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Garden Tips

Growing a garden relationship

What are the most important things in our lives? They are the relationships with the people we know and love. They are the ones we want to spend our time with more than anything else in the world. In a big way, without relationships we are lost. Gardening involves relationships — the relationships we have with plants. For those of us who make our living gardening, these relationships are as complex as those of our relatives. Sometimes even more so. When a plant is sick or being attacked by a pest, we have feelings similar to those we have for family and friends in the same situation. This month is time for harvest and thanksgiving. It is a time when our gardens are slowing down and going to sleep for the winter. The tips I will give will be about caring for the relationship we have with our gardens and ourselves. Some of this care is practical and some is just "being with."

1. Think of where your first relationships originated. What country? Mine were in Scotland, Germany and Scandinavia. Look at the flora and fauna of that country. The relationships our ancestors had with the plants they grew are directly related to you and me. When I see heather (Erica) in the hills around Half Moon Bay, it makes me feel connected to the Scottish highlands I visited 20 years ago.

2. The relationship we have with our garden is that of a parent to a child in many ways. We clean them of dead leaves and branches, cultivate the soil, feed them and, when needed, water them. All of these things have their time and techniques. The closer we are with our plants, the better we are able to take care of them. Like a child that is dependent upon us, our plants often cannot take care of themselves. Thus, we get to study and learn how best to do all that is needed.

3. Yes, we are still in a drought, and yes, there has been some rain but we still need to be aware of all our plants needs. When I was at Sunset magazine, we would water year-round. If during the rainy season it didn't rain for two weeks, I had to water. If for nothing else than to get the fertilizer down into the roots and stimulate new growth and flowering.

4. Know that water does not equal love. Too much and there are as many or more problems than too little. The important key here is to know just the right amount. If in doubt, look closely at your plant. I even go so far as to dig around the roots to see if it is dry or moldy (either being a sign of a problem). The two exceptions are water plants and desert plants.

5. Plants, for design as well as health purposes, like to be in the company of like plants. If you go to the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park, you will see several plant communities. The design is both educational and practical. Take a lesson from notable gardens and how they pair plantings to complement the care and design used.

6. As a garden coach, I spend a fair amount of time teaching people how to prune and fertilize. Both are key to our relationships with our plants. It is fall going into winter now and the pruning that is needed is mostly cleanup of dead, dying and diseased branches. A little later it will be time for roses, fruit trees and vine pruning. One last fertilizing will give plants a boost for root growth during the winter. Read as much as you can — plant by plant — to know what the ideal type and quantities of food are. Learn the value of nitrogen, phosphorous and potash.

7. Often for the holidays, we decorate our gardens. Now is the time for harvest type decorations: pumpkins, corn stalks, dried flowers and possibly even lights.

8. Potlucks traditionally take place in gardens after the harvest. As we focus on the holidays we often forget that we can still have a garden party. The relationships with friends, co-workers, clubs or congregations make up plenty of people to have a garden party with. Cultivating all our relationships helps us feel grounded. Don't do all the work. Clean up your garden and then have those invited bring the food.

9. As the days get darker, it is important to have plants in the house. Outside everything is going to sleep — the days shorter and nights colder. Although we have the best of climates and seldom have to stay indoors long, it is still nice to have some house plants to share our space. Something alive is always better than the opposite.

10. Bring cut flowers into the home. We can get flowers year-round here. I have made bouquets from the gardens of friends when I lived in an apartment. There is no better way to cherish a relationship than with flowers.

Good gardening.

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Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at jack@jackthegardencoach.com or 650-455-0687, or visit his website, jackthegardencoach.com.

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