Garden Notes January 2019: Rhubarb & Raspberry, Lettuce & Lemon Balm

The everbearing raspberries got pruned back a few weeks ago, the thick primocanes cut down after their first year of bearing to a height of about an 18”, to allow a second year of side shoots to flower and fruit. Last year, a dense crop of alyssum and cerinthe was allowed to grow around the base of the patch; it looked beautiful but was so dense and vigorous that it stole light and nutrients from the berries. This year the young seedlings were removed, leaving bare ground that was mulched with some alfalfa cubes. Not as pretty (more than one person has remarked that the alfalfa cubes look like horse manure) and not as flowery, but hopefully the berries will appreciate both the space and the nutrients from the alfalfa. We only used cubes rather than flakes or meal because hey, we’re a feed store, and we had a bag of feed that was too damaged to sell. It makes a great opportunistic mulch, regardless of what it looks like!
The slugs are hard at work in the rhubarb. I pulled the lacy, half-eaten leaves from the red stalks, and removed a batch of fallen leaves that were creating slug habitat. The leaves went into the compost pile, so their moisture and nutrients will return to the soil eventually, in less slug-friendly form. As I gathered the rhubarb and the surrounding mulch, the rich smell of earth and leaves and rhubarb rose up. Rhubarb, such a subtle, herbaceous smell, but my tastebuds remember the sharp tang of the stalks and the mere smell of the snapped stalks, mingled with other garden smells, made my mouth water. The lemon balm was removed in that day, too, where it had formed quite a large patch among the raspberries. Though I planted that plant years ago, I have less desire for it there now. Lemon balm is a lovely herb and good for tea and aromatherapy, but it is also, quite frankly, something of a weed, and it will seed around in an area more than desired if a close watch is not kept on it! All told, I’d rather have that room for raspberries, so I dug the whole vigorous rootball out with thanks to the plant for the years of scent and green leaves it has provided and not a backward glance. The smell of rhubarb and lemon balm mingled, smelling and telling of the continual circle of gains and losses in the garden.
As I was tending the front garden on this day of pruning and weeding, a little girl wandered out to sit with me as I worked; her mother was visiting the vet with the family dog, and she was free to wander the store as she liked, sipping cider and striking up conversations. Given any encouragement at all, I will happily prattle on to anyone about plants and food (had you noticed?) and she was interested in all the plants I was pulling out. I told her, as I have told you all so many times, how difficult I find it sometimes, to remove seedlings that I know will grow up to be flowers. She too found it hard to bear, so I sent her home with some 4" containers with a few seedlings in each one; bachelors buttons, cerinthe, even a few chives. Easy enough to grow in many conditions, and it is always nice to make a child smile. It felt like an auspicious emblem of the garden as a whole, the pruning, and removal of some species, and the mutual gift of conversation, and young seedlings that, who knows, might be the beginning of a lifetime fascination with plants or growing things. After the little girl left with her seedlings, I moved down the sidewalk, to the garden that borders the feed yard. There I dug up several lettuce seedlings that had sprung up in a path and replanted them in a better spot that I cleared of weeds and scabiosa seedlings. No weddings to grow flowers for this year, as far as I know, so I am pulling more of the scabiosa, and reclaiming some space that they have taken up for vegetable crops. I’d like to grow some more staples this year, not just the showy vegetables, but the staples like onions and shallots and garlic, not glamorous, but the backbone of many a family dinner. I cleared the grass and weeds from around the rows of shallots I planted earlier; the young shoots of shallots look so much like young grass that I had to pay close attention to make sure the shallots were preserved. Luckily, for once, I had planted things in neat rows, so it was easy to tell where the shallots should be.
I’m going on vacation for a few weeks, and it always feels good to set the garden in order before I go away. I like to picture it all orderly and well tended while I am gone. When I return I’ll have my work cut out for me again; the compost is beyond full and will need to be emptied and sifted and spread and managed when I get back. The grass will have sprouted again, and all the lovely, pesky weed/flowers will have sprung up again with a vengeance. But for now, the places I have tended look fresh and well-cared for, and it’s a good image to keep in my head as I clean up the last of my messes and get ready to take my leave for a moment. It’s a New Year in the garden, full of possibility, and anything might happen. May the earthworms and microbes work their magic while I am gone, and the towhees not eat all the pea shoots, and the smell of rhubarb and dark moist leaf mold linger in memory as I venture south into a very different landscape of desert and cactus.