Taking time to plant the flowers.
I’ve been reading Monty Don. Previously unknown to me, he’s the David Attenborough of the British gardening world. I like his style. The first book I read was, naturally, about his dogs. This second book, “Down To Earth,” is actually about gardening. This is good for me because I have a garden.
Since my free range childhood, I’ve always been drawn to nature. No phone, no shoes, no sunscreen, no hat, no curfew, no worries. I’d run outside in a summer downpour, catching cold raindrops on my tongue while the thunder growled overhead. If lightning got close, I’d scamper inside to watch the bolts from the bay window. Once, the sky turned green and funnel clouds reached toward the farm menacingly and I hid in the basement with the cat and dogs all night long. In the summer, I’d wander silently in our patch of forest, watching birds, deer, rabbits. In the winter, I’d hunt icicles.
Our twelve acres was my garden. I’d wake up with the sun, grab a plastic bowl, and walk barefoot in the long grass looking for ripe raspberries. Our dog Sarge came with me. I taught him how to pick the plump fruit from the bush. He’d curl his lips back to pluck the lowest-hanging berries from their spiky cane. He’d gorge himself. The mosquitoes would swarm around us, annoying and thirsty, but they’d disappear when the sun turned warm. I’d wander back inside when the bowl filled, wash off the bugs and dead flower petals from the raspberries, and place my trophy in the refrigerator, front and center. Mom would have fresh fruit for her cereal.
While we didn’t have a dedicated vegetable patch, my mom usually bought a trunkload of annuals every spring to plant around the house. And I was constantly outside.
I wandered through the overgrown pasture as it defrosted from winter, noticed the first Johnny Jump Ups heralding the return of spring near the chicken coop, enjoyed the bright orange tiger lilies fronting the summer kitchen, loitered around the leafy hostas on the north side of the house during the height of summer, and smiled at the sound of golden birch leaves shimmering on an autumn breeze before the school bus came. Even in the dead of winter at twenty below zero, the hundred-year-old oaks out front provided stark outlines in the snow, craggy black lines on a background of white.
Monty says gardening should enrich the soul. He says being in a garden should make you happy, recharged. Nature is my happy place.
My forays into gardening have been slow. I helped Mom around the farm, weeding, digging, sometimes planting. It was fun, but mostly work. During college, flight school, and in the fleet, I never really had time for a garden. I always rented and the one time I got permission to plant a garden no bigger than a small dining room table, I was charged to put the sod back again. I can’t say those jalapeño peppers were worth it, but a lesson learned regardless.
When I switched from active duty to the Reserves, moved overseas, and started my married life in my new home, I finally had a place big enough to try. More importantly, I had the time. My husband and I built a huge raised bed with railroad ties (sleepers) for the sides. It was beautiful. I went all-in, buying seeds and soil and hand tools and slug pellets. I raised cherry tomatoes, new potatoes, carrots, onions, bell peppers, chives, currants (black, red, and pink), dwarf apple trees, rosemary, cucumbers, squash, thyme, beetroot, radishes, lettuce, and hot peppers. Not every year, and not all at once. And not everything survived. My gardening skills were based on intuition, limited experience, and the internet.
After five years, we moved to our current house. A baby on the way and one in preschool, it was not the time to start my veggie bed up again. But fate dictated otherwise. We moved a shed first thing to make more room on the patio and shifted a whole mountain of soil. It had to go somewhere, so with minimal planning and no prep work, we plonked some sleepers down next to our beautiful brick wall and shoveled in the shed dirt. Gorgeous black crumbly dirt, unlike the slippery dense clay we had previously. Good for plants. Good for weeds.
The next summer, yes, with a newborn, I thought I’d plant a “realistic” veggie bed. Not too much, just the essentials.
Fast-forward three months and it’s a jungle. The tomato plants haven’t been pruned yet, the nasturtiums have taken over in a tangle of spicy leaves and pretty flowers, the peas are bending their support stakes, and the pigeons and blackbirds have eaten all of my blueberries and currants. With the help of my mother-in-law, we uproot the nasturtiums and pull out the worst of the weeds. I prune the tomatoes, hard. My daughter and I pick and shell the peas, eating them on the bench before we even make it into the house.
