Seven Bits of Garden Randomness
1. My first attempts at gardening were at the house my ex-husband and I owned – still own, in fact, due to inertia and a mutual inability to buy each other out, although I haven’t been there in years – in upstate New York. The house and field are on a flat area between a steep wooded hill and the West Branch of the Delaware River – a small-scale alluvial plain. Just that word, alluvial, sounds like things should be growing on it, sprouting from the surrounding punctuation. And indeed, all I had to do was throw seeds in the general vicinity of the ground for them to take root and flourish wildly. It also helped that the place had been a working dairy farm before we bought it, and the patch I used for my vegetable garden was slightly downhill from the barn – in fact, the cleanout area was full of this almost black compost made of cowshit and loamy brown earth, and everything it touched sprouted. I believe the word I’m looking for here is fecund. Flowers grew, herbs grew, vegetables grew. I was stunned at my green thumb.
As a longtime city dweller, I’d always wanted a garden of my own. I probably would have been satisfied with a postage stamp-sized arrangement of patio and planters, but what I ended up with was a wild and woolly double lot, big enough for a dog to chase a ball, and only a step or two away from vacant lot status. There is dirt, but there are also equal parts rocks and glass, as well as plumbing parts, asbestos roof shingles, terra cotta potshards, welding slag, pieces of blue shag rug, foil insulation, empty catfood cans, and other treasures. I had some junk trees, a dead tree, and a medium-sized mulberry tree that shat all over everything in the summer taken out at great expense, but the place is still largely a shade garden. I haven’t had the soil tested, but it seems like some of it’s sandy, some of it’s clay, and some of it is wonderful and full of big fat nightcrawlers.
And the first few years… nothing grew. This is what I guess you’d call difficult terrain, and I came at it with a false confidence left over from my alluvial Eden. So it was back to Square One and then another couple of steps behind that for good measure. This is my Garden of Humility. If this yard ever looks like anything at all, I will have learned some serious stuff. In the meantime, every spring and summer is an education of its own.
2. No matter what I pull out of the earth, more comes up. It replenishes itself with rocks and glass on a regular basis, and what looked like beautiful soil for a lettuce garden in April was a clotted trash heap in May. The hardy viney things, cucumber and squash, clawed their way out. Radishes, chives, lettuce, anything pretty and delicate, didn’t have a chance.
So next year I’m doing raised beds. I have the book. I have some power tools. I can follow directions – that’s all baking is, after all, or putting together IKEA furniture, both of which I’m perfectly capable of. Only the scale is different, and the absence of pre-drilled holes. I think I can handle it.
And if I bring in a few bags of soil every weekend, by next spring I should have enough to actually grow stuff.
3. But we’ve gotten a bunch of cucumbers! They’ve been sweet and good in salads. Also tons of herbs, and a few sweet little carrots.
4. The weeds have also done well. We decided at some point that green was better than brown, and since beggars can’t be choosers, our best shot at having more green than brown in the yard this year was to let the weeds grow. And so we have. They have a certain wild majesty to them, and some of them are actually quite beautiful. You know… I’m betting the effect would be improved by cutting them all to roughly the same height to get rid of that raggedness and bring out their best qualities. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that until this moment, but I guess that’s why gardening and writing go well together. And now I have a project for this weekend – sooner, if I get restless.
5. The large Ivy League urban university I work for (which description I guess pretty much eliminates any need to be coy and not mention its name, but humor me) has more money than God, which consequently means they can spend more money than God spends on landscaping. This can be a little intimidating and/or depressing – I mean, everything there is perfect. Color-coordinated, healthy, with no awkward gaps, and as the seasons progress so do the appropriate plantings. Perfect. As your garden would be if you had a whole bunch of gardeners working full-time and that aforementioned money.
But when I can get past the negative feelings, it’s also very instructional. There’s a lot of information to be gleaned – what works in what light, what time of year, what looks good together. It’s all an extension of the concept of humility that gardening seems to be drumming home for me. Once I can get outside of my pettier emotions, there is much to be learned every day when I’m walking in to work.
