April 01, 2006

Thoughts turn to gardening

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.

21 comments:

Jen said...

That sounds beautiful, Jo(e). I envy your ability to garden, and you've almost tempted me to ask the apartment building's caretaker if I can help her in the gardens in front of our apartments. It's not quite the same thing in the middle of a city, but then again, I suppose we need it even more!

purple_kangaroo said...

Wow, Sounds beautiful

liz said...

What P_K said.

I'm drooling.

Bardiac said...

Oh, that sounds wonderful!

Gardening gives me hope of spring! And seriously, I need some hope. My crocuses are about an inch and a half tall now. /sigh

I love sharing plants around. I got a couple irises when I moved to my area some years ago, and recently split them and gave some to lots of friends. It's just a great feeling.

Now if only spring would come!!!

Friday Mom said...

The apartment I'm moving to has an eclectic array of plants, trees and shrubs. I asked the owner about it. She had a story for everything there...mostly about the renter/residents who planted them. I love how the plants have stories.

Bitty said...

(Sigh.)

I miss very little about the climate where I grew up, in Maryland, but I deeply miss lilacs and forsythia, which do not grow in Florida.

Please enjoy them for me!

susan said...

Have you read Schaafsma's Eating on the Street? I used to live in the apartment whose garden he describes in the very beginning, and that garden drew me into gardening more actively. The guys who lived in the apartment before me were fabulous gardeners, and I had to learn a lot to keep it up (sort of).

I love the relationships that you trace through the land and your friends and family. I can look around my yard and see tons of plants that came from other people, and plants I've divided for others, too.

peripateticpolarbear said...

I only kill plants and flowers, so I'm truly impressed with all these!

Mieke said...

There is an APB out at all nurseries in the state - I am certain that a fuzzy black and white picture of me hangs beside the register of every one with my list of deaths upon it.

I have what you would call a black thumb. BLACK! Which is too bad because I love to garden. I love the process of tilling the soil, the smell of freshly turned earth wafting up. I love strategizing which seeds will go where and burying them with all the hope for what they will become - but never do. I have given up. I leave it to my sister now. Just as I leave baking to her.

Your evocative writing makes me want to try again. Thanks for that peek into your world. You have an enviable life Jo(e)

OTRgirl said...

I don't have gardening friends down here since I'm one of the few homeowners with a yard. (Baltimore is renowned for her row homes) I'm jealous you could get all that for free. It sounds beautiful!

On the plus side, I'm further south than you, so I just spent yesterday planting perennials around the base of the trees I planted in the fall. I have a 10 foot sapling that grew wild from my Japanese maple (free), a Japanese lilac tree (NOT free), and a Red-but Pansy (half-price due to scalding in a Home Depot lot). I love looking around the yard and picturing what it will look like in five years. Gardening with perennials reminds me to think long-term and be patient with waiting.

zelda1 said...

My house in the valley has plants that came from other people's gardens. My plum tree was a friends who like your friend had to leave her house suddenly and so we dug up her newly planted plum tree and a few other plants and planted them a corner in my back yard, a corner my seven-year-old grandson calls Kay's corner because those are Kay's plants. Kay died before she could ever retrieve her tree or any of her plants, and so her sister is coming soon to take one of the baby plumes that came up last year and is big enough now to safely transplant. I miss my valley house and wish I could be there to watch all the plants and flowers and trees and even wild flowers bloom. But here in the big woods, I get to see all the trees in their glory. The river birch is a big tree here too as is the dog wood. I love them both. Now, the bare mountain is spotted with purple redbud blooms, white and red and pink dog wood blooms, and bright purple and white wild pear and apple tree blooms. I like the way the river birch sheds that layer of bark. I always try to keep one, don't ask why, I don't know.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I'd love to take a walk in your garden -- it makes me miss mine terribly. We now live in a place with only a balcony, and a mostly shaded one at that! Spring isn't the same...

T.W. said...

I wish I had the time and space for a garden, but I guess I will have to be satisfied with the mold in my dorm room...

Rana said...

Your post is reminding me of my grandparents' yard; Grandpa was a big garden enthusiast, and had planted an entire forest in the back half of the yard. (The front half was a vegetable garden, little trellises, and bird feeders.)

I so hear you about the impatience to get the garden started. I've begun sprouting things in the basement just because I've been so antsy I can't stand it. I love looking at the little lettuce and pea plants in their tubs!

Scrivener said...

So maybe my problem with gardening is that I have to buy plants from the nursery?

halloweenlover said...

I thought I was the only one that loves to add add add to her garden! Last summer I purchased a miniature lilac bush, and this weekend it sprouted its first buds. I'm so proud.

Those river birches sound fantastic too.

I've been nervous about planting, because I'm also convinced that we will have snow in April. I saw my whole neighborhood out this weekend planting new flowers and bushes, and I'm afraid this is a random warm spell.

listmaker said...

jo(e), this brought tears to my eyes. My lilacs came from stock planted by my grandmother in the 1920s. My daylilies are from the roadside near AncestralHome. The damn tansy I can't get rid of came from BestSister, who loves to see me fight with it. This summer I'll deconstruct most of my flower beds to make lawn maintenance easier while the house is on the market. Your post reminds me that I need to plan what I can take with me to my next house.

PurpleDaisy said...

You have inspired me.
This weekend I'm going to buy a pot and plant something in it.
I will grow it.
It will be my little garden.

I love this post!

MindSpin said...

I think you are my sister gardener :->.

What Now? said...

You know, maybe I should move to a colder climate, so that I could go into high gardening mode in May -- conveniently at the end of school. It's only in the last year or so that I've figured out that gardening requires paying attention to natural and weather cycles rather than school cycles.

Krista said...

Oh, I love spring too. I have a similar philosophy of my gardens too. Even though I live in farming community in Germany, we have pretty poor soil--real clay-y too! Do you have lavendar? Any herbs? This year I hope to get in a raised vegetable garden. Would love to see some photos, if you can post any!