I don’t remember ever not gardening. As a kid, my summer reading pleasure was interrupted by having to weed the large vegetable garden kept by my mother. Taking a break meant pulling a carrot, getting it a rough approximation of clean by wiping it on my shorts and crunching away, still smelling of earthworms and so intensely sweet. Around the age of ten, I decided to work in the little flower garden set in the middle of the lawn, surround by rocks from the fields. Every spring, I’d pick out snapdragons, zinnias and pansies and tend to them till about mid-July, when I’d tire of weeding and watering and let the whole thing go. Now as a grown-up gardener, I know that practically every one stops gardening in July. You harvest the garlic, make sure the tomatoes are staked and just let things grow.
Round mid-August you venture out again: the tomatoes are ripe, and if it’s been warm enough, you’ve got some eggplant and chilies, too. Meanwhile, the daylilies, poppies, real lilies and flowering tobacco have been pushing out flowers, crowding out the weeds and the tobacco scents the night air with a perfume more subtle and true than anything at Macy’s. You have coffee and breakfast out on the patio every morning. You bring out a book to read but don’t get around to opening it because you know this lushness isn’t going to last long. You just look. You see the few weeds that have ventured between the wall-to-wall plants and think, “Maybe today after work, I’ll get out here and get after those guys.” After work comes and an iced coffee and that book is a damn sight more appealing. Then it’s time to fire up the grill, have a lazy supper, maybe hit the dog park or hang out with the wife or friends.
It wasn’t always this way. Back when I began gardening in this space, in 1995, I had more of a hippie-feel going on. (True story: at the tender age of three, I told my cousin Bruce I wanted to be a hippie when I grew up.) I had an area of bark mulch, the Very Large Compost Bins were right in the yard and I grew around fifteen kinds of chilies. There was some charm, but the bark mulch got weedy after about July 15th, and the compost, well, it smelled. Lucky for me, I met my partner when the garden was four years old and she was a brave enough soul to motivate me to get the bins moved out to the alley, the bark mulch removed and replaced with lawn. (Yep, lawn. I love my wee lawn.)
Six years on, our large, ancient lilacs were pronounced ailing and unsaveable. I decided it was time for a change and had them removed. Never do something like this in the spring. It will nearly kill all of your shade plants. I’d worked so hard to love shade gardening, seeking out the woodland plants and tons of hosta varieties. I had a bit of a meltdown digging everyone up that fall and moving them to safer environs. My partner was happy. She never got the shade thing and has great love for gardens that contain flowers. It took a couple seasons, but things have come together. Azaleas, peonies, more poppies, daylilies, daffodils, foxgloves, daisies, and tulips give heaps of color month after month. Well, not the azalea. It tends to bloom in fall and it took me about four years to realize it was being eaten by some greedy green caterpillar every spring, which explains why it’s the same size as it was the day I brought it home.
I am not my neighbor, N. Her grass is always mowed, things deadheaded, window boxes lush because she waters every morning. Aside from the window boxes, she has exactly seven kinds of plants in her yard, counting the grass. It’s a beautiful show of stone, black iron fencing and tasteful, dog-friendly landscaping. There’s even a fountain. The woman’s restraint boggles the mind. Her garden is an incredible backdrop to my 140-plus species of herbs, shrubs and flowers.
I don’t remember ever not gardening. I imagine that if, heaven forbid, I ever develop dementia, it’d be best if my caregivers are gardeners. They’ll know what I’m talking about, because I’m pretty sure long after memories of work, vacations, and faces have faded, I’ll be nattering on about my favorite tomato varieties and flowers I have known and loved.