6. For instance, they have a couple of beautiful enormous oak leaf hydrangeas to either side of the entry door to my workplace, and they have been an inspiration to me. Jeff and I bought an oak leaf hydrangea last summer, in semi-bloom, with high hopes. It was from a trip to the Yonkers garden center that we took together, but it was always somewhat Jeff’s baby – he’d fallen for it. And out of all the plants we bought that day – almost all of which failed to thrive, may I add – that one held out the most hope. It was nibbled on all summer, by what we don’t know. Squirrels or raccoons or our dog, it doesn’t much matter. It was nibbled and stripped down to almost nothing, and then this past spring, when a short naked stalk still looked to have survived the winter, a workman in the employ of our evil neighbor Nate put his ladder down squarely on top of it, killing it completely. (The reason Nate had a workman on a ladder in our yard had to do with his attempt to pull down a loose tree limb that was hanging from a branch over his roof, which we were concerned about falling on said roof, and which he could have very easily pulled down from his upstairs window if he had half a brain in his fucking thick skull. But I digress.)
But hope springs eternal, and this summer I went back to the garden center and bought another oak leaf hydrangea, this one not in bloom and half the price of the first one. I’d done a little research this time, and traded in the pretty flowers for a little health and strength. I bought a bag of the correct fertilizer, put it in a spot where it would get the morning light it wants and not have its feet wet all the time, and hoped whatever ate it last year would find its volume and location discouraging. And so far it’s doing great. It’s robust and happy-looking, with lots of new growth both top and bottom. Maybe there won’t be any blooms next year either, but if it’s still here next year I’ll be so happy. Because I bought it for Jeff, and because hope springs eternal.
7. Which brings me to #7, which is how much gardening resembles much of the rest of my life. I’d love to have a lyrical and uncomplicated relationship to it. I’d love to say that gardening is guaranteed to restore me, that being out in the sun with my hands in the dirt is good and elemental and replenishing, how in a complicated world it is nothing but honest and teaches by humbling me and thrilling me in equal turns.
And hey, that’s often true. Then again, a lot of the time it’s just a whole lot of work.
This has been a shitty summer. Can I say that? This is a public blog and I don’t know many of my readers, or I don’t know them all that well, and I don’t like to get too personal except in a heart-wrenching, dead-dog kind of way. But really, this summer has kind of sucked. I didn’t leave the city once and I tore some ligament in the bottom of my foot so I haven’t been getting enough exercise and my one week off was spent at home doing shit like dropping off dry cleaning and taking in pictures to get framed and playing Alchemy. And my house is a hot box the likes of which they could use to interrogate suspected terrorists, especially the kitchen, and I haven’t had enough money together at any given time to get a ceiling fan installed. And other stuff.
So just as I’ve been wrestling with all sorts of other recalcitrant elements in my life, I’ve been going back and forth with my feelings about gardening. Because I want it to be EASIER, dammit, with more to show for my efforts. Because once I’ve committed to it – and I did, back in the spring when everything was sweet and cool and all potential – I have to do the all the fucking work. Because I said I would. Because I know I’ll be happier if I do. And because sometimes, once I put on my shorts and my cool green work gloves and get my sorry, depressed ass out there, I do have fun. In fact, most of the time. But it’s still work to get to that point. And let’s face it, my life is full of plenty of drudgery without manufacturing any more.
But gardening is not drudgery. It’s something else, some kind of promise that I can’t quite put my finger on.
I will build raised beds for next year. I will bring in garden soil a few bags at a time. I will plant bulbs in the fall so I have something pretty to look at first thing next year. I will start my seedlings in newspaper pots early, so that maybe I’ll have tomatoes and peppers by next August. I will figure out what worked this year and do it again, and I will figure out what failed and do something different. I will nurture everything that survives the winter, and supplement it so there are fewer weeds and more intentionals. And I will keep that oak leaf hydrangea alive no matter what. And I will have fun, dammit. It doesn’t feel that way right now, in September, when everything that was going to fail has failed and everything that worked is on its way out.
But I do believe that. It will be fun. This winter will be long and I will read a lot of gardening books and hatch a bunch of plans, and by the time next spring rolls around I’ll be ready to enjoy it again. Whatever I end up with. All I have between now and then is that trust that it will be fun. I guess that’s all we ever have.