perennial

i think i considered myself a gardener long before i did much gardening. my mother has always put in nice flower and kitchen gardens and told me stories about the gardens of her childhood, tended by her parents. some of my relatives are master gardeners (it’s a thing), so i guess it’s just part of the genetic and folkloric make-up.

the first gardening i did on my own was vegetable gardening. i like vegetable gardening. there’s a predictability to the labor and a pride to the result that is, quite literally, visceral. eating stuff wot you grew yourself is deeply satisfying to the point that it can make you feel quite unbearably smug. in high summer, you even get a pavlovian reward for your work: go out and weed and eat some beans, some peas, a cherry tomato or three. thin out the carrots and eat all the babies, chilly and gritty from the dirt, sweeter than honey.

a few years back, we had an awful summer. it rained in torrents. nearly everything rotted in the ground. after carefully starting the tomatoes and peppers in the house while there was still snow on the ground and lovingly sowing everything else in the cool soil of spring, the loss of nearly everything was utterly demoralizing. i let the weeds grow up, the crab grass and pigweed and nettle and every other encroacher i would normally battle. i gave up. the next spring, the garden plot was impenetrable sod. the next spring, it was worse. i assumed that my gardening was done.

this spring, i looked at the neglected perennial beds and felt dissatisfied. after many years of free range chickens, a lot of stuff had died, succumbing under the iron talons and greedy beaks of Gallus gallus domesticus. the weeds had crept in, then set up shop and crowded the bedding plants. everything was choked and sad looking. but the bones were there. and the chickens are gone. so i got to work.

i have been grubbing the weeds down to the dirt, piling on mulch, moving things, breaking things up that were too bushy, bringing in some new plants. i’ve been laying stone walkways and edging the beds. i have been adding stones and potted plants for visual interest. our soil is cold clay, full of rocks and roots. every time i have to dig, my heart sinks a little. but the gardens are becoming beautiful. things that haven’t bloomed in years are putting out tentative flowers. plants that were scrawny and anemic are burgeoning. and, okay, it’s not a gustatory experience like gardening vegetables, but there is an order and an aesthetic reward that does feed the soul.

and while i was hacking at the perennial beds, a neighbor came and tilled up the vegetable garden. two thirds of it is fallow, covered with thick black plastic to keep it warm and bare for coming summers. the other third is merrily growing bush beans and pole beans, cherry tomatoes and slicing tomatoes, three kinds of summer squash and a pickling cucumber.

there’s years of work left to do in the flower beds. i have an infestation of bishop’s weed that i will be pinching, pulling, and swearing at probably forever. the orderly architectural garden under the tamarack tree just needs some fine tuning, but there are four other existing beds that are in worse shape than that one was. i got two new shrubs just today that will become the framework for a textural garden on the windowless east side of the house. there is a retaining wall that is thick with rambling globe thistle and ferns that needs to be blasted to the ground and planted with rock garden plants. there is a once-grand sunny cottage-style garden that has been overtaken by persian lilac and shaded out that needs to be moved over about six feet and expanded. and the vegetable garden will thump out its seasonal rhythm, too, given a second life, feeding up body and soul.

i am covered in bug bites, there is dirt under my nails and cuticles that no amount of scrubbing will remove, blisters on my heels…

i’m back in business.