The veggie patch is mucky, moldy, wet. All the tomato plants die from my pruning efforts. The peas run out. Nothing much else is harvested. I come away from the experience a bit disheartened, but with a few lessons for next year. For one, never plant nasturtiums.
This year’s veggie bed is, again, “realistic.” A toddler and a preschooler. A neglected writing life. Trying to stay relevant in my professional life. Constant house DIY and organization. Making time for date nights. Bringing the kids to the library. Walking the dog. Being a good wife, mother, daughter, sister. So, just four tomato plants, some dwarf French beans. Eight climbing beans. Peppers, eggplant, zucchini. Lettuce, spinach, radishes, beetroot. Marigolds. Mint, marjoram, oregano. Brassicas (cauliflower and broccoli).
Nature takes what she wants.
Pigeons ate all the leaves of every single brassica, twenty plants in total. Slugs ate one whole bean plant. Radishes bolted. The spinach is overgrowing. The tomatoes need staking. Somehow, I feel on top of it.
My lettuce is glorious, each of the six heads light green and crisp in its wavy circle of perfection. The brassicas, despite their death sentence, are somehow making a comeback. My tomatoes look healthy and have multiple sets of flowers. The climbing beans are stretching their vines, expanding their territory. I might even see a marigold seedling soon.
But when I say garden, I don’t just mean the edible things. It’s the whole yard. The shrubs and trees and grass and flowers. The ones dug in and the ones in pots. The hanging baskets and window boxes.
My slow accumulation of plants never gave me pause until we moved. Five years of buying a few things here, a few there, and suddenly we have a whole truckload. Were it not for our amazing neighbors and the extra space at the back of their garden, none of my plants would have survived. Astilbes, roses, lily bulbs, hostas, a cherry tree, spirea, four apple trees, spotted laurel, Black-eyed Susans, fuchsia, strawberries, lupins, currants, a blueberry bush, hanging baskets, and beefsteak tomato plants. Plus all the ones I’m missing.
When we viewed our house in the summer of 2020 – dressed in yellow dish gloves and winter scarves because of Covid – we saw the potential of the back garden. It had been left to run wild for six months, a year. The grass was waist high. Brambles obscured the small stream out back. Rotten apples littered the ground, wasps drunk on the putrefying juice. Stinging nettles higher than my husband waved menacingly from every corner.
But we saw potential.
Foot by thorny foot, we chopped the brambles, pulled out the weeds, hacked the lawn. We wanted a space for our kids, our dog, ourselves. As we made gains, I made plans. Garden plans.
Sketches. Hardscaping. Landscaping. Tracking the microclimate, sunrise and sunset, soil conditions. Not a pro, an attempt. An observation.
And I researched. Hours spent reading the Royal Horticultural Society’s website. Which plant for what soil, sun, exposure. How to transplant. How to propagate. When to prune, how to cut. Lessons that might be needed tomorrow, next month, next year.
Month by slow month, I started planting. Filling the borders first, then the rose arbor, then the lily bed. Adding bulbs to the mix. Finally, the bush garden.
Monty Don says the garden is never done, never perfect. It’s always changing, maturing, teaching us something. Adapting.
Two years’ worth of hard work is finally starting to pay off. Most of my roses are happy. My tulips bloomed right on time. My black jewel lilies stand handsomely in their bed. The astilbes are flowering and the coneflowers are about to open. My fern is lush, as are my hostas. My alliums flourished magnificently.
Yes, some things have died: my yellow Graham Thomas climbing rose, two clematis plants, nearly my hydrangea. The weeds have made good progress this year. The forget-me-nots have self-seeded under the apple trees, choking out my crocus. My Japanese maple had frost damage early. The cherry tree was attacked by bugs. The lupins are stunted from aphids. The canna leaves have slug holes. My husband accidentally stepped on a baby heuchera.
But these setbacks are lessons, experience to carry with me and pass down to my children. My garden is a work in progress. It always will be.
I like the feeling of hard work paying off. Of my investment turning into something beautiful. Of a plan gone to plan. For a moment last night, when I sat on the outside swing as the sun set, I surveyed my plants.
And I smiled.