Finding My Limit

On summer heat and creaturely limits

The school year has returned, and with it a diminishment of my time in the garden. Most days, after returning from my teaching job, I only have time to perform one chore, whatever presses most: watering something or picking something—figs, tomatoes, peppers. I’m especially busy at work this semester, and so am especially limited in my garden time. My vegetable beds are full of crab grass and my trees could use mulching; I should be removing some greens that went to seed and fertilizing all my perennials. I will find time for these jobs eventually, on a weekend, maybe. In the meantime it’s twenty minutes in the evening to pick fruit before it goes overripe, then off to make dinner and put the kids to bed.

In truth, I’m fine with this situation. Temperatures here have only recently dipped below 90 degrees, and for me that level of heat brings on malaise. I can only force myself to do so much outdoors. Before I can muster the enthusiasm to start serious gardening again, I need to start feeling those first hints of autumn in the air.

I expect this to be something of a different autumn garden for us. Over the past few years, two jobs have been my autumn focus: growing fall/winter vegetables and fall-planting fruit trees. I plan to take a break, more or less, from both this year. We may still grow a few greens or herbs to take us into the winter, depending on the time we have available, but I’m not pushing too hard on that task, nor am I putting in any new trees. These jobs take a lot of time and energy, and for the moment I feel low on both.

Instead, I’m contemplating some garden editing and rearrangement to simplify the management of our property and improve things for next year. Although we had a detailed plan for the location of our woody plants, when it comes to herbaceous plants—perennials, herbs, bulbs, flowers—we have been opportunistic, often setting them wherever we happened to have a bit of cleared ground. When we moved a pile of mulch, or took out an existing clump of ornamental grass (we had more than 20 of these on the property when we moved in, mostly very awkwardly sited), we tended to use that open space for planting. Rather than creating formal borders or beds, breaking ground being the struggle that it is in our rocky Ozark soil, we used the open ground we had.

In theory this was very time-efficient and ought to have provided the plants with relatively good soil to start off, but in practice it has presented some real management difficulties. We have too many plants dotted singly or in small groups around our moderately large property, and too little margin between them and a lawn that is full of fast-growing and aggressive weedy species like Bermuda grass. By late summer, many of our small plantings were overrun with grass that was going rapidly to seed, and the size and layout of the planting didn’t permit any form of control except laborious hand-weeding—labor which, in the soaring temperatures of late summer, I simply didn’t perform.

In contrast, the few areas where we dug out more formal beds, planted more intensely, and mulched well, have remained relatively clean without any more work on our part. This insight seems obvious when I write it out like that, but evidently I had to have the experience to figure this one out.

So I’m planning to dig up and relocate many of our perennials into some more carefully planned, centrally located, and purposely managed beds. We’ll still have no shortage of the domestic wilderness that I wrote about in my last essay—this is Missouri, after all, and the tangle is just going to keep growing back in—but I want to establish some areas over which I’ll have somewhat (somewhat) greater control and simpler management.

These adjustments could feel like a move away from my attempts to garden in nature’s image, a formalization and aestheticization of the garden. But I don’t think they are. What I am concerned with is not so much design and aesthetics as with my own creaturely limits: I’m hoping to reduce my labors, I’m acknowledging that my life does not allow me time to keep fast-growing grasses at bay by hand.

Gardeners who aspire to take nature as their model should not forget that they too are part of nature; just as the land has a carrying capacity, a rate of production it cannot exceed without damage, so too do we. I’m working to find those rhythms and limits not just in my garden, but in myself. I acknowledge these limits each time I step inside, out of the early-morning heat.