Some things in the garden have been easy and take no effort. Peonies, poppies and primrose. Continue reading
Early March is a part of my zone 6A garden season that involves venturing into the backyard for the first time since the autumn clean up. I am caught half-way between the hope that something green has poked its way up through the duff, and the hope that young plants won’t be fooled by the unseasonable warmth. “Wait a little longer” I whisper to the swelling buds on the Red Bud tree. The air does not smell of earthworms: spring is not yet here.
I have slumbered, a fertile seed dropped in the shade, dropped on hard clay, grown over by a blanket of weeds against which I could not compete. So I waited. The way seeds do. For conditions to change.
Weed roots punched holes in the clay. Water trickled through. Rank overgrowth rotted, leaving compost behind, to be turned by the writhing of earthworms. New seeds sprouted, and capillaries of roots gripped the precious loam slowly developing under the hand of Nature’s relentless processes.
I waited. And conditions changed.
“Honey-baby-dear-heart-of-my-life?” I begin to wheedle, oh… around early December, I’d say. “Do you know what I would love for Christmas?”
My husband casts me a look slightly curious and justifiably terrified.
For Christmas my son (now sixteen) and my husband (now a ‘certain age’) cleared out the cluttered horror that is our garage to make space for my light box, where I used to start my plants from seed. I have not started plants indoors from seed for nearly a decade, following a difficult pregnancy and the birth of my daughter.
I have missed starting my plants from seeds. I loathe the expense of purchasing easy-to-grow plants from nurseries at 100%+ mark-up. I have missed sitting on the old upturned paint-bucket in the cold silence of a February evening, fussing like a mother hen over plants not available in nurseries, over plants that are absurdly expensive in nurseries, over plants that transplant poorly from nursery stock. Natural gossypium (colored cotton), papavar, gaillardia, digitalis, lupine, and asclepius, again asclepius, and yet more asclepius. Not to mention the deep pleasure I take in dreaming over tomato and pepper seedlings, the brussels sprouts, the adorable rounded leaves of the squashes and melons.
Each and every cell in each and every tray begs its own careful observation. The right light, the right moisture, thinning and pruning, and a hairy eyeball always on the look-out for damping-off disease. Then the delicate application of the mildest of fertilizers, the mildest of foliar feeds. And the sacred breath: talking to the plants, admonishing them, encouraging them, blowing upon each one gently to simulate the outdoor breeze, and wishing them — with all your heart — well.
I want to tell you all about my lovely June garden… I want to post beautifully composed photos of the peas going gangbusters, of the fresh strawberries we pick to sweeten our morning cereal, the lovely green beans in full flower, and the prairie forbes just opening their petals to the sky.
But tell the truth and shame the Devil, my Grandma Juanita used to say. I’m a sho’ nuff knotty-headed organic gardener and I’ve got to tell it like it is. Something is going on in my garden this year, something that puts the “ugh” in an ugly garden. Brace yourselves.
In the garden, as in life, endings and beginnings are easily confused, one for the other.
This year’s spring garden: unexpected joys, and things that make me go hmmm…
It’s a cold, grey February in southern Illinois and my garden is an ugly expanse of soggy forlorn. Waiting chores and half-assed un/finished landscaping projects clutter my vision as I stand at the patio window, fists on hips, and consider the coming spring. The gap between what I want my garden to be and the truth of what my garden can be and will be in the coming year lies naked before me; and no matter how hard I squint, I’m having a difficult time blurring the lines between what I wish I had to work with — time, energy, cash, physical strength — and real-politik. I thank God for what I do have, and for what I can do. But if I’m honest, I’m thanking Him from between clenched teeth.
Significant fiscal disasters over the last three months have devoured the garden budget. The front garden bed, bulldozer-decimated, will have to wait another year at least to be re-landscaped. The cost of repairing the broken water main and paying for the lost water devoured the means with which to buy new plants. I know what I’ve got to do. What I can afford to do. I’ll add compost to the clay, mulch the bed, and wait to satisfy my creative gardening impulse until the family has recovered it’s economic equilibrium. I thumb catalogs — that cherished gardener’s January preoccupation — with uncharacteristic disenchantment. “Not this year,” I say to myself. “Not this year. Not this year.”
Real-life will interrupt the vegetable garden this year as well. The old car died; a new car-loan sits pretty, blue, and blessedly reliable in the driveway. The plan to add the final raised beds to the vegetable garden will have to wait another year. Ah well. I gardened successfully enough around poorly drained compacted soil last year. I can do it again this year, if I think creatively enough. The Bard tells us that the course of true love never did run smooth. Gardening is a true love. The bumps and grooves of each successive season can’t be avoided.
For example, I haven’t a shred of doubt that the insanely cold weather this winter has killed my fig trees dead as door nails.
But… I watch the dog putter about the yard, and my eyes come to rest on the two plum trees, each now three years old. Are they mature enough to bloom? Yes, I think, remembering the single bloom on last year’s tree. Yes. I nod in satisfaction, shiver, and call the dog inside.
For example, by autumn last year, my pumpkin patch was a nightmare of squash beetles. Some of those mafia goons were the size of my big toe. I had resigned myself to avoid planting anything in the cucurbit family for at least one year… But then, miracle of obnoxious miracles… the temperature dropped, snow fell, the ground froze and stayed that way for a whole month or more. My kids are begging for a watermelon patch… I’m thinking maybe, just maybe. In my mind’s eye, I imagine the way watermelon vines snake across compacted soil, and the way those broad green leaves shade out weeds. I think of delicate yellow flowers stuffed with herbed-ricotta then flash fried in a hot skillet. Something in my mouth prickles. I stroke my chin speculatively. Heirloom melons, chock-full of seeds. Children giggling as they spit them at each other across a picnic blanket. “Hey you two, cut it out,” I murmur aloud, practicing an irk that is nothing more than pretense. My lips part as I consider kissing the juice from my husband’s beard.
Fewer canning tomatoes this year, and more slicing tomatoes. Skip the turnips, go back to the rainbow chard and expand the beet bed. I’ll have room for garlic if I leave out the leeks. The salsa I made last year was namby-pamby: find a hot pepper with some real bite! Pull out the ancient, decrepit raspberry bushes. Replace them with something that grows easily from inexpensive seed: Tithonia for the butterflies and birds, perhaps… and a long row of sunflowers along the fence where the neighbor’s weed-whacker has whacked the raspberries into ill-health. Fertilize those irises! Their second-year showing was poor because of the rain, but also because they’ve flourished in that bed for ten years.
Ideas spin, thoughts swirl. Before my eyes, the ugly dun of the February garden peels back and I can almost see Spring Beauties unfurling beneath the bare elderberry branches. The signature sweet fragrances of hyacinth and lilac fill my brain case. I curl these painted toe nails down into sun-warmed soil.
I stare from the the patio windows, starry-eyed with possibility, and shiver with impassioned impatience for spring.