Spring has finally sprung here in Minnesota. For the past 5 months, the only outdoor activity has been putting the garbage cans out at the end of the driveway on Tuesday nights. But once the grass reappears it seems within minutes the garden stores are open and everywhere I go there are hanging baskets of pansies and ferns and Gerber daisies. “Look away, drive by, don’t look,” I scold myself. “There is cleanup to do first, remember? Yeah, yeah, yeah, but aren’t they so pretty? Shouldn’t I buy at least one?” as I walk away with a beautiful fern before telling myself no. I have never had good luck with ferns but I love them until all of their dried leaves start clogging up my vacuum. As I scan the Sunday paper for plant prices at Menard’s, Home Depot and Fleet Farm, I notice the tomato plants in pots and for a split second consider buying one but then I remember. I don’t have good luck growing vegetables.
I think back to the year my husband and I thought it would be a good idea for the kids to be involved in a vegetable garden. Mind you, neither of us grew up having a family garden, all of our peas and corn came from tin cans. But with kids in tow, we set out to buy seed packets, a hoe and a sprinkler. The kids really wanted pumpkins, I really wanted tomatoes. The entire family took part in planting a thousand seeds where a hundred should have been sown. How hard could this be, I remember thinking. So what if the kids got bored and ended up just dumping the entire seed packet into the hole they dug with a spoon. Reading the back side of the seed packet made it all sound simple; make a hole, drop in a seed, cover it up and water. With all of us trampling over the dirt as we went, I convinced myself that measuring the seeds every 2 inches was just overkill on the seed company’s part. Surely they didn’t expect us to stand out there with a ruler.
According to my husband, whose dream had always been to live off the land, he read in “The Mother Earth News” magazine that a vegetable garden could cut our grocery bill by half. With the money we saved he talked about finishing off the basement. Even though half our grocery bill for 3 growing kids was cereal and milk, neither of which were growing in the garden, it was hard not to get caught up in his excitement about the money we could save. So in went the carrot seeds, lettuce seeds among a zillion other things. For the first couple of weeks, we watered the area every day, anxiously awaiting something green to pop up out of the dirt. But life with 3 athletic kids got busy and before we knew it, which seemed like overnight, the area had overgrown with weeds. Amazingly the pumpkins persevered and their long tentacles reached to the neighbor’s yard, toting rotten fruit as it spread. That was one seed packet that had been right about spacing.
The next spring our town city hall was giving away trees on Arbor Day. Our house had no landscaping or grass when we moved in. Trees, we discovered quickly, were really expensive, as was everything else we wanted to do around the house. Free trees sounded like a great idea so I went and stood in line one rainy April day. I went home with a small twig covered in hairy roots in a plastic bag. The label said it was a crab apple tree and I envisioned a beautiful tree full of blooms… maybe in 20 years. It said it could grow to be quite high, so I planted it in the middle of the back yard, cutting a circle in the new sod. The entire thing stood about 8 inches out of the ground. I watered it and walked away glancing at the garden that was now thick with thistles and shook my head. This should be good. Looking out from the deck, I pointed the new tree out to my family so they could water it. It was as if I had planted a twig on the 50 yard line of a football field. No one could see it and somewhere along the way, the twig disappeared, probably eaten by a rabbit or chewed up by the lawnmower. The hole in the grass, however, lasted forever. Eventually, we did plant two 6 foot crab apple trees next to the driveway, and we did get to see their beautiful blooms for two springs, long enough to piss off our neighbor who always complained about their blossoms blowing off onto his lawn. We learned a lot about plants at this house, that annuals cost more but gave you instant color, and perennials took a long time to mature into a decent sized plant when trying to fill in empty areas. And that vegetable gardens were not our thing.
Moving into what we thought was our “forever home,” we had a large fenced back yard, a designated vegetable garden we ignored and several large mature trees. We also had two pear trees situated not far from our back deck. I would grow to have a love/hate relationship with these pear trees which bloomed every year on Mother’s Day weekend as if to say, “We did this just for you,” followed by their fall finale, literally, of thousands of rotting pears covering the lawn and so many bees that we could not sit on our deck after July. I dreamed of sawing them down in the middle of the night, spraying them with poison or setting them on fire. I hated them that much. Pears aside, this yard was to become my addiction as I became more interested in perennials and unable to resist buying more and more of them. Starting in one corner, I began removing the sod against the fence and as the years went by I eventually had mulched a flower bed around all 3 sides of the back yard. If anyone was giving away hostas, ferns, iris I was there with my bucket and a shovel. My all-time favorite, the turtlehead plant, came from my friend, Marsha. When my friend, Rita, died of breast cancer, her son let me dig up one of her beautiful white peony bushes that had been in her family for generations. People told me it wouldn’t bloom the first year after it was transplanted but mine did. Thanks to Rita is what I believe. Another friend, Romona, made the best rhubarb crisp I’ve ever had and she left me a big chunk from one of her plants on my doorstep. When I planted it, I really did not have much hope it would grow but since then I learned, like hosta and sedum, you can’t kill them. I kept yearly records of what I planted, what grew fast, what died, when things bloomed and documented them in my garden diary. This eventually got to be too complicated because I was forever digging things up and transplanting them somewhere else to get more light, less light or just to see what would happen. Once the perennial beds became established, I started adding old pots, oil cans, wagons, and tubs in among them filled with annuals so there was always color.
The sense of accomplishment I felt while looking out over the blooming perimeter beds, was like looking at a second family. My kids had all left home by then and I struggled for the first time trying to find my purpose in life. Through marriage and financial struggles, my flowers kept me sane. They needed me to survive and I needed them to redirect my anxieties in the midst of job loss, foreclosure and depression. While leaving that garden behind, especially the peony, was like losing a best friend, it taught me some important life lessons. Everything happens for a reason. Our lives are like flowers, we bloom or don’t bloom, we lose petals or we thrive, and sometimes we need to be transplanted in order to survive. In our search for a new home, I compared every yard to my last one and nothing measured up. Most townhomes wouldn’t allow more than a flower pot on your steps let alone a garden space. While our current townhome took a long time to feel like home, the quiet outdoor space has been a godsend. Eventually grass was replaced with mulch and a flower garden was created, on a much smaller scale. Like my life, this space is a work in progress and I can’t wait to add more flower friends as the years go by.