Of time and a garden: Charting the year by the UMass Garden Calendar

  • FEBRUARY: GERBERA DAISY Angela Madeiras, UMass Extension

  • DECEMBER: POINSETTIAS Geoffrey Njue, UMass Extension

  • NOVEMBER: CALLICARPA/BEAUTYBERRY Amanda Bayer, University of Massachusetts

Published: 11/7/2020 3:02:15 PM

As I prepare to put my garden to bed, I’ve been thinking about everything that has happened since the first snowdrops bravely pushed their little heads out of the thawing February ground.

They didn’t know that the novel coronavirus was about to turn the world upside down. But they would not have cared. In fact, it seems that the only aspect of life that has been enhanced by the COVID-19 pandemic is our increased attention to the natural world — in particular, our gardens. It’s heartening to know that garden centers and nurseries have thrived, and that thousands of people have discovered the therapeutic delights of digging in the dirt.

Every fall I look forward to the arrival of the garden calendar published by the Landscape, Nursery and Urban Forestry Program Service of the UMass Extension. An invaluable aid to New England gardeners of all types, the calendar has been produced by the Extension Service for more than 25 years.

Even after we put away pots and tools and put our feet up for the winter, the UMass garden calendar keeps our thoughts on the garden. Every month provides a gorgeous, inspiring 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.

Some of these tips are in-the-moment ideas, such as “test old seed for viability” and “mount bluebird nesting boxes near the garden.” Others encourage a longer look: “vegetable gardens need a minimum of 6 hours of direct sunlight,” “a small water garden is an oasis on hot days.”

The calendar is also full of practical information about garden pests and how to combat them. And it marks the phases of the lunar calendar and the daily sunrise and sunset, keeping us in touch with rhythms of the solar system that we often fail to notice.

The UMass garden calendar enhances my gardening experience in several ways. It encourages me to look forward to the year ahead and to contemplate the annual cycle in the garden. This broad view takes in the full sweep of the year, from the first daffodil and the first robin to the last chrysanthemum and the final rose that didn’t fully bloom before it hung its head with the first hard frost.

But the calendar also focuses my attention on the day-to-day passage of time that happens in the garden. It prompts me to compose to-do lists — plant peas, turn the compost pile, divide the day lilies, weed, weed, weed — that keep me busy through the days and weeks and months ahead.

If calendars are a means of organizing time, I find that the practice of gardening plays with our perception of time in unfathomable ways. Everything we do happens in the moment, planting a bulb, pulling a weed, staking a hollyhock. One of the things I love most about gardening is how it draws me into the now.

And yet, the life of a garden evolves at a much slower pace. Nothing happens in a moment. Gardening is a matter of patience. We plant a tomato seed and wait. A week later, we see a threadlike sprout. A month later, a sturdy little plant is reaching skyward. As the summer solstice dawns, star-like yellow flowers emerge. With the dog days of summer, green-skinned tomatoes begin to swell and color up. We stare in disbelief, wondering how a tiny, dry seed could turn into a luscious red tomato.

Looking back on the year in the garden, I can’t recall single moments. Instead, I see swaths of time. The spell in mid-May when everything was a blur of pale blue forget-me-nots that had prodigiously self-seeded. The two weeks in June when my son and I cleared an entrenched patch of creeping euonymus and planted a fledging bed of epimediums in its place.

The endless dry months of July and August, when I all I can remember doing is moving hoses from plant to plant and bed to bed. Early September, graced by a brazen army of black-eyed Susans that stood their rock-hard ground in defiance of the drought. The long stretch of cherished fall weather marked by brilliant autumn colors that arrived sooner than usual due to an early frost.

I hope that everyone who discovered the joys of gardening this year will do themselves a favor and buy the UMass Garden Calendar for 2021. It’s a wonderful guide to the days, weeks, and months that make up the year in the garden, helping us to adjust our gaze from the narrow moment to the broad expanse of the seasons and every point in between.

To order, go to umassgardencalendar.orgumassgardencalendar.org; it’s also on sale at Broadside Books in Northampton and Hadley Garden Center/Gardeners Supply.

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

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