garlic’s in, as are a few daffodil bulbs. Next year, I’m hoping the purple smokebushes really take off, to give the garden its backbone/definition.

May 2011

All the plants survived their first winter here, and the emerging garlic foliage is quite ornamental. I planted a raspberry bush; yes, I know it will spread like gangbusters—bring it on, young bramble! I am seeing my garden take shape as a place for foliage and increasing numbers of edibles, with a few flowers here and there, like ‘State Fair’ zinnias from seed.

August 2011

Holy house bunnies! A wet summer + copious bunure = astonishing growth in the Buffer Garden. After just 14 months, the garden is exceeding my vision for it. Butter Buns is now part of a closed system, a veritable poster bun for permaculture. She adores the raspberries. Few things in life are more satisfying than putting bunure around a raspberry bush, then harvesting berries to feed back to the bunurist herself …

I tried to grow showy greens like kale and collards in the beds, but the woodchuck(s) laid waste to several iterations. Mercifully, they don’t go for the ‘Bright Lights’; they prefer to dine on earth tones.

April 2012

Having grown so much last season, the purple smokebush is ready for its first coppicing (hard prune). Given the choice between deep dark foliage and wispy smoke-like flowers (which set on the previous year’s wood), I’ll take the foliage color.

June 2012

Striking foliage is the constant in the Buffer Garden; interplanting ornamentals provides the changing tableau. I planted several varieties of different winter squashes from seed for ground cover/weed suppression, and if there are viable, flavorful cucurbits that come from it, that’s a bonus!

September 2012

Long Island cheese squash doesn’t have a cheese-like or very impressive flavor in general, but the fruits are super cool looking (like wheels of cheese) and the foliage was attractive until the very end. The patty pan squashes are beautiful and melt in the mouth when sautéed, and the foliage was a gorgeous dark screen with silvery threads.

April 2013

Just hard pruned the smokebushes, selectively pruned the rugosa roses, and trimmed the hardy kiwi vine to direct its growth. The garlic foliage is up and looking lovely as ever. The raspberry plant is now a bona fide patch. Little winter-dried bunure pellets are everywhere apparent to the trained eye. It’s funny but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised: putting in a garden where I thought I wouldn’t stay? Makes me want to stay.

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