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Notes from a Hamptons Gardener in the Off-Season

We have finished our gardening season, and it is into the studio for me. I will try to live like a normal person—one who cooks, has long talks with her husband, gets her hair cut before it becomes shaggy and visits friends.

I prefer to do little cutting back of plants in the fall, but some clients like this. I work in some gardens where there are many early blooming bulbs, so these get cut back now. One client’s garden isn’t touched in fall. This is the one where I see the most bees and praying mantises. One praying mantis got into the truck. We had obviously cut the branch where she was hunting. We “persuaded” her into a large, dense shrub.

Uncut plants keep the soil warm longer into winter, supplying hiding places for insects.  Food for soil flora and fauna is available from plant debris left in place. The exception, of course, are plants and their debris that have had funguses. These are removed as soon as possible, even earlier than cleanup time. My own garden waits until spring with nothing cut down. This leaves food for visiting turkeys and flocks of birds.

In gardens where the client is agreeable, I ask the mowers to leave any fallen leaves in the garden beds for the above reasons.  In fact, if chemicals have not been used on the lawn or trees, I like to use the leaf and grass mixture picked up by the mowers as mulch once the mixture has become about 2/3 leaves. This mulch works well in areas not visible but weedy.

I am something of a “sloppy” gardener. I don’t like clean ground in the garden and try to inform my clients of the benefit of plant litter in the bed. Of course, this is not appropriate for all beds or properties.

This week, as we were cutting back a large bed of nepeta, my co-worker discovered a huge frog snugged into dead leaves under the plants. He looked like he was settling into a long sleep. As I moved him to a deep layer of leaves under a tardiva hydrangea, I really enjoyed an up close look at him as he moved his front legs in slow motion trying to escape. What a glorious fellow! He lives by a large pond in the garden of a client, which he shares with another frog, dragonflies and butterflies. He (and his partner, I assume) are so large that there is room for only two, I think.

This week we dug dahlias in one garden. The client is going to overwinter some of the tubers. I have done this but was not successful so I buy new ones every year.  We work in another garden where a dahlia comes up and blooms every year, so we are trying an experiment in this garden. We left the dahlias and the gladiolas. I am eager to see if they live under the plants and plant debris I left in that bed.

I took all of the tools out of the truck. It’s not my favorite task but it’s so great when it is over. My truck is a Ford Transit, not a large truck, but I get all of the tools we need into it, the small ones into nooks and  large ones in the back and we still have a lot of room for garbage. I am always impressed with myself when I remove the tools. This year I got clever in the shed and instead of stacking things along the walls and setting machines on the floor, I hung everything possible from the rafters—the blower, chain saw, trimmer, hedge clippers (we use it to cut grasses) spades, hoes, rakes—and I put all the small tools in a storage box. Now there is room to walk in there and actually get tools out. And off to the carwash for the truck!     

Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067. jeanellemyersfinegardening.com

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