The Evolution of a Black Thumb..Or, The Education of a Reluctant Gardener
The thin leaves were wilted in the intensity of the late Colorado summer sun. The delicate, thin purple flowers were also looking a bit wan.
“Well, sh*t,” I thought, “Here we go again.”
Forty dollars’ worth of some kind of lovely purple full-sun perennials gazed back at me woefully. I had already watered the lawn and this garden repeatedly. Then, I took a full pitcher of water out and lovingly poured it over these brand new plantings, which I had installed after my (now disengaged) gardener used a rake to clean up fall leaves. With them he ripped up all the ground cover.
That gets expensive.
Twelve years ago I moved into this lovely west Denver home in an old neighborhood. I bought in January, but the featured photos were from summer. It had been lovingly landscaped by a couple who worked for the Forest Service. The wife was a professional landscaper.
I’m not. Not even. However, what I loved about her work was that, right on cue, at the beginning of spring, came the march of the perennials. The lawn would bloom and explode with every kind of color and smell. I had no clue what the flowers were (except for crocus and daffodils, which my mother grew). The rest? Who knew? But in the back yard with stunning and lovely regularity, a bright purple carpet popped up every year to please the eye and soothe the soul.
That is until my erstwhile gardener ripped them up.
Over the last twelve years my yard has changed a great deal. A walnut blight took out the 150 year old tree which had long shaded and protected the entire southern end of the yard…and my deck. Suddenly the yard was scorched and the house was about 20 degrees hotter on the southern end.
Vicious hail storms took out lovely ornamentals. My neighbor, Dee, had trouble with voles. One year while I was away for a good two months, she convinced them to move up the street- right under my junipers. By the time I got home they had devastated many years’ worth of gorgeous growth. I had to remove the skeletons that were left and I was left with a sandy rock garden, whose soil slipped down the steps with every May rainfall.
The junipers out front I left alone. Little did I know that they ate small children if left unattended. They slowly marched across half my small front lawn, sending Alien-like roots in all directions, wiping out grass and ground cover. I finally realized what was happening and in a rare fit of lawn-related industriousness, spent a weekend taking my lawn back.
What there was left of it. You learn to appreciate mulch.
Being a regular traveler I made the assumption that the lawn would largely take care of itself. Not only was I terribly wrong on that count, my disregard of the neighborhood showplace resulted in some untimely deaths. While most of my yard continued to flourish I finally realized that I might want to get engaged with my living things. Since a good third or more of my backyard is effectively forest (all that’s left of what the neighborhood might have been a very long time ago), I wanted to balanced those tall pines, spruce and ivy undergrowth with the vivaciousness that had personified the yard the first spring I lived here.
The good news is that some things survive in spite of my neglect. The front of my yard is an aspen grove. Some of those trees have died, but an aspen grove is just one large organism. In no time there are more coming up, and my house is the only one on the block with a lovely yellow carpet every fall. It’s something else again.
If my kitchen windowsill spider plants could speak, they would tell you that I am a sporadically-mindful plant person. They get plant food. They thrive. I travel, I get folks to water them. They flower, explode, thrive, shed leaves into my sink. Because they are in my face every day I am mindful of them.
However it wasn’t until last summer when, sidelined with a busted back, I took serious stock in my yard and paid real attention. I also read The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. After that I began to take my forest and plants far more seriously.
Many years ago I’d read a similar book, but never had I owned a yard so full of life which in part depended on me to help sustain it. I suspected that plants felt, cooperated and communicated. I knew that they responded to love, care and conversation. That just hadn’t been me. I’m an animal person.
In short order, I hired a talented, dedicated tree man. We cut deadfall and trimmed where necessary. Suddenly trees began to bush out and recover, their overloaded limbs less susceptