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The Occasional Gardener

by Julia Sneden

I love my yard at this time of year, because things have begun to bloom. Forsythia, camellias, jonquils, crocuses, japonica, that rampant rascal Star of Bethlehem, and even the violets (growing in what we recklessly refer to as lawn) have a salubrious effect on me. I know that I am supposed to hate the violets because theyre interlopers, but I cant help just cheering them on. They seem so brave, somehow.
      All these harbingers of spring dont ask for much, and they bring me blooms to fill every room in my house, with enough left over to take to friends. This year I cut some japonica and put it in water in my mothers old celadon vase, to force early bloom. Its delicate coral/red blossoms made the cold outside our door seem positively inconsequential, because it was spring in the living room.
      The wonderful perennials just do their thing, year after year, with almost no effort on my part. The former owners of this house planted them long ago, and all that they require from me is an occasional dose of fertilizer and a little water in the hot summer. Oh, every few years I take out the shears and whack away, as inexpert a job of pruning as you will find anywhere in the world, but the old plants are quite forgiving. They seem to thrive no matter how I neglect them. Its not that I mean them any harm. Its just that I have a short attention span. 
     Actually, my gardening skills have improved a lot over the years. When we first bought a house, I was so inept that if there had been garden police, Id have been hauled off to jail. And if there were a Garden Court as well as a Family Court, my entire yard would have been removed from my guardianship and placed in foster care. Its not that I didnt make an effort. Having grown up in a home where both parents were dedicated gardeners, I could hardly wait to grow my own flowers. I carefully dug up and enriched the soil for a cutting bed, sinking it down a couple of inches the way one does in California, to catch and hold every drop of moisture during the long, dry summers. The only problem was that we had moved to hot, humid, eastern North Carolina, where rains are frequent, copious, and of long duration, all summer long. Within a month, every zinnia, daisy, columbine, cosmos, snapdragon, and aster had disappeared into a damp, moldy mass, rotted away from too much water. 
     When we moved to the western part of the state, we unthinkingly bought a house surrounded by a half acre of lawn. This was in itself a recipe for disaster. I feel about lawns the way I feel about magnolia trees: they belong in the vast grounds of stately mansions. Crammed into suburban yards, magnolias are out of scale. And lawns, it seems to me, require crews of groundskeepers who maintain constant vigilance. I have seen a number of beautiful lawns in places near and far; I admire them and enjoy them. I dont want them. A lawn around a middle class house, someone once said, is nothing more than a boast that the owner can afford a power mower.
     To add to my distress, there was one neighbor who was a lawn fanatic. I think she manicured the edges of her lawn with nail scissors. When she called me on October 20th to suggest that she knew a nice man who would rake our leaves (in this part of the world, the leaves begin to fall about Oct. 15th), I told her that we usually let them all fall before taking on the project. Yes, but theyre blowing over onto MY lawn! she snapped. For some reason, we didnt live in that house very long.
     Where we live now, our putative lawn is nothing but weeds cut short. It serves to keep the ivy away from the door. Ivy, of course, is another matter altogether. It not only needs groundskeepers; it needs a death squad. Every winter I cut it back fiercely at the bases of the trees in our woods. Every summer it renews its assault, and climbs twice as high and three times as far. I wish I could just concede the battle, but if I do, our house will soon disappear under the green carpet. Death by ivy: a horrible way to go.
      I really look forward to the next few weeks. Spring energizes me. But as I said, I have a short attention span. Each year for about two weeks in March, I am a whirlwind of determined activity. Diggings, rakings, prunings, plantings, weedings, feedings and mulchings take up all my daylight hours. My family groans: Farmer Julia has returned. Dinner will be late. Farmer Julia will be sunburned and limping. No matter how determined her nail brushing, her cuticles will look grimy. (Yes, I know about garden gloves. I even use them, that is until I take them off, lay them down, and forget them).
     Last year in a fit of over-achievement, I dug up the daffodils in what is laughingly called a garden border at the edge of the aforementioned non-lawn. They had naturalized themselves and spread until they amounted to a few tiny blooms in a great mass of thin, reedy foliage. I carefully separated the clumps of bulbs, leaving the long, green leaves attached as I put them back into the ground. I fed each bulb that I replanted, filling the hole with a good mixture of bone meal and rich earth. I gave away shoeboxes full of baby bulbs to friends. I hope their bulbs are faring better than mine, which have come up still thin and reedy, not at all like what my garden book touted in the chapter on the way to propagate and improve daffodil growth. They havent bloomed yet, so perhaps the flowers will show proof of the bone meal. But I didnt divide their cousins that are growing in the woods just a few feet away, and they are already blooming like crazy. Perhaps theres a lesson here about not tampering with Mother Nature, at least not if youre an occasional gardener.
     Its not that I set out to fail. My intentions are sterling. I really like to start plants and to see things grow, and I love to pick flowers. Its the time between planting and harvest that defeats me. Im incredibly impatient. When I plant something, I want to see it bloom now, or at least within a week or two. Last summer I sowed two rows of tithonia, or Mexican sunflower, in the sole sunny spot in our yard. Inspired by a friend whos my garden guru, I decided to grow them with lab-lab beans (also called hyacinth beans). The brilliant orange/red of the sunflowers looks wonderful with the small, lavender, purple and white blossoms and magenta pods of the beans.
      I had started the lab-labs indoors under a grow light, and when I transplanted them, they were ready to take off up the string trellis I attached to our carport roof. The tithonia, however, were sowed directly into the ground in early May. Every few days, I checked for the first shoots. By June l, I had decided that this year there wouldnt be any tithonia, and stopped checking. I didnt even bother to look for them before them before we left for the beach at the end of June. When we returned, I was too busy washing salty, sandy clothes, restocking the refrigerator, and stowing the beach towels to pay attention to the side yard. And then, in mid-July, all of a sudden I discovered the sunflowers, already something like 5 feet high and starting to bloom. Id forgotten all about them. They didnt seem to mind.
     The rest of my yard is fairly shady for most of the daylight hours. Azaleas and hydrangeas and shade-loving annuals keep it from being a mossy bank, but its definitely a low-maintenance garden. There is one small slope that gets a bit of sun, where I have planted stonecrop and a moonvine and chrysanthemums, and last year they all produced well. Mind you, that was without much help from Farmer Julia, whose good intentions disappear with the first truly hot summer day. If youre looking for plants that will grow in spite of you, you couldnt do better than those three. (Getting the moonvine started, however, is another matter).
      It also helps if you have good soil. My brother, who is an enthusiastic gardener like our parents, once stuck a shovel into my front yard, and sneered: This isnt soil. This is dirt! I have since spent considerable effort and money on improving it, but the dirt always seems to swallow the compost, conditioner, sand, peat, etc. No matter what I add, when I dig a few weeks later, theres the ubiquitous red clay again. 
     Youd think that by now I wouldnt be able to fool myself, but each year I am sure that I will have success in the garden. I enrich; I plant; I mulch; I feed; I water. I mean well. In all honesty, however, Im not likely to hang on past the first big weeds. For a few weeks, I faithfully pull the weeds as they come up, but eventually I miss a few days. Suddenly (well, perhaps not really suddenly) my garden has disappeared under the weeds. In a whirlwind of activity, I pull them all, and although I ache all over, I feel virtuous for a week or two. Then I notice that the weeds are back. By then its too hot to spend long hours out in the garden. And besides, as my young friends say, Been there; done that. What I want is for those weeds to get the message, lie down, and QUIT. I console myself by remembering that in a couple of months, the weeds will die along with everything else after the first frost. Serves them right.
     I have discovered by accident that the best remedy for occasional gardening is to live next door to someone who is a dedicated and cheerful non-gardener, as in having a yard full of weeds and poison ivy and dead plants. Its not pleasant to look at, and it plays hob with your property values, but it also makes your yard look terrific by comparison. When I remember the lady with the manicured lawn, I count my current blessings and look the other way. And occasionally, I garden.



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