My daughter laughs hysterically when she reads my blog posts with adjectives trying to bring imagery to a situation for a reader. I always tell young writers you have to write so the audience ‘sees’ it- write to ‘show’ them – not to ‘tell’ them. She giggles after reading about the pantry door in the summer at our house saying, “It’s exactly like that, mama.”
Another detail that reminds me that summer has arrived is the smell of water from the garden hose. There’s something about it – the water that lingered in the length of hose before bursting out into the hot sticky summer air that just takes me back to being a kid playing in the sprinkler- its stale rubbery odor that comes from bring warmed in the sun. It has this smell that takes me right to that place- the same way the smell of caterpillar cocoons takes me back to when I held a butter jar full of sleeping caterpillars – cupped with two small four year old hands – awaiting the day they’d awaken as butterflies. However – nowadays I’m not playing with water and watching caterpillars but tending the veggies in my garden.
In the evening I like to walk outside when the air has cooled and see how much growth my cucumbers have seen during a day of hanging on a vine or watch the reddening of a tomato lingering at the stake for more sun drenched color. It’s the same hopeful feeling as when I was a child – but now I’m the mom with a big person agenda. Tonight I raced outside before a summer rain hit to pluck a few gems from the garden. My happiness comes from slicing freshly picked vegetables and cut herbs into the hands of my own little ones and watching them build their own nostalgia.
My goal this year was by the first of May to have all of my seedlings in the ground. It’s been strangely chilly with bouts of hot weather, but the frosty mornings seemed to have been over for a while – well before our projected last frost date. I have a couple of varieties of cucumbers, a handful of tomatoes, lots of herbs, organic carrots, radishes, and lettuce. I plan on building a fence around the vegetable patch this year to protect it from the deer. I loved the picture above of my cucumber seedling starting off.
What is it about an impending project that makes me think it needs to be torn down to the ground before it can be built again? Here is a recent picture of one of my garden beds that received such scrutiny. It had already begun to wake up and grow but I thought it was time for movement. I tore out plants that had divided and irises that had multiplied by the hundreds until they filled four trashbags. That was several weeks ago now and since the gardens have been cleaned and mulched and are blooming in sporadic spots. I haven’t done my spring photographs yet but am waiting until the coveted peony bloom.
I see this picture from weeks ago and the finished result now and wish everything could be so easy. I wish I could see the end in sight and know where I am going when things seems their hardest.
Anytime I inherit something I think I should make use of it somehow and feel guilty if there are materials that aren’t made use of somehow – it’s my green approach to yard work. Such was the case with the brick garden wall. I inherited some bricks that seemed to be just about enough to build an arched garden wall to raise the bed on the sloped side of the house. I had to buy a few more to complete it and stuck the whole thing together with construction grade Liquid Nails. It has braved the elements for several years and held up a lot of dirt, endured me steeping along it while adding new pounds of mulch each spring and the constant influx of new plantings.
It was ugly. I knew it. Yes – I know you think it. I am fine with it. I was happy with it when I made it – I used my level to carefully level each layer of bricks as I placed them but over time, with erosion, and the dying of nearby roots, the brick wall was no longer level. As I mentioned, they were inherited – good enough to use – but not loved, and once it became a rickety wall it grew to be the bain of my garden. After the installation of the new siding it suddenly became even worse.
I decided that it needed a change – irregular colonial gray flagstone in a stacked wall style. That was what I originally dreamed of years ago, but felt like I should use what was around. I did not have the heart, will, or strength to remove the brick wall, so I decided to build the stone wall around the bricks. At the end, I did end up removing a couple of levels of brick that are now in the garden cart awaiting some project or another person who likes to use what’s around.
I ordered one pallet of stones that arrived bright and early last Saturday morning (after pleading with the manager of the garden shop for an early morning delivery) that was promptly dropped on its head at the street so they could take their pallet back. I couldn’t believe the size of it – sprawling across the street enmeshed in the chicken wire holding it together. The mail man drove by later in the day after I had started taking loads to the hill and said he ‘couldn’t believe that I’d finish it that day’ and that I should ‘be safe.’ I felt like one of my most loved children’s books – Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. In the story, Mike Mulligan insists that he and his lovely steam shovel, Mary Anne (the only steam shovel that I thought was such a beautiful girl steam shovel complete with a sweet smile when I was younger – and still do when I reread that book), could do as much in a day as a hundred men could do in a week. Mike Mulligan proved all of the townspeople wrong when he dug the town hall in just a day. I felt like Mike Mulligan last Saturday determined to prove to the mail man that I could do it.
With only one minor injury – a stone smashed finger- to speak of and several days of extremely stiff and sore muscles that are almost the rite of passage to christen a new gardening year, I came out relatively unscathed.
I worked until about 7 in the evening, and had my new stone garden wall perfectly rounded, surrounding the bricks – only missing one level of wider top stone to go along the final rim. I shouldn’t have waited to make the change – my neighbors love it, my family loves it, I have a happy husband who always prefers stone work over anything else. Believe it or not – I thought he’d never remember the pile of stones that blocked his mail truck no Saturday afternoon – but even the mail man drove by when I was washing the dust from the new stone on Monday right after work and said that he loved it and couldn’t believe that I’d done it and I said I had in just one day.
