Sunday, April 20, 2008

A garden blooms again

You know it's spring when the garden blooms again.

It's become an annual rite of passage for Michelle. The first whiff of warmth, when the winds shift from prevailing northwest to prevailing southwest, and she's out in the gardens.

When we moved into our house four years ago, there were no gardens. The base around the foundation on the sides and in the back of the house was bare as a baby's bottom, naked. Tired stone meeting the grass. A boring pastel of gray and a little green. Boring.

So, that first year, full of vim and vigor, Michelle and I attacked. We dug and dug, creating a ribbon-like perimeter around the house, and in there we planted flowers and plants. I'm not good at remembering the names, but we planted quite a few varieties. We uprooted the hedges in the front and planted two trees on one side of the house. We had the makings of a newly landscaped yard.

Our biggest task was left to a part of the back yard we simply called the jungle. When we first looked at this house, we saw the back yard and were somewhat impressed that it had size – not expansive, mind you, but more than your typical New England town postage-stamp size. That was to the fence line. The realtor was only too proud to tell us that the property extended beyond the fence line. Then the realtor realized that what she was telling us was that the extra property was an impermeable thicket of saplings, tall grasses, shrubs and whatever other vegetation had taken root. It was a tangle of roots and shoots, all competing to see which could soak up the most sunlight and grab the most nutrients from the soil. It was a hot, festering mass of respiration and photosynthesis.

Armed with a couple of hand-held saws, we attacked the green. After felling a few useless saplings with bamboo-like trunks, we had the unpleasant revelation that our back yard for years had been used an ad hoc dump for the neighborhood. Numerous beer cans, broken bottles, bags of garbage had been heaved over the fences into our yard. I found a toilet seat, shards of ceramic, a pile of floppy diskettes, and a homemade bong. There was also the tattered remains of a blue tarp that the previous owners had thrown over the area years ago to keep stuff from growing. Nature had laughed at that effort, and the threaded remains of the tarp were proof of the toxic folly of that effort. We dug out all the old tree stumps and chain link fence line with posts buried in concrete.

You may think we were wrong to transform a wild setting (albeit one fouled by garbage) and turn into a typical urban landscape. That would be tempting. But the area was overgrown and was serving no particularly good function – even in an ecological sense. It was a cesspool and a mosquito breeding area. Most of the trees in there were throwaways, and none of them were maturing broadly, as they were stacked in there. I like to leave nature as is, but I could see that we could make something better of this.

We left one tree, a sugar maple. It's a fine upright specimen, and it has thrived now that it has the sunlight and the soil to itself. Its girth has expanded rapidly during its four years of feasting. We've planted a row of arbor vita in part to create some privacy from our neighbors and habitat for ground-foraging birds. We planted a vegetable garden our second year after overturning the soil a few times and removing more glass shards, toy soldiers and other things that I care to contemplate. Last year, we ringed a garden around the sugar maple and tacked a birdhouse on the trunk. This year, we hung a birdfeeder and a finch sock from its branches.

We have seen goldfinches and house finches dining at the sock. They cling to the nylon-fibered sock and use their tiny beaks to pluck the nyjer seeds. Some feed upside down, others at an angle. They apparently don't suffer vertigo. The other day as I was standing in the yard, a downy woodpecker suddenly alighted on our sugar maple. It scurried up the trunk, stopped, eyed a target and tat, tat, tat, tat! gave it a few pecks. It must have not liked that spot, as it moved on to a branch, sizing it up for a tap or two. It went back to the trunk, moved down, then up, a tap here and a tap there. My guess was it was looking to see if our tree had anything to eat. I guess not, because the downy, after a few minutes of surveying, flew off in search of a better host. Still, it was exciting to see that our tree had proved tempting at all.

This weekend, we turned to the vegetable garden, which had lain dormant for the winter, resting and regenerating under a sheet of compost and a blanket of leaves. We tilled the soil with rented rototiller and planted anew. Two rows of mesclun lettuce, one row of romaine and another row of red leaf lettuce. A row of beets. A pair of rows of peas. And one row of green beans.

There will be more as the season progresses. This is just a start. We learned from last year, when we planted our green beans and peas in one fell swoop, and nature returned far more than we could eat ourselves. We happily gave much away, but still the bounty was too much. We're trying to pace ourselves this year, with multiple plantings.

The Japanese cherry tree is blooming, pink flowers that have begun attracting ripe honeybees seduced by the beauty. The buds are ripening on the sugar maple, and they're about to burst on the Japanese maple tree. The daffodils are out, and we have some little purple and blue flowers.

The colors are coming out in force. The pageant of nature has been renewed. Life is blossoming again.

1 comment:

Leeann said...


This was a fantastic post. Full of rich imagery, I could picture it all. Great writing!


Your proud sis.