02 April 2006

Garden Stories

Jo(e) wrote yesterday about the plants in her six-year-old garden:
The first year we lived here, Red-haired Sister brought me forsythia bushes, clumps of perennials, and baby pine trees from her own yard 250 miles away. The day lilies and the peonies came from Blonde Sister, from the yard of the house that once belonged to my grandmother. The coreopsis, the daffodils, and the lily of the valley come from my parents’ house, the home of my childhood. The white pines are transplanted from the woods at camp .... The rhubarb plants come from a neighbor, who taught my kids to dip rhubarb stalks into sugar and eat them raw.
This got me thinking about the people who've contributed to my own garden, which is very badly in need of maintenance right now. We've been adding to the gardens since we bought the house in 1995, and have generally been pleased with the development, but five months of construction has taken its toll: the shade garden by the driveway is currently covered with debris, although the toilet and sink which will eventually come back into our main bathroom are sitting there, too. The sun garden by the front door, which we put in during our second summer, seems to have survived a winter with the roofers' truck bed parked on it, and it's hard to know what's going on in the vegetable beds with all the construction stuff between the house and the back end of the yard. But I don't need to be able to see the plants in order to tell their stories.

The lilac bush back there was planted by my neighbor-colleagues; it just wasn't growing in their yard, and so they gave it to us--dug it up, walked it down the street and planted it--as a welcome gift for Curious Girl in the spring after she came to us. The hostas in the shade garden --the ones I'm hoping are biding their time under all that debris--came from several friends, including Local Friend, a wonderful gardener who was the grandmother of one of the girls in my girl scout troop when I first moved here. We became marvelous friends and it was a great thing to get to know someone who'd lived in this city for a long time. She has five children and tons of grandchildren (some of whom are CG's age) and the friendship between our families has been a marvelous thing. I think of her when I see the variegated hosta coming up, and when our black-eyed Susans bloom, and when many of her herbs start up. She gave me those, too, as well as some irises which she dug up from their camp down in the southern part of the state. The irises grow wild there, probably left over from a house long tumbled.

But irises. There's another story to the rest of the irises. When Politica was first out of graduate school, we flirted with moving to another university, one where she had a job. I went for a year as a visiting professor and we ended up with two sets of job offers, and ultimately decided to come back here to Our Fair City. But we made wonderful friends in Other University Town, one of whom was a formidable iris gardener. He asked me, "Do you want a few irises?" when we were getting ready to leave town and making our goodbyes. "Sure," I said, picturing a small bag. He sent us home with probably 60 rhizomes, each carefully labeled with a name. Unfortunately in the 3 day drive back here, some of the rhizomes got moldy and moisture ruined the names, and then I didn't carefully mark them all anyway in the ground and only some of them came up. But I love the ones that do: tall and short, single colored and multi-colored. And I love the connection to a far-away town and a far-away friend and the memories of time spent in his beautiful garden.

One of my friends, who used to teach here, was amazed by the gardening generosity of people in my department. As soon as she came to town, people were offering her plants. It's a way we have of getting people settled and building ties (I have coral bells from one colleague, who moved into a new house and thus had all new plants to divide and share, and coreopsis from another, who was on the search committee that hired me and is now a neighbor). Gardening for me is definitely a way of building ties. I do buy some plants from nurseries if I have a particular idea of what I want to do, but I like the way that making decisions about how to shape and beautify my land makes me part of the land (another colleague and I stopped at a nursery on the way home from a conference and I bought tiny, weak, on-sale-in-May spreading phlox. In six years it's gained strength and is now a splendid display on a rock wall.) As my garden has grown, I've felt more connected to, more at home in, this part of the US that will never feel totally home to me. With Politica, I've reshaped the vegetable garden (using square-foot gardening ), invited friends to help us dig up grass to put in flowers, and learned new ways to make new gardens (basically, don't dig up the grass. Cover it with newspaper, several layers, and then dump top soil and mulch on top of that. Cut through the paper to plant anything you want, and the paper and mulch/soil will kill the grass below. Way easier than digging up grass, and it's way easier to learn that by reading here than by experience. Trust me.) We met a lot of our neighbors as we converted a hard-to-mow sloping lawn into a sunny garden, and we met a lot of people who liked watching Curious Girl "help" me with lawn mowing and gardening. Gardening and children attract company, and I like that.

