Renewing the garden and its steward

After long labor in the sun, gardener reaps a harvest of satisfaction

In The Garden

August 04, 2002|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

This summer, I'm doing garden restoration, and, frankly, I don't like it. The problem is: I've been doing the heavy-lifting part for years without ever getting to the creative refining, like a journey whose destination is always just out of reach. I want thriving vegetables, but I also want well-ordered beauty -- a border of electric blue lobelia in the half-moon flowerbed at the south entry, toad lily (Tricyrtis) by the bench, and something tall, fragrant and apricot-colored added to the fall blues and lavenders of the flower-and-herb bed. But I'm still stuck on the prep.

This garden has been labor-intensive from the beginning. The spot we chose is open to the breeze with plenty of sun and an inspiring view across the fields, but the ground was concrete-hard and stony. We hauled composted guano from a friend's chicken houses, sheep and cow manure from nearby farms, forked in compost, leaves, and grass clippings.

We mulched -- year after year -- to keep weeds down, keep moisture in, and add tilth. The ground slowly morphed from unyielding to friable -- satisfying as we nursed blisters and aching backs. I began to envision a time -- as with the children -- when we could ease off a bit and enjoy what we've worked so hard to raise. But while I'm well along with the kids, I'm still not there with the garden.

Mostly it's because I haven't had enough time and energy to devote to consistent maintenance, which keeps the foundation -- of almost anything -- sound and offers something reliable to build on. Instead, I've treated it to alternating bouts of neglect and discipline. Like doing piled-up laundry on an as-needed basis.

Then, several mornings ago on my knees at the south fence, I found myself rejoicing in the texture and smell of grainy-soft chocolate-colored loam in a spot I hadn't really examined for more summers than I could remember. The soil had been transformed, and for a moment, I was too. And in that Zen-like moment, I felt a renewed sense of intimacy, a connectedness with the garden and its intricate little worlds that until then I hadn't even realized I'd lost. For a long time I'd been on site, digging and yanking and swearing, but not completely present, my mind on the next chore, the next thing that needed doing.

Intimacy takes focus; mine had been fragmented. The garden and I had grown apart. Partly, it's been the result of altered priorities. Other things have legitimately commanded my attention. But I've missed the sense of pleasure that connection gave me. The garden has not only been food, flower and escape from trials -- a kind of botanical Prozac -- it's been a means of self-expression, of playing with nature. For a while now, I simply haven't had time to play. The garden's need for restoration has mirrored my own.

But as I was ripping up the last of the landscape cloth, something I once imagined would let me bypass some weeding (what a mistake THAT was!) I stopped and looked -- really looked -- and felt a flutter of hope.

Until then, I hadn't realized how far I'd come.

The south perennial bed is completely mulched and I've begun to plant perennials for four-season bouquets. The herb-and-flower bed is a riot of Perovskia, Caryopteris, lemon and French thyme, yellow lilies, Echinacea and prehistoric-looking giant daisies (Rudbeckia maxima). It still needs work, but it's doable if the weather doesn't totally self-destruct. Beans, cabbage and broccoli are all thriving. The tomatoes, which sprawl across a patch that last year held tall weeds, now sport small fruits, and the summer squash are sprouting.

I've even begun to refine a bit. Creeping catmint (Nepeta nervosa), a gift from master plant nurturer Tina James, now borders the half-moon garden, its clusters of pale blue flowers an approximation of the lobelia I imagined there. I've ordered toad lilies. And, for the first time in years, I've started leeks for a late- summer planting, the sign of a slightly less hectic life. As I sit beneath the cherry tree, a glass of mint tea in one hand, I realize that my destination is in sight. The garden paths and boundaries are once again discernible, the beds mostly reclaimed, the vegetables, while not perfect, are tended.

As I leaf through the catalogs, looking for something apricot-colored and fragrant for fall, I feel downright peaceful, completely at home. I still hate garden restoration, but I love having restored.

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