My Ga-Ga Gardening Addiction
Obsessive Compulsive Gardening
I am a gardening fool. I eat, sleep and dream in green. Sometimes when I’m out in the yard, bouncing between the veggie patch, the berry patch, the hoop house, the shrub beds, the grapevine, the orchard, the front garden, the dry stream bed, the rock beds, etc., etc., I have to shake my head. I have no idea how it got this bad. I didn’t discover a secret garden as a child. I didn’t study horticulture in school. I’m not even English. Where did this obsession come from? My childhood? Perhaps, but it doesn’t seem all that likely.
Was there a garden in my yard growing up? No, not really, but the remains of past efforts were scattered about—a white board fence overgrown with honey suckle, a few fragrant hyacinths, rose bushes struggling to survive along the front walkway; tiger lilies, purple iris, weeds and grass in rock lined beds beneath the windows. But they were forgotten, sad little corners of the yard by the time I was old enough to notice. Dad would mow the lawn like everyone else on the weekends, but he seemed to have lost all desire to even try and maintain the landscape he had once so carefully planted. His will had been broken by four destructive little gremlins otherwise known as my older brothers. This was a travesty, for the man had really enjoyed gardening.
He had even held a weekend job once as a landscaper on the Connecticut estate of Helen Keller, who recognized him by his cigar smoke as he worked on her flower beds. When he told me the story, he mimicked her careful, quiet voice as she spoke to him from her veranda. He described the wisteria and roses that grew there. But the boys had no respect for iris and roses, and he would come home from a long days’ work to find his own flower beds undermined with miniature gravel pits, construction zones and elaborate tunnels for their toy trucks and cars. He pitched fits and threatened and maybe even spanked, but he was outnumbered by four little boys as willful as he was and in the end they won. He would forever after spend his weekends surrounded by the perfectly manicured greens and trees at the River View Country Club, killing it on the course. Golf was his real passion, and he excelled at it. But he always maintained an interest in gardening and I have a very old book of his on pruning trees and shrubs from his days as a weekend landscaper to remind me of that.
So the yard I remember growing up was scruffy, overgrown and an embarrassment when friends came calling. Occasionally when I got old enough I did a little yard work, weeding and tidying up, but by then, it wasn’t worth the effort.
In the Beginning Was the Woods...
Nonetheless, I inherited my Dad’s love of plants, and when my husband and I bought our first tiny house, it was the large yard, bordered by a small patch of woods, that won me over. There were a couple of mature apple trees behind the garage and a plum thicket in the green belt out back. Birds flocked to the Indian plum and red huckleberries in the hedgerow and three leggy cherry trees rained down white blossoms like snow every spring. In the backyard, beneath the bedroom window, there was a small bright patch of familiar tiger lilies, just like the ones I remembered growing under my window as a child.
It was March when we moved in and by April I was already planting. I started slowly, at first--annuals along the driveway walk, red impatiens set amongst the colorful leaves of coleus. I mimicked the garden style of my mother-in-law, who basically lived to garden and who used to filch cuttings from far off corners of the earth, like London’s Q gardens. Her East Coast garden was lovely with all her secretly imported plant varieties and inspired and informed my own fledgling efforts. And whenever she came for a visit, she brought me little presents of seeds and bulbs wrapped in damp paper towels and saran wrap.
One day in May I noticed the nodding heads of some spindly hyacinth looking plants poking up through a heavy mulch of leaf detritus on the outskirts of our lawn. I walked over to inspect things. There I discovered an old overgrown shade garden in the woods along the edge of our lot, with a circular stone path, ferns, violets and wood hyacinths beneath towering Douglas firs. I spent weeks raking up and burning tons of fallen branches and years of accumulated debris and pulled wheel barrel loads of weeds and brush from the ground. My neighbor, who had a conscientious objection to yard work, thought I was crazy and told me so, but I kept my focus and soldiered on. When things were properly cleaned up, I placed a K-Mart birdbath in the center of my secret garden and sighed deeply. By then I had fallen head over muddy heels in love with gardening, a barefoot Contessa with dirty feet. Thirty- five years later, I still am, although I have graduated from plastic bird baths to concrete now.
I’ve spent the better part of my life creating and nurturing gardens—at our first little house, and later, on a secluded five acre clearing bordered by a stream and the signature big trees of the Pacific Northwest, with bald eagles and bears for neighbors. It took sixteen years to perfect that place. From March to October I worked like a madwoman, and looked like one too, dressed in rags and covered in dirt, but in the end, I reaped what I had sown. I lived in a garden. To get to my front door, you walked past circular rock herb gardens contained by white picket fence and a rose covered arbor gate, through a cloud of honeysuckle scented air, down a few steps into a sunken patio garden and then climbed wooden stairs to the covered front porch. By the time you knocked on that door, you knew a crazy gardener person lived there. Indoors, I was an artist who created with brushes, but my real masterpiece and the place where I poured out my soul was in the gardens I built with my back, my determination and imagination. The property soon filled with Rhododendron, azalea and rose bushes, lavender, daisies and lush perennial gardens with carefully hand built rock walls—lots of them. Leaving it broke my heart, and sometimes I still get a lump in my throat remembering it, but eventually, we did leave.
