We've lived in our house for six years now. Even though we are surrounded by woods, the area around the newly built house was bare at first, and each spring, I plant more trees and bushes, more perennial plants. I love to add new things. Yesterday, I roamed about my yards counting all that I've planted: 21 trees altogether and 38 bushes. The river birches that I planted the first year are higher than the house now, providing shade on the southwest corner of the house. The lilac bushes are taller than me now, and should be covered with flowers in May. I've got seven flower gardens tucked into spots all around and two 12' by 12' raised bed vegetable gardens.
Most of my plantings came from friends or relatives. The first year we lived here, Red-haired Sister brought me forsythia bushes, clumps of perennials, and baby pine trees from her own yard 250 miles away. The day lilies and the peonies came from Blonde Sister, from the yard of the house that once belonged to my grandmother. The coreopsis, the daffodils, and the lily of the valley come from my parents’ house, the home of my childhood. The white pines are transplanted from the woods at camp. The lilac bushes come from a place up near camp too, a site where about an acre of lilacs grow around an abandoned house. The rhubarb plants come from a neighbor, who taught my kids to dip rhubarb stalks into sugar and eat them raw. The chocolate mint that grows wild near the edge of my vegetable garden, with a scent that makes me hungry when I work in the garden, came from Red-haired Sister.
The vegetable gardens are beds raised above the heavy clay soil, filled with the free mulch that I can get from the DPW. My brother-in-law, who drives a truck, helped me fill the beds with mulch one Easter. I make many trips to the DPW every May, filling the back of my station wagon with mulch to add organic material to my garden. The shade garden at the north side of the house, filled with hostas and all sorts of deep purple flowers, are plants that I dug from Reiki Woman’s garden when she divorced her husband and had to move from her house quickly. I am holding them here for her until she has a place for them. Two of the river birches in my back yard make me think of Jedi Knight, a student from Brooklyn who stayed with me one May because he was taking an EMT course and needed somewhere to live after the dorms closed. He lived with us for a couple of weeks, and it was great to have someone help me with the back-breaking work of digging deep holes in a clay soil.
I don't buy many plants at nurseries, even though I do love to visit the local nursery and walk through the aisles of flowers. One exception is the river birches. When I first moved into the house, I consulted Dendrologist Friend about what kind of trees I should plant near the house. "River birches," he said immediately. "They are native and will thrive even in this heavy clay soil. They grow fast and will be beautiful, but they will remain flexible enough to survive in a storm so they won’t threaten your house."
So each year, I call the local nursery and harrass them until they get me a couple clumps of river birches. ("No, I don’t want white birches or paper birches! They are too prone to disease! They have to be river birches, betula nigra. ") The owner of the nursery has heard my little speech about river birches so many times now that he does order some each year.
The other thing I've bought at the local nursery are coneflowers. Well, that is what the nursery calls them but they look like a version of what I call black-eyed suzies. These were my Aunt Mae’s favorite flowers. Even though Aunt Mae died thirty years ago, I think of her whenever I see all these yellow daisy-like flowers with the brown eyes in the middle. And they grow in such big tall clumps, so colorful and striking, that no one ever notices that I have not bothered to weed the garden.
When it comes to gardening, my philosophy is simple. I dig up stuff I can get free from family and friends. I will take trees that grow wild when the seedlings spring up under power lines and places where they cannot survive. I plant stuff that will grow well in this climate and soil, so that I won't have to do any work after it's planted. Lilac bushes are wonderful, for example. Stick them in the ground, do nothing else, and they will reward you with fragrant blooms every spring for the rest of your life. With flowers, I go for big and colorful, so that they hide all the weeds that I never bother to pull. (I love to garden in May, but I lose interest when the weather turns hot.) With vegetables, I go for the stuff that tastes especially good homegrown – like tomatoes.
In this climate, I can't really start my gardens until May. We are sure to get some snow in April. And it makes no sense to plant anything until the soil is warm. The danger of a hard frost is not past until about Memorial Day. But that doesn't mean I can't walk around my gardens on the first day of April, remembering what I have and planning what I want, looking forward to those lovely spring days in May when I can have my hands in the earth again.