Monday, June 8, 2009

The Gardener Within

My grandmother always had a big vegetable garden in her urban backyard. She plowed it herself every spring--without the aid of a motor or mule. She provided us with a steady supply of jams, jellies and various preserves from what she grew or picked up here and there from other gardening friends.

Dad spent a lot of time working in the yard, too. He started out with roses which, with few exceptions, were mostly leafless stalks with the occasional sad-looking bloom. Later he started growing vegetables--summer stuff mostly like cucumbers, squash, peppers and tomatoes. Now and then he'd throw in an eggplant or two. There was always more than enough for us, and plenty to share with neighbors and coworkers.

Dad also has a big flower garden where really nice plants go to die. He got it in his head a long time ago that the ground needed to be turned over every spring. Perennials that die back to nothing over the winter are doomed. Trees, shrubs, and others that you can see year-round have a better chance of survival, but are subject to various forms of abuse that tend to kill all but the hardiest of specimens. Even so, most visitors describe his garden as beautiful. And it is, thanks in no small part to marigolds, zinnias, and cosmos--annual flowers that he uses to fill in bare spots.

I never set out to be a gardener. The change came when we rented a duplex with a fenced-in backyard. The previous tenants had dogs, and there was no grass within three feet of the fence all the way around. The Ben Franklin store had assorted varieties of flower and vegetable seed in big bins for a dime a pack--cheaper than grass seed. So we sprinkled a couple of dollars worth of flower seeds along the fence, raked it in and covered it with straw.

That summer we had an amazing, constantly-changing display of flowers. I started picking up additional plants at local nurseries--nearly always annuals or easily-moved perennials since I was renting. Then I subscribed to a gardening magazine (or 2 or 3 maybe--I never have been one to do things by halves) and then the catalogs started coming. I was hooked. I lived in the duplex for several more years and had large parts of the yard dedicated to flowers before we moved.

When I bought my first house, the real estate agent said I was looking to buy a yard and would take whatever house came with it. We spent the week before we moved in sprucing things up--my partner worked on the inside, and I worked on the yard. For the last load from the duplex, I ran around the yard with a shovel digging up the plants I couldn't bare to leave behind. I set them in the back of the pick-up truck without pots or anything. Two days later everything I left behind had been mowed to the ground and was out at the curb in trash bags.

When I got back to the house with my pick-up truck full of plants it was already dark. Being May, many of the plants were in bloom or near bloom, so I figured I needed to get them in the ground ASAP. I'd spent the week preparing beds for the new arrivals. So I was able to get everything planted and watered. The neighbors later said they were stunned to wake up and see what appeared to be a well-established flower garden where none had been just the day before.

Much has changed since the mid-80s when the gardening bug bit me. I have a much bigger yard now, a nearly year-long growing season, and a stronger desire for approaches that require a lot less labor. I've also learned a lot over time about what does and doesn't look good or perform well.

But with all that has changed, my passion and enjoyment for gardening remains. I'm still a sucker for a good catalog. At last count, my garden contained more than 450 different varieties of annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees. I know because I keep track with an index card for each new addition. You really expect me to remember all those plant names? Besides, my index card file is quintessentially...

The Crotchety Old Man

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