The Seven Year Glitch
I spent the next seven years in the arid and more extreme climate of Eastern Oregon. I lived surrounded by peaceful horse pastures and gorgeous mountain views. It was a kind of paradise too, remote and open, but not one I could embrace. I would often find myself standing out in the yard, my back to the mountains with a hose in my hands and a tear streaked face as I tried to keep a blueberry or rose bush alive in the harsh environment. It was hot and cold, windy, dry, and rocky, and infested with hungry deer and threatening rattle snakes. Gardening there was like trying to make lemonade without any sugar. It sucked. Eventually I settled for one large bed of Russian Sage, some wisteria, and a few hardy shrubs. Just as my garden didn’t thrive there, neither did I, and eventually we resettled in Western Washington, on five acres surrounded by trees and overgrown tumbled down gardens.
This is where I garden today. It’s a property not unlike the garden paradise I once created and grieved over. It has a creek running below a forested bank downhill from the back yard. It’s surrounded by a thick perimeter of towering firs and cedars and has lots of shrubs and flowers--everywhere. Which must be why I had to have it because the house was, well… Meh! When we acquired it, it was overplanted, overgrown and overrun by weeds and invasive vegetation, but it was May, and the rhody’s and azaleas and wisteria were flowering, and I just couldn’t help myself. We removed thirteen huge cedars that were swallowing up the tiny house and covering it with debris year round, and in the process, which was heart-breaking, we opened up the yard and gardens to sunshine and better air circulation. So I got over it. My brother and I reclaimed the driveway from the tangle of vegetation that it once disappeared into and built a dry stream bed alongside the house, lined with ferns, lilies and Japanese forest grass. My husband spent hours and hours on heavy equipment pulling stumps the size of Volkswagens out of the ground trying to create a manageable yard area. We still haven’t quite figured out how to burn or bury or dispose of those damn stumps, so we pushed them behind the detached garage for now. Thank goodness it’s a big garage. We’ll worry about it next year.
I’ve been working steadily for at least five years to rehabilitate this piece of ground. We lost some of the original plantings beneath the merciless tracks of a log skidder, which is about as graceful as a Sherman Tank, but the kiwi, grapevines and apple orchard are re-bounding. And of course I have been adding my own additions of plants I can’t live without—lots of edibles like currants and goji berry, a couple of birch clumps and alpine firs out front. I moved the blue flag iris, some sedum and lilies to the front border I created after tearing out invasive ground covers, ferns and tough clumps of sedge. There’s a lot of lavender and honey suckle now. Once again, you have to walk through a garden to reach my front door. It’s beginning to look like and feel like my garden, and when I sit out front with a cup of tea and watch the wrens in the fused glass birdbath I made this summer, I no longer second guess moving here.
Back Jack, Do it Again...
And like Moses in Egypt I can’t get away from the rocks. I’ve built rock walls around stands of trees and installed mixed shrub beds surrounded with rock and my front garden is bordered by a meandering dry stream bed of soft rounded river rock and stones. Each time I think I am surely done with the rocks, I stumble onto another corner of the yard that is just crying out for some definition, and of course genius that I am, I think—Rocks! I have tendonitis and a slight tear in my right rotator cuff and a strained psoas muscle, (I know! You’ll probably have to google that one). My body is beginning to feel the strain of 35 years of heavy duty commando style gardening, and there is still so much work to do! It’s definitely a work in progress, emphasis on work. But we’re retired now and have more time, which is good, because it takes us a lot more time to get things done, and seems to require a lot more effort than I remember it taking back in the early days of my gardening life. But hey, by the time I’m dead I’m sure it will look great!
So today, as my knees are planted in the cold wet earth and I pull weeds from my own rock lined beds, the sweet smell of honeysuckle pulls my mind back to the faded white picket fence and pink and blue hyacinths, the iris, the tiger lilies and scraggly roses. In a way, I did discover a secret garden when I was a child. And yeah, my Dad planted that first seed in my mind’s eye, the roots of which grew in a secret place until they invaded my heart and took hold and took over. So, despite the fact that my shoulders ache, my feet hurt, and everywhere I look I see something that needs to be watered, weeded, seeded, trimmed, tended or replanted, thanks Dad, I think, for the inspiration. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.
Are you a Ga-Ga Gardener too? Answer the Poll Questions to find out!
Have you ever bitten into an unknown leaf in an attempt to discern the plants edibility?
If you clicked on # 3 above, continue with the poll...
How many pairs of dirty nasty muddy tennis shoes are on your back porch at this moment?
If you clicked #1 in the last poll, you may be Ga-Ga too. One last question...
You're all dressed up and ready to go out to dinner. As you walk past your prized potted Calla Lilly, you notice it's badly dehydrated, you...
If you picked #2 on that last poll question...
Congratulations, you too are a Ga-Ga Gardener. Now turn off the lap-top and get out there and plant something for goodness sake!