It’s important to savor the little sensual pleasures of everyday life, even when doing chores. For instance, I hang sheets and clothes on a clothesline because I enjoy the way cotton fabric smells when it’s dried in the sun. And if I need to put a wayward hen into her house for the night, I wait until she’s asleep and will let me pick her up without squawking. A warm, sleepy chicken, cooing softly, is lovely to handle.
With gardening, some routine chores are, by nature, pleasant. Harvesting cherry tomatoes for supper and popping them into your mouth as you go can hardly be thought of as work.
But timing is everything. Take weeding. You’d be surprised how many people love to weed. They say it’s relaxing and meditative. They listen to the birds and mull things over. Freeing plants from competition is satisfying, and looking at a tidied-up bed gives a gardener a lift.
But weeding can be hell if you’ve gotten behind. And if the weather is too hot, too cold or too wet, if witch grass has netted the soil with its long tiller roots and dandelions have drilled deep, it’s hard to face the task with anything but dread.
There are solutions. It’s fine to wait for the right day, not just for your comfort, but also for the increased vulnerability of the weeds. If they’re small, you can cultivate the soil, skimming below the surface with a collinear hoe or scuffle hoe to expose weed roots. You need a hot, sunny day for this, so that the weeds will fry. Do it early in the day, and, because it’s a quick job, you’ll be out of the garden before the sun scorches you.
If the weeds are larger, you can chop them out with a standard garden hoe, but that’s hard on the back. It’s better to make cultivating a habit. Large weeds can be left on the ground to wither in the sun, just as tiny ones can. Putting them on the compost pile while they’re still green will provide more nitrogen, to keep your pile cooking. But it’s also true that any green matter left to sit a while will lose weight as it dries and be easier to haul away.
As a compromise, use the old tarp trick. Dump all the weeds (or grass clippings or autumn leaves) onto a tarp and drag them to their final resting place. That eliminates trips with the wheelbarrow, which I don’t consider fun.
Another way to make weeding pleasant is to wait for a sunny morning that follows a spell of rain. Working very soggy soil harms its structure. But soil that’s just uniformly moist will make weeds easier to pull by hand.
Hand-weeding may be necessary with aggressive plants such as witch grass and dandelions, both of which will regrow if chopped out, with some roots left in the soil. To get the whole plant out, loosen the soil around it with a digging fork. Yanking up a dandelion intact is immensely rewarding.
Following grass tiller roots along their journey and grabbing a fistful of them is a triumph. So is loosening wild sorrel and lifting it by the tiny threads that connect its little clumps. And, needless to say, keeping your soil loose and fluffy by adding lots of organic matter will always make it more pleasant to work with.
If pest insects are eating your plants, picking them off is an effective but icky chore. Or, use a Shop-Vac to collect them. For ones that try to get away, such as squash beetles and Japanese beetles, vacuum them early in the morning while they’re sluggish.
Pruning woody plants is rewarding because they show their gratitude. When you remove the dead branches or superfluous growth from the limb of a shrub or tree, it springs upward, as if thanking you for lightening its load. Thinning fruit on a branch does the same thing. Pruning also helps air circulate through the plant, helping it breathe, get more light and become more resistant to fungal disease.
Some days I find it hard to get into the garden, but then it grabs hold of me and I don’t want to leave. Suddenly the shadows are longer, and it’s time to pick cherry tomatoes, a few baby squash, a head of broccoli and a few sweet onions. Off to the kitchen I go to steam, saute or grill them, with olive oil, garlic and lots of fresh herbs. I toss them with pasta and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, inhaling all those good aromas. Bon appétit!
Midsummer is the time to think about sowing and planting for a fall garden. Over the next month, directly sow spinach, beets, Swiss chard and carrots. Kale and collards can be sown directly as well, though transplants are easier. Keep seedbeds moist — a straw mulch will help. Wait until mid- to late-August to sow lettuce and other greens.
— Adrian Higgins