Tuesday, November 16, 2010

English advice for the Wisconsin garden

Many of my mistakes in this garden have been caused by relying too heavily on what I read. Among the worst offenders are those splendid full-color books about gardening published in England. It's not that the books are wrong or mistaken--no. I'm sure they are perfectly correct for England. Not so useful for Wisconsin, though.

As near as I can figure, the English winter must be a lot like an October or a mild November here: days with a high between 32-40 degrees, lows perhaps 32-25. I derive this from books which mention the plants which will bloom in winter, and call February "early spring," and confidently mention construction projects which can safely be left for winter.

English summers must be a lot like a lovely late April or early May here: highs around 70, maybe 75 degrees, lows around 50. In other words, the sort of temperatures in which tomatoes need a little extra help in setting fruit--a heavy wall behind them or a poly-tunnel.

I may be wrong about these exact temperatures, and of course, England varies in climate zones throughout, but I am completely confident that nowhere in England does there exist anything approaching Wisconsin weather--polar winters and tropical summers. Our "continental" climate, unmoderated by any significant body of water or mountain range, swings wildly. Winter weather whistles straight down from the Canadian shield, summer weather billows up from the Gulf of Mexico. These weather swings aren't just seasonal either--everyone here says "if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes," and that can literally be true. Children routinely lose their coats, hats, mittens because they simply forget the need for them: the kid walking to school, shivering, in a snowsuit may well return, comfortable, in a t-shirt.

The winters here are well-known--"Wisconsin" is a byword for bitter cold. One-hundred-and-twenty inches of snow cemented to the ground by weeks of below-zero temperatures is bad but not unknown. This is matched by equally ferocious summers, yet such summers are actually standard issue for most of the continental United States. Tomatoes grow like weeds starting in mid June and produce heavily until September's end. My neighbor is routinely featured in the local paper harvesting his tomato crop from the top of a 8 foot ladder. Indeed, feats like this are so common, many US readers will wonder why I bother reporting this at all, yet this sort of thing simply does not happen in England or most of Europe.

With such a climate difference, English gardening books are useful for inspiration, less useful for how-to. For example, large-flowered clematis such as "Nelly Moser" are advised to be planted in full sun, with roots shaded by a mulch. In my garden, regardless how thick the mulch, such positioning is a formula for toasted, washed-out blooms on spindly, pest-ridden vines, no matter how often watered. Far better would have been to plant Nelly in half-sun: three or four hours of direct summer sun turns out to be more than enough to bring on full bloom, and the Nellys planted according to the English instructions must now be moved or given up. Of course, I imagine US how-to advice is no more useful in England. Autumn clematis -- formerly C. paniculata, now -- I think -- C. terniflora-- is a hardy beast, thriving in full sun, even here in Wisconsin. Internet gardening forums are filled with complaints about how invasive it is in states like Virginia, Alabama, even New Jersey. Yet, I wonder whether it can be grown in much of England at all.

Another subject on which English books are not useful is trees. Evidently, tree owners in England have to get permission to cut down their trees. Also, evidently, the cutting must be done according to a plan filed by a qualified tree-surgeon. If I wanted to hack down every tree on the place, myself, with a 30" chainsaw, no one here would have anything to say. This legal difference in itself does not render English garden-book advice useless, but the caution with which tree-planting is advised might lead one to believe trees are far harder to site and grow than they actually are. It was not until I realized that a poorly-chosen tree in England might be a lifetime mistake that I came to appreciate why such caution and intense study is advised before planting a tree. With our different legal requirements, that's not so necessary here. True, careful study is still a good idea or you will lose the time invested, but many trees grow quickly in this climate--a 20 year old elm will top the chimney handily, as will a five-year old cottonwood--so our mistakes can be erased within a decade or so. A sad waste of time, but not a horrid lifetime error.

Plants advised for English gardens often don't grow here. The box and yew which form the backbone of magnificent and famous English gardens are dicey propositions in Wisconsin. Selected cultivars are capable of growing, yes, but are unlikely to make a uniform unblemished hedge without such winter fuss as being wrapped in burlap, sprayed with anti-desiccants and somehow protected from deer, rabbits and other garden-destroyers. Consequently, not only hedges, but all forms of topiary, arches and the like are not really feasible here (although that doesn't mean we don't dream about them and try, try again). Likewise, wisteria, jasmine and other staples of English garden books are completely impossible here. Or at least, impossible of the displays shown--the wisteria which consents to grow in Wisconsin (W. macrostachys) is an insubstantial shadow of those in the glossy picture books.

Having become cautious of following English gardening advice too literally, I wonder whether I am now about to go too far the other way. Several different English gardening books I've read recently caution against planting roses where roses have previously been. "Rose replant disease" is said to cause roses to fail, or at least seriously sulk, unless the soil has been replaced to a depth of 30". The cause is thought to be either allelopathic properties of the previous rose rootstock, or some lack of vital micronutrients. However, in comprehensive rose guides, US gardening authorities might not mention this disease at all, or perhaps only in passing.

Could this be because the soil in England is so different than here? Of course, soil is so variable that it changes from field to field, and even within the same field, but that's not the difference I mean. In many parts of England, and Europe too, the soil has been cultivated for hundreds or even thousands of years. By contrast, my soil was pushing up forest trees until 100 years ago or less, then corn until 50 years ago, then lawn until 25 years ago. Surely there is a fundamental difference to be found in that fact? Might not such issues as "replant disease" be less of an issue in our far more-recently tamed soils?

At any rate, having been burned by following English gardening advice too closely in the past, I am drawing my own line on this matter. I am planning to put new roses in spring where old ones were taken out last fall. Then we shall see just how far English gardening advice may be safely ignored in a Wisconsin garden. Watch for further reports in a year or two.

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