Wednesday, April 21, 2010


When I bought my house several years ago, one of the things that attracted me to it was the yard. I live in one of those communities that sprang up post WWII - considered a first-ring suburb, and characterized by small (by today's McMansion standards) yet well-built ramblers and 1 1/2 stories set on good sized plots. They are full of mature trees - 60 foot elms and maples - that provided shade in the summer as well as plenty of places for the birds to nest and the squirrels to chase each other. My neighborhood is relatively quiet, various neighbors notwithstanding, and is full of houses and yards that are a variation on mine.

When I moved in, there were gardens in place. The previous owners were a retired couple and clearly had the time to spend in the yard. The back yard, particularly, had an outer perimeter comprised of a 6 foot deep strip of garden. Once Spring arrived that first year, it was clear to see where they had taken some things with them to their new place, but on the whole the garden was relatively 'orderly' and pleasing to the eye. I, of course, am not retired. I did not grow up in a family of gardeners so I was a complete novice. I learned very quickly that this much garden - while beautiful - is not a carefree thing.

There is weeding. When I was new to this I was told that mulching around the plants keeps the weeds down. So out I went and mulched, and mulched, and mulched - 3 to 4 inches of mulch around all the plants. Trust me, there is weeding - mulch or not. Irises need to be divided in order to remain healthy and continue producing. Peonies need to be staked so that when they bloom you can actually see the blooms instead of having them be face down in the dirt.

There are birds. Birds may seem harmless when it comes to gardens but they are not. Birds fly miles and miles and eat at various places. When they fly through your garden they poop and deposit seeds that weren't there before. Seed of things like thistle, which was non-existent in my gardens for my first 12 years in the house but which has become the biggest grower in my garden during the past 3 years. If you miss one when it's small, it can grow 4 feet in height with a stem a good inch and a half across. Digging them out by the roots and using round-up on them is no cure. They simply move to another part of your garden and start fresh.

There are critters. Rabbits eat your plants. During my first fall in the house I planted dozens and dozens of bulbs - tulips being my favorite flowers. The squirrels immediately began digging them up and feasting. The next Spring, the rabbits went through the garden and bit off the flower heads so I had irregular patches of tulip stems throughout my garden instead of the glowing bunches I had envisioned.

As the garden and the trees grow, your light changes. Plants that started out in sun are now in shade and must be moved to a sunnier location. Dutch elm disease attacks your trees and you lose two of those 60 foot elms. Overnight, your entire shade garden of hosta and astilbe and ferns must move or die.

The romantic ideal of the garden comes from all those English movies where women in long dresses stroll through them with a basket over one arm, snipping a bloom here or there. The reality of the garden is back-breaking, never ending work. A couple of summers ago I decided to acknowledge my limits. I don't want to spend days and days in the hot sun crouched on my knees pulling weeds and mulching. I want to sit on my deck with a book and a glass of iced tea and look at pretty things. So the transformation has begun.

Shrubs. Shrubs that flower. Shrubs that have good fall color. Shrubs that will grow tall and hide the neighbor's junky backyard. Hardy plants. If it cannot live by benign neglect, then it will have to go. I want plants that are going to return year after year in spite of me. Naturalizers. My new philosophy is to let go of control. If it flourishes here and is not a weed, it can have the space. I welcome it.

George Harrison is quoted as saying "I'm not really a career person. I'm a gardener, basically." Sounds great, doesn't it? I'm afraid that it's not true of me. For me, Des Kennedy said it a little more accurately. "If there’s one thing gardeners are good at, it’s the sustained and systematic killing of plants." So, get me another glass of iced tea. My back thanks you.

(This photo is one of the angels in my garden, surrounding by growing iris and lily of the valley. In a month, you really won't be able to see much of her as the lily and iris will have grown so tall that she is hidden. Enjoy her now.)

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