Other people’s gardens

It is possible to deliberately make a decision and know deeply that, whichever path taken, there will be regrets.

Last fall and winter, when I was studying the idea of selling our house and moving to an apartment in another neighborhood, I anticipated the loss of the part of my life that gardens. I knew I would be putting aside not just that activity, but also that self, the me that digs, plants, weeds, waters, monitors, and tends.

And I did it: I sold the house. With it, I sold the lawnmower, the surplus fertilizers, shovels, rakes, a spade, and a hoe. We moved to a third-floor apartment. While our balcony presents the opportunity for container gardening, there is no native dirt.

I wanted this, right?

We moved in February. I was relieved at the thought of shoveling snow no more. In fact, I imagined if I lived in an apartment for the rest of my life, it would always be someone else’s job to shovel.

I miss digging. Just typing those words filled me with longing, like how remembering one’s own babies provokes a physical longing to hold them again, eat their toes, smell their shampooed hair.

Not just longing, a sadness, too, for what I willingly gave up. Usually to proceed you have to let go. So, the dirt.

 

In our new neighborhood, I make the rounds of the side streets three times a day with Winston the dog. Since spring began, we’ve been examining the gardens of our unfamiliar neighbors. Winston uses his nose, and I my eyes. Slowly, through March, April, and early May the plants and trees woke up. In May, all the green exploded.

Flowers came out, and so did the porch chairs, pots, garden ornaments, and hoses. Occasionally I’d see a gardener squatting in her yard, a claw in her hand. A woman instructing two little girls in how to weed. A man, pivoting in place, with his hand clenched around the trigger of a sprayer hose.

I am like a tourist in this new neighborhood. The houses are old – about a century – with front porches and what a realtor calls “mature” landscaping. These houses and gardens are established. I’m no kid, but I’m new on the block, and as a renter I may not live here long enough to make ties.

It’s weird, honestly, to like where you live, to find it interesting and beneficial, and yet to have no house or dirt to belong to. If you’ve lived in your apartment or house long enough, you know the nicks in the woodwork, the funny way the shower valve operates, the cool corner of the bare-floored room that your dog favors, and the trick to get the kitchen door to close without slamming it. The paint: you like the colors you picked. In the yard, you like to check in on the plants that came to you from the yards of people you love, admire the magnolia you tended since its sapling years, and experiment with perennials that tolerate your dry shade conditions. You get the soil tested; you file its report card away; you adjust the pH.

That you was me.

Now I’m an observer, a wallflower, or maybe I should call myself a sidewalk flower because that’s what I do, stand on the sidewalk with Winston as my excuse for loitering and keep my eye on the progress of the landscape as it comes to life in the front yards of neighbors I haven’t met.

I fantasize about passing by at just the right time and getting invited up onto the porch and into a chair to pass the evening and let someone tell me about the neighborhood, its history, and its inhabitants.

I do say hello, and I have gathered some first names. I know the people in my building. And I live with Grace and Winston, and Eli and Lydia when they’re with us.

This is home, and yet we’re not rooted in it. We live here. Most days, I’m happy about that. I like the adventure of it. A few times, though, the implication of what I have done – uprooted our lives – hovers over me like dark wings, and I think, “My god, what have I done?”

The feeling lasts only an hour or so. It helps to take the dog outside and walk the routes I am coming to favor. I remind myself that I chose this, I wanted this, and sometimes the location cure is exactly what a family needs.

Gardening is revising

dahlia1I hadn’t really planned to garden on Saturday — I have been fantasizing about a day of decadent rest with books and a lightly spiked drink — but after Jimmy and I dropped Lydia off at 6:30am in the South End for the first leg of her trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with Boston Children’s Chorus, I had a hankering for both dirt and improvement.

“How would you feel about a quick trip to Home Depot? I believe it opens at seven.”

“Sure,” said Jimmy, the driver.

