Books & Prose
It is suddenly November. Two boxes on the back stairs hold 160 bulbs for my garden (tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, species tulips, squill, crocus), to be planted in between my full-time job, family, and the laundry. The change in daylight hours has snuck up on me, but I do not panic. It is the season for P.M. Gardening.
There has, of course, been increased interest by gardeners in the previously neglected seasons of autumn and winter. However, P.M. Gardening, the technique that goes hand-in-hand with those seasons, has not been given its due. It is a respectable gardening method—I suspect there are closet practitioners everywhere. The motto of P.M. Gardening: Never too dark, or too cold, or too late.
Consider the bulbs. In New England I could start P.M. Gardening in October (check sunset times for your zone), but as an aficionado I usually wait until November. I hurry home from work, pull on old clothes, and ten minutes later, tools in a trug, contemplate sunset and a darkening lawn. I know the yard pretty well, having cut the grass in spring, watched it brown in July and revive in September, and now wonder, for a moment, what to do about those grub holes. While I am wondering, the light, of course, is fading. Mastery of P.M. Gardening requires a single-minded attention to priorities—it is bulbs tonight. I reach for my bulb planter, ready to carve the packed earth of my tiny urban yard.
By the afterglories of sunset on neighboring houses, I place bulbs in random patterns, throwing down a cluster on the earth and burying them. As it gets darker, I work toward the streetlight side of my garden. One essential tip for P.M. gardening: count and recount the bulbs. After I plant one bulb, I recount the cluster every time before planting another bulb. This helps fix in my mind where the bulbs are and I’m less likely to lose one to the shadows.
When my husband comes out on the porch to ask, "How much longer?" and I reply, "Oh, not much, there are only 52 more," without a word he goes into the house and comes back a minute later, snaking an orange extension cord out the front door. He affixes a large silver-baffled work light to the porch railing and points it toward the darker corner of the yard. At such times the dedicated P.M. Gardener appreciates the true meaning of relationship. (At this point the neighbors also got involved. The Doncasters came out onto their porch to ask whether the proceedings were going to be part of some television garden show. We discussed the possibilities.)
Note that P.M. Gardening doesn't take place only in the P.M. It is a mindset that can take advantage of "windows of opportunity." One late November Saturday my sister (is there a gene for P.M. Gardening?) broke through the half-inch of frost in her Connecticut garden—who would have thought it would freeze so hard so early!—so she could lift out the dahlia tubers from the unfrozen soil beneath. It was only lightly snowing. She got them out before the full six inches fell.
That same Saturday here in Boston I was anticipating the warm-up expected later along the coast. When it came, I emptied my now-unfrozen back porch compost bucket onto the compost heap, using the soil from pots of dead impatiens (stored in the basement for just such a task) to cover the latest rot. Despite the sleet, it was the perfect moment for this ten-minute chore.
When I am P.M. Gardening, I am not fussy about the dictums like "pick up all garden debris" or "prune to shape like a cone." A key P.M. Gardening concept is not found in any of the how-to gardening books that aim for perfection: I do the best I can with what I have. If I rake only two-thirds of the yard before the second six-inch snowfall, well, that's life. If I only have time to prune that yew to a rakish dome rather than a cone, so be it. I am after a simple sense of accomplishment. The goal? The sweet serendipity of 8:30 P.M. on a November evening, when the pizza is delivered just as I tuck the last purple parrot tulips under the soil.
© Anna M. Warrock
Originally published 1997 in the Somerville Garden Club newsletter.