Hellebores, which are better known as Lenten Roses, are an under celebrated gem in the garden. They come in a variety of muted colors and grow from small rhizomes to entice expectant gardeners outside toward the end of winter. Their shades range from mauvey – purple to a unique, creamy green. Hellebores grow when it is truly the tail end of winter and nothing else is venturing to stick its neck above the soil. Their green leaves prepare themselves before their flowers to pop into bells and open into such lovely blooms.
I planted my hellebores about 5 years ago and there was a year or two when nothing happened. Day after day working at the kitchen sink in front of a window under a gray winter sky brighten when I notice that out over the hill, they have set their blooms. The embankment is soon afterward awakened by spring’s gentle hand – the neighboring daffodils burst into sunshine – the crocuses creep along the open floor of the woods.
Happiness is just around the corner when you least expect it. It’s easy to forget how spectacular new life can be as it lies docile beneath the winter ground; it’s worth the wait and suffering through the hardened months of frigid temperatures to be greeted by a fresh outlook. Just open your eyes to see that what was once dead rebounds when you never think it will and each year will surprise the cultivator with new growth when tended.
Around the time of your arrival, the daffodils are kicking up their green heels through the frozen ground, surprisingly early. The crocuses pierce their tough stubborn heads through the layer of old trodden mulch, eager to greet the awakening sun. Not too far away my dear love – the treasured tulip. Yet the frost still suffocates the grass, causing it to remain listlessly affixed to the bitter ground. You continue to tease us with the hope of spring but I fear your departure as the old adage suggests – a lion. Therefore, this year, as with every year, I implore you to leave as a lamb.
From November until now, I have remained indoors. The sky has cast its gray pallor for months and the wind beats against the house, either bringing more frigid air, or mounds of icy crystals strewn like piles of diamonds. These arctic days have grown wearisome and I cannot muster the patience to withstand more afternoons where the sun lazily leaves the sky to hibernate before we are ready. It is time for the days to grow longer when the children leave their homework to drag their dusty bicycles from the garage and ride down the hill and aren’t seen until dusk forces them back inside for dinner. I am ready for the fresh air to blow through open windows, bringing the scent of newness through the house. I long for the camaraderie of neighbors, chatting in the cul de sac, like bears departing their den. I wait for the day where the day shines brighter and longer bringing the hint of spring.
With the welcome of spring, slowly, the laundry slowly begins to decrease. No longer are there heaps of snow laden ski pants and heavy jackets piled on the laundry room floor and left scattered on the carpet in the front hallway. The crunchy leaves that have blown into the house all winter, get up and leave quickly, without even being asked. Stray mittens left under the sofa and found beneath the beds meet an impasse and are forgotten until the next season. When the bright daylight ends the winter weather havoc, the mess of winter’s madness is over and my job is eased. I am relieved from cleaning piles of snow tacked inside from slushy boots. Suddenly, as if overnight, it is time for spring cleaning to wipe away the memory of the dirty winter remnants left on the wooden floors. They rouse and smile a shining grin in my direction; the house and I are drained from the sloppiness of winter and gladly invite spring in.
Outside, in the garden, it’s a different story. Up to my elbows in the dirt, boots sucked into cavernous holes of squishy dirt, soil impacted under my fingernails – that is where I am the happiest. The plants are still sleeping, but some of the early risers are beginning to show signs of stirring. They burst with small green buds as if to say, I’m still here. Look at me.” From inside the kitchen window, the seedlings call to me, stretching their weak little necks toward the sunlight for more, begging, “When can we come out to play?” The irises stand tall, the stalks of their leaves, opening to let their dewy heads peek out. Worms move in the soil beneath my hands and the bees begin the task ahead. The garden is ready to be unleashed and my angst to awaken it from its winter slumber is tempered by tossing a blanket of mulch.
In closing, it is clear that it is not in self indulgence that I plead with you to leave as softly. Be gracious, and think of the children, exhausted from hours of study, and allow the sun to shine brighter and air be warmer for a bit more play. Please permit the hardened ground to soften to ease the plants from their slumber and give this gardener some life to tend, and a break from the drudgery of indoor chores. Therefore, this year, kindly leave us as a lamb as you usher in April.
The Mistress of Threads and Paint
This is the weekend – the much anticipated time change. As a gardener, I treasure the longer days and the changes they bring with them. I raise my plants like my children – after a Spring rain and a bright day I can tell when they have grown a touch taller, set buds overnight, and blossomed from season to season. Each winter while they sleep, it always catches me by surprise when they awaken into perfect green leaves peeking out above the cool soil. It’s such a miracle that they grow into delicate blooms in all of the colors of the rainbow when months before they were brittle sticks, hardly exhibiting any signs of life. I think gardeners take delight in all things earth that others unknowingly pass by. Unintentionally, those who have not had the opportunity to work a piece of land and observe it grow into something amazing have missed the most beautiful and simplest forms of nature. They never know the butterflies who appreciate the lure of the flower, or the bee on its way to work throughout a garden bed. My solace in an hour less sleep early on Monday morning is everything that awaits in the coming months. This Spring collect your seed packets, survey the perennial divisions, and scan the annual displays inthe stores – take time to notice the joy found in your own piece of earth.