By 7:30am, we had pots of sunflowers, flats of ground ivy, and one red dahlia, which I had to buy because, as I told Jimmy, “It’s alone, and it needs me.” It was the last dahlia in sight.

revision_sunflowers potsThe sunflowers that Lydia and I planted a few weeks ago never really took off. I blame the black landscaper’s cloth; I should have used the white cloth I used for my first folly. A few seedlings came up here and there but not enough to insure a burst of yellow in August. Instead of giving up and throwing down grass seed, I thought I’d help nature along and augment our few babies with some adolescent plants from the nursery.

revision_sunflowersBy 8:30am, they were planted in the two narrow rectangles in front of the house between the road and the town sidewalk. The dahlia doesn’t really fit, but she needs sun too, so I nestled her in with the sunflowers.

revision_afterAfter we had a coffee-and-dog break, Jimmy went back to Home Depot for some rolled sod, which was scheduled to arrive in the store at 11am. Meanwhile, I started digging up the area around my path to nowhere. The heavy rains mid-June had pounded away a lot of the grass seed, and the water also revealed some stones that had been too deeply set. They were enough below ground level that a huge puddle formed, about two inches deep and three feet in diameter. The birds were happy, but I didn’t make the path for it to become an occasional birdbath.

revision_pathAs I dug, I thought about writing and especially about revising. It can be very exciting when you jump into a new project full of energy and vision. The satisfaction of finishing a first draft — whether it’s a poem or a new flower bed — reflects a glow onto the work itself. For a while, the draft can shimmer in beauty simply by virtue of being done and having an existence outside the maker’s head. But then some time passes, whether days or weeks, and shimmer fades and the reality of the draft reveals itself. There are awkward phrases; there are gaps; and there are puddles that make only birds happy.

Jimmy returned with the sod, and he dug too. We got dirty, and the closer we got to getting done, the messier this revision became. I tossed rocks to the side as I came across them. We pulled up stray roots. I wondered of course why I was re-making a path to nowhere. The world doesn’t need it.

At one point Jimmy, noting my tight-lipped fatigue, suggested that we put the tools aside and get back to it next Sunday. I looked him in the eye and said, “We have to finish it today.”

revision_Jimmy sunflowers 250In the middle of revision, even though I enjoy having something to work with and puzzling over problems, it often starts to look worse before I can make it better. In such moments, it is tempting to put the hard work aside and fall in love with a new project. People say the blank page is scary, and it can be, but it’s also full of possibility: a screen I can project my hopes onto. In the middle of a revision, it’s easy to lose heart, because I can start to see what my poem or essay or sunflower folly or wandering path will not become.

And yet only by finishing it will it become something. So we dig, shovel, smooth. We finish, as well as we can.

It was a beautiful morning for nematodes

Sometimes I do these things just to do them. For example, I saw on MAKE this watering can made from an empty milk jug, and I had to make one simply because I could.

nematodes_sprinkleLast year my cheap plastic watering reached the point of battered beyond use, and I threw it away. I haven’t replaced it because it seems an unnecessary purchase. The hose will do.

But I had a sudden urgent need for a watering can: 10,000,000 beneficial nematodes (Steinerema feltiae) in our refrigerator that had to be applied to the lawn on a rainy day. Today was that day.

nematodes_fridgeWhat are nematodes? They are microscopic parasites that kill other parasites, namely the grubs in the dirt under our lawn. Those grubs grow up to be some kind of scarab beetle, and beetles eat the fibrous roots of turf grass.

A mournful violin tune could be played every July in my front yard after the bright green grass starts to die off and wither in patches. I’ve done the soil analysis, and we have applied compost and extra nitrogen. No matter how much we tend to it, the lawn gets sickly after its early summer burst. I don’t want to spread a toxic chemical like GrubX on it. That seems like a greater harm than good. Nematodes, purchased from Gardens Alive!, are benign to all organisms but for beetle grubs, into which they burrow and eat their guts out.

Plus, I have seen grubs while planting — their fat, white fetal bodies curled into a C shape, so visible against a scoop of dark soil.

This morning, the ground was wet, but there was a lull in the rain. Under Winston’s supervision, I made a watering can from an empty water jug: I heated the tip of a brad nail with a BIC® lighter and pierced the jug lid many times.

nematodes_punctureThen I mixed 5,000,000 nematodes with tap water I had already put into the jug. (After I used up the first solution, I came back and repeated the process with the other 5,000,000 nematodes for the other half of the front lawn.)

nematodes_mixtureWith my homemade watering can, I applied the water-and-nematode solution to the grass by shaking the jug and squeezing it a bit too.

Continue reading

Well-made path to nowhere

We’ve lived in our house since June 1999. In the backyard, under a huge Japanese maple, is a dry, packed-dirt patch that has defied the planting of grass and flowers. Because it’s a long and narrow strip that follows the length of my neighbor’s fence, it has always seemed to be a natural location for a stone path.

But paths should lead you to a spectacle or stopping place, and one planted there would only lead you to my neighbor’s gate, which is never used. These neighbors are homebodies — the indoor kind — and we never stand in our backyards talking or offering pies to each other or doing whatever friendly people divided by fences do.

The path idea, though, had planted itself in my mind. Several weeks ago I picked a Saturday and wrote on my calendar: rent roto tiller! With that, a project was set in motion.

It takes longer than a morning to make a path. The labor happened over a few weekends; as of yesterday afternoon (Sunday June 2nd), it’s done. Here is how it unfolded in 10 illustrations: nine photos and one movie.

1. Tilling begins.

1 Path

2. Tiller does its thing; man follows. (Note: this is 7-sec movie.)

Continue reading

Return of the sunflower folly, with modifications

homemade seed marker

homemade seed marker

In the spring of 2009, I planted a sunflower folly in half of the front yard: link. It was a dramatic success. For me, it had been an experiment as well as a therapeutic act after I had experienced a major disappointment. In September, the growing season done, I was content with the results of my folly, documented them, and set the idea aside.

A month ago, as she watched me start the spring clean up, Lydia asked, “Can you do the sunflowers again? I loved that.” So here I go again, although on a smaller scale.

This time, instead of planting half the front lawn, we tilled up the barren strips that lie between the road and the town sidewalk. Sunflowers can grow anywhere, and the poor quality of this soil will not deter them. The flowers’ appearance will also delight passers-by and provide us with a visual screen.

Mail-order seed packets

Mail-order seed packets

Seeds were purchased from Burpee and Gurney’s. Because the planted area would be smaller, I only ordered six packages total, in a variety of colors and heights:

  • Elf: yellow, 14″ to 16″ stems (Burpee)
  • Sunspot: yellow, 2′ stems (Gurney’s)
  • Chianti Hybrid: burgundy with gold, 4′ to 5′ stems (Burpee)
  • Hybrid Double Shine: fuzzy orange, not many seeds, 5′ stemps (Gurney’s)
  • Coconut Ice Hybrid: white, 5′ to 6′ stems (Burpee)
  • Solar Flare: flame red, 5′ to 6′ stems (Burpee)

After tilling (thank you, Jimmy), Lydia raked and smoothed the dirt. I sprinkled on some foul-smelling fertilizer, and we used the eraser ends of pencils to make 1″ holes for planting the seeds.

Lydia plants her batch

Lydia plants her batch

Lydia came up with the planting scheme: tallest flowers in the sight line from our front windows, with shorter ones surrounding them. Her first proposal was that we “throw them down and let nature take its course,” but that was not enough of a scheme for me.

supplies: landscaper's cloth, staples, fertilizer, and espresso

supplies: landscaper’s cloth, staples, fertilizer, and espresso

This was quick work. After planting, I watered the dirt lightly, put down some landscaper’s cloth with big staples (I used black cloth this time because I could grab it at Home Depot, but wish I had the white that I mail-ordered and used for my first folly). I made some improvisatory seed markers with the seed envelopes, some gardening sticks, and binder clips. See above.

I drank espresso. Winston kept us company.

Winston, good company for gardeners

Winston, good company for gardeners

Official planting date: Monday, May 20. Stay tuned for progress reports.

—–

Previous posts on the Sunflower Folly of 2009, in chronological order:

  1. Sunflower folly: link (with full instructions)
  2. Sprouts: link (first sprouts, 13 days after planting seeds)
  3. First sunflower: link (first sunflower, 73 days after planting seeds)
  4. Habitat: link (folly as habitat for a wild rabbit)
  5. Harvest: link (sunflower harvest, four months after planting)

Held in place by snow

The birdhouse, which came with the big tree on our property when we bought it in 1999, has no function. There has never been a bird in it. Once I saw a squirrel in it and another time a full triangle of pizza! I put the two together and deduced that the squirrel had stolen it from garbage and set it aside for later eating.

Snow_birdhouse

It seems banal to take a picture of a snowy birdhouse among snowy branches, but often the everyday items of our lives gain in resonance and beauty when they stand out, visually emphasized by the snow, which obliterates the background.

So much was blanked out in this Blizzard of ’13. Even my neighbors’ yard, which abuts ours, became softer and more lovely to look at in the snow. The dying cypress hedge punctuates the view, indicates where we end and they begin. Last summer, the dying cypress hedge, dried and brittle looking, was only an eyesore and the topic of repetitive unresolved conversations with the neighbors, who own the hedge and don’t want to cut the shrubs down. Isaac and Olga want to leave the hedge there and plant other things in front. Bamboo, for example. In the meantime, to get privacy from us, they have leaned old wooden pallets against the dying hedge and planted junk vines that they have draped on the dying branches. On our side, I have done no more than keep it clean and trimmed. A fence is called for, but expensive.

I imagine standing in their yard and looking past the dried, thinning cypress into my yard: big Japanese maple, recently painted house, no debris in yard. I feel proud — too proud — and resentful. Why do they get my work as a view and I have to look at their clutter as mine?

At one time, when the children were small and we had a swing set and less time for gardening, no doubt there were days of our clutter that they had to look at. Maybe they are more generous, or more clutter-loving, and could look past what was then our stuff and appreciate the activity.

When we meet them in the summer at the property line, they do comment on the children and reminisce about the times they watched them play. “What a nice family,” they say. We have been spied on kindly, I gather.

It’s not them I don’t like. In fact, on days when they set up all their white tables and borrowed chairs, I know their many friends are coming and that the yard will be filled with people visiting, talking, eating, and that the lovely sound of a chorus of voices in the outdoors dark will comfort me as I go to bed.

It’s like the sound of being a child and going to bed while one’s parents and their friends are in the living room or finished basement, playing cards and drinking cocktails and laughing. The sound of both mystery and safety.

Continue reading

A tree grows in Brookline

On Saturday I went to Allandale Farm looking for end-of-season hostas. No luck in the perennial section. I wandered by the trees, though, and saw an Eastern Redbud, a good understory tree that I’ve been looking around to buy. This one was about eight feet tall and 50% off. I went home in my little Honda, got Jimmy, and drove back to the farm in the minivan.

The tree fit horizontally in the back of the van, with the hatch open. I rode in the middle seat, holding on to the pot and looking at the branches fluttering out the open back. Another car followed us until we turned, and it did feel like being a kid again and sitting in the way back of a station wagon with the window down. Why that constituted adventure, I’m not sure. But it did.

On Sunday I got the hole started, digging in a corner of our backyard where trees from the three other yards that join ours at that point send out their root system into our patch. I snapped at those suckers with a pruner as a I went. Jimmy returned from an errand and finished the digging and root pruning. It takes about an hour to dig a hole for a small tree.

Gardening is occasionally a fight with the earth, when I am bemoaning weather, shade, or soil conditions — or even neighbor conditions. For example, the folks on our western boundary have a long row of hemlocks affected by that persistent fungus epidemic, and all we can do is live with the showers of needles that are shed from those ailing trees.

On Sunday, however, I had the feeling of planting a tree as being an act of capitulation and acceptance. This is where I live, this is our tiny corner, and this is our dirt. Bringing a tree into the yard seemed like a re-commitment ceremony, a signal that I embrace everything my habitat is and everything it is not.

In my adult life, in my relationships with the people closest to me, and in the roughest times with them, it is often my feeling of having my feet on the ground and my life physically connected to other lives that has reminded me of my place on the Earth: what I’m about, and where I fit in.

I do have those fleeting fantasies of being untethered and not tied to people or property, to live the free-floating life. Like everything that floats, however, there is no shape, color, smell, sound, or weight to that. I picture that as me alone in space and not in a place. That is not adulthood; that’s nothing-hood.

As I was planting my tree — and I reserved the best task for myself, the back filling of the hole with dirt, the mulching, the water — I was contentedly renewing my alliance with the patch of ground I live on and the people I live on it with. This is the you I take care of. I will be here for a while.

And whether this is who I am by nature, or who I have become over time and long habit, does not matter.

—–
Thanks to Mary Schwartz for her suggestion of a title for this post, which is of course an homage to that wonderful novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943).

Everywhere you go, there’s a habitat

I am working at home today. As a break, I thought I’d complete a fix-up of our old garage door. I went to screw on the new weather stripping and noticed that the handle to the pull-up door is rusted and bent.

After I found what I wanted at the local Home Depot and paid for it, I couldn’t help wandering over to the Garden Department. I hovered around the on-sale perennials (two for $10), and I noticed this creature hovering around the butterfly bush, as it should.

The fall annuals, especially mums, are getting star billing at all the nurseries and garden centers right now, but try not to let your head get turned. Walk to the back of the store, where you’ll find some drooping and over-sunned perennials deeply discounted. It’s the perfect time to plant them. I bought two sets of 4 each (hosta and phlox), violating the rule of Plant in Threes, I know, but they were each the last of the batches, and I could not leave them lonely.

I like digging things into the ground now because it gives me a sense of anticipation for the spring. There will be a long period of darkness and rest in which I’ll forget about the new additions to the yard and then, come May, voilà. There they will be.