Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: Perennial advice in the 2023 UMass Garden Calendar

  • Gaillardia, also known as blanket flower, are the featured plant for July in the 2023 UMass Garden Calendar. They are brightly colored flowers in the family Asteraceae (sunflower) that includes annuals, biennials, and perennials that are native to the Americas. COURTESY UMASS GARDEN CALENDAR

  • Zinnias are the featured plant for August in the 2023 UMass Garden Calendar. COURTESY UMASS GARDEN CALENDAR

For the Recorder
Published: 11/14/2022 3:50:16 PM

A few days after I received this year’s University of Massachusetts Amherst Gardening Calendar, I happened to come across a reference to Leo Tolstoy’s “A Calendar of Wisdom.” As I learned, this was Tolstoy’s final book, a collection of maxims he amassed over the last 15 years of his life from leading literary and philosophical minds. People who enjoy gardening are by nature philosophers and ponderers. While the UMass calendar may not be as esoteric as Tolstoy’s, it offers its own daily dose of wisdom on a wide range of garden-related topics, broad and narrow.

The UMass Garden Calendar has been produced for more than 30 years by the staff of the UMass Extension Landscape, Nursery and Urban Forestry Program. The featured article in this year’s calendar is “Gardens, Landscapes, Carbon and Climate Change.” While gardeners work with small-scale landscapes, our collective efforts at sustainable and responsible gardening practices can improve the health of the environment.

Gardeners tend to overlook the valuable role that plants play in reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. The 2023 garden calendar includes useful tips on selecting plant materials, promoting soil health, and management practices for carbon fixation and storage.

In addition to information, the calendar offers stunning photographs of plants that add bold color to our local landscape throughout the year. January features Hamamelis ‘Diane,’ a witchhazel hybrid whose copper-colored, threadlike blooms unfurl in early spring, like a curtain rising on the new season.

In May, a picture of dew-speckled ‘Rhubarb Red’ Swiss chard demonstrates that vegetable gardens offer beauty as well as nourishment. October offers a close-up view of a Monarch butterfly sucking nectar from purple New England asters in preparation for its fall migration to Mexico. This vivid image stresses the importance of planting butterfly-friendly plants in our gardens. The year closes with December’s photograph, a medley of succulents arrayed in red, green and gold for the holiday season.

Most of the daily notes are seasonally appropriate, offering useful information and tips for indoor and outdoor activities. Not all the suggestions require labor. The calendar recommends that we take the time to visit greenhouses, enjoy the first snowfall, and collect pinecones and dried seed pods for seasonal decorations.

The notes for winter months highlight houseplant care, snow and ice removal, and planning ahead. On New Year’s Day, the calendar suggests that you map out your 2023 vegetable garden to scale on graph paper. (You can do this while keeping an eye on the Bowl games.) What better way to start your gardening resolutions than by imagining a geometrically precise vegetable plot?

The February calendar gets us outside to cut pussy willow, forsythia and fragrant viburnum branches for forcing. It also reminds us to check our perennial beds for plants that have heaved out of the soil due to the alternating freeze and thaw cycles of late winter and to gently press these back into the ground and cover them with pine branches or straw. These notes remind us that although our gardens appear to be lifeless, there is a lot happening out there, and that spring is not so far away.

Once spring arrives, there’s suddenly a lot to do: mulching, dividing summer and fall-blooming perennials, putting hoops around peonies and other flopping plants while they’re still small. The calendar offers practical tips — when to thin carrots, how to get rid of iris borers, how to plant a tree. It also offers aesthetic suggestions, such as planting decorative vegetables and herbs in flower beds and using annuals to remedy “color gaps” in the perennial garden.

Summer is a time to appreciate your labors in the garden. Harvest zucchini when they’re about 4 inches long, cut and air-dry strawflower, lavender and cornflower for arrangements. But it’s also a time when pests, including Asian long-horned beetles, bagworm caterpillars and grubs are active. While you’re admiring your handiwork and enjoying your fresh vegetables, keep an eye out for these destructive critters. The calendar also recommends getting lawnmowers tuned up and donating surplus veggies to a local food pantry.

Cleaning up the garden and preparing for winter is a major theme of the calendar’s autumn advice. Use small, color-coded stakes to mark where spring perennials will emerge. Prune trees and shrubs (only those that bloom on new wood) once the leaves have fallen so that you can better see the plant’s structure. Clean gutters, tools, gloves and garden stakes. For those of us who bought more perennials than we had time to plant this year, sink the pots into the vegetable garden.

As I put my garden to bed, I look back over the year and consider what worked, what didn’t, and why. The drought this year forced me to shear back perennials that normally are at their peak in mid-summer. Most of these plants rebounded nicely when rain and cooler temperatures arrived. Several veronicas that I cut almost to the ground now have reddish pink spires that look spectacular against a backdrop of deep purple monk’s hood. A fringe tree that I’ve contemplated tearing out is now a blaze of golden leaves. Of course it stays! What was I thinking? I will do my best to mark my 2023 calendar now with reminders of what to do and when.

The UMass Garden Calendar keeps me in touch with my gardening self through the days, months and seasons. It helps me to think on a small scale, day by day, task by task, flower by flower. At the same time, as I note the daily sunrise and sunset times and lunar phases, I am awed by the unfathomable, unalterable planetary forces that surround me. Such heightened awareness of the natural world, large and small, is a true source of wisdom for gardeners.

The UMass Garden Calendar makes a wonderful seasonal gift. To purchase, go to calendar or send $14.50 payable to UMass to Garden Calendar, c/o Five Maples, 78 River Rd. South, Putney, VT 05346.

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


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