The good, the bad and the beautiful

Garden: A seemingly perfect rainy summer offers lessons in dealing with imperfection.

In The Garden

September 24, 2000|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

This should have been the best year ever in the garden. In contrast to the past three summers, which felt like the Gobi Desert, this year the rains came and the temperatures hovered in the 80s. Growth was lush. It should have been the perfect gardening year. But it wasn't -- at least not for me.

The same rains that resurrected my long-dead staghorn fern and sent the autumn clematis frothing over the kitchen window, also fed a multitude of unwanted stuff -- pigweed, teasel, couch grass and more. I struggled to beat them back.

To make matters worse, we went away for two weeks in August. Before going, I weeded the vegetables so foraging friends could find them, and rescued the basil, parsley and cilantro from suffocation. But even as I yanked out fistfuls of Chinese lantern, nettle, smart weed and dew-cup, I knew the benefits would be short-lived. To buy time, I lacquered the incorrigibles -- wire grass and thistle -- with Roundup the morning I left.

When I returned, the thistles and wire grass were still subdued, but the rest of the place looked like the set from "Survivor." Lamb's-quarters had grown into saplings. Wild morning glory, aka bindweed, clambered over the echinacea, choked the beets and barricaded the pergola. Foxtail, a wild grass that normally tops out at about hip height, was nearly 7 feet tall. Thickets of it threw the sun-loving peppers and melons into cloistered shade.

Despite the tangle of unwanted vegetation, I hoped to find food. But while there was fantastic growth in the plants, there wasn't much produce. Pollinators had hibernated in the rain. Overcast days stalled ripening. Melons rotted. There were interesting new fungi and molds, and the slugs were enjoying a population explosion in the tomato patch.

It was disappointing, but I'm not complaining. Not really. This year was restorative. Besides encouraging weeds, the rains revived drought-stressed trees and replenished reservoirs and aquifers, a more universal blessing than a bumper crop of tomatoes.

And, in the midst of failures, there were triumphs. The fall perennials -- shell-pink anemone, powder-puff-blue Caryopteris, liriope, Russian sage and buddleia -- replacements for those desiccated by drought -- filled the driveway garden with color and fragrance. Butterflies and songbirds abounded. The onions, which I've tried to grow for years with only limited success, were beautiful -- big, round, flavorful globes. And the runner beans exploded.

I had planted them on the south side of the garden chairs to provide dappled shade as well as beauty and food. Since it was old seed, I had anticipated a few vines and a bushel or so of blue lake and Italian runner beans. I underestimated. Bean-laden runners handily outran the 7-foot teepees, reaching over to grab the garden chairs, meander through the melons, and climb up the miscanthus. My kids aren't crazy about actually eating beans, but the exuberant production was inspiring.

I'm not a professional gardener. Though some years, I have dragged strangers off the street to admire the broccoli, my garden will never be a full-page spread in House Beautiful. I garden because I love it, because growing organic food matters to me (if not to my kids) and because it's cheaper than psychotherapy.

Unlike professional, control-freak gardeners who spend every waking moment tweezing goose grass out of the lobelia, I tend the beds in between other obligations. Even at the best of times, my garden is imperfect. The only perfect garden I've ever had was before the kids were born; it was destroyed by a freak hail storm just before harvest, which I took as a sign from God to ease up a little, and also watch it on the pride. It was humbling, but strangely liberating. If everything is not in our hands, it's also not entirely our fault, a lesson farmers absorb in their cradles.

Though this wasn't the best gardening year ever, it was still pretty good. The phlox has perfumed the yard for months instead of weeks. The 400-year-old buttonwood tree is sending out new limbs. And the ground is yielding, making it possible to prepare the beds for next year. We heap sheaves of foxtail and lamb's-quarters on the compost like unripe wheat, a harvest that will eventually feed next year's growth in a cycle of hopeful renewal.

While the garden was far from perfect, I have enjoyed this year's gifts -- though not all were what I ordered. But that's the nature of a gift. You don't get to choose -- just appreciate. Maybe next year I'll be dragging in strangers to admire the broccoli.

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