And of course, our gardening choices reflect our activities. We grow a lot of basil and tomatoes and herbs. We grow lettuce early and beans later. We try to grow zucchini every year, and, "Attack of the Squash People" notwithstanding, our zucchini always gets eaten by a little garden beastie. Last year we got farther than ever, but still, no zukes for us. But we had plenty of produce in our yard, and Politica and Curious Girl are fabulous harvesters. The summer after Politica's mother died, she (who thought she couldn't garden) took solace in creating a vegetable garden in the front garden of our rental duplex. Into tomatoes and basil she poured her sadness, and learned that she could make things grow. It's been a pleasure to watch her becoming a more confident and ambitious gardener.

I've recreated ties to other gardens with my choices here. I try to grow marigolds every year because they were the favorite flower of a friend of mine who died far too young. I remember her when they bloom. I planted pachysandra becasue it reminded me of the border plants my mother had on the side of our house. Politica often likes portulaca because her mother planted it, and we like so many of the plants that friends here have donated or advised us about. Our wall lining the back beds was inspired by one our neighbors did, and we've traded plants back and forth. Our gardens are a community resource, telling stories of our pasts, and tracing our connections.

What stories do your gardens tell?


Arwen said...

I'm so lucky to live in the densest urban environment in Canada but also have access to a community garden in our laneway. My next door neighbour and I each have plots of about 6'x3' (we're using the square foot garden method, too), and we've been playing (with the kids) in the dirt for a couple of years now. One of the women on our block gave us a bag of sunflower seeds harvested from the sunflowers in her garden which the kids planted outside our houses last year. They got large and beautiful. Gardening is part of our community activity and identity: I love that.

M. said...

I wish my garden told better stories, but I think mostly what it says is: these people LOVE plants and flowers, but live in a place with too much lead in the soil to grown anything edible and don't rent here long enough to ever see what they plant get truly big and beautiful. In the next house...

jo(e) said...

It was wonderful to hear your garden stories. I use the same newspaper-and-mulch method to start new gardens.

art-sweet said...

One of the things that's made me feel most at home here in city-I-don't-really-like is my garden.

Ironically before moving here I worked at a public garden, had access to tons of free plants, and lived in an apartment with nowhere to plant them.

I too have enjoyed the process of collecting plants from others - the irises from a co-worker that are starting to stick their sword like leaves up, the random black-eyed susans from a guy who was dividing them when I happened to be walking by...

And the newspaper and mulch method ROCKS.

(here from Marisa's)

susan said...

Welcome, art-sweet!

I love community gardens, and have always wanted to garden in one. I'm totally blanking on the name of a delightful English book I read about a quirky woman who participates in a community garden (I know, what kind of English professor I, when I can never remember the name of anything I read?)

Marisa, you'll have to write some stories into your new gardens. Those will be fun!

Bobita said...

What a wonderful post!

I don't really have a garden...but I give plants and trees as gifts. I always hope that they will be something special to someone...someday!

Piece of Work said...

I am a terrible gardener, and I think part of the reason is that I live on a different coast than I grew up on. ALl the plants, the smells, the colors are different, and unfamiliar (even after 15 years? Maybe I should let it go). Truly some of my favorite memories are of my grandparents farm, and the flowers, but especially the food they grew. Every fruit and vegetable you could imagine, they grew there. I loved helping them turn the soil, plant the seeds, weed, harvest.
I have tried, twice, to replicate the vegetable gardens here--but we live too close to the ocean and the soil is sandy. We live too close to the airport so the tomatos always die.
Anyway,I loved reading this!

cloudscome said...

OOOH I love this post! I have so many of the same plants, given by friends and families.... Hosta, forcythia, Iris, phlox, coreopsis, black eyed susan, lilac, myrtle, pacasandra, and did you say butterfly bush and lenten rose? I love that my garden has been grown and built up by loving gifts and cast offs and cuttings. After six years in this house it is coming back so beautifully this spring!! I am looking forward to reading more garden blog posts all through the coming seasons... how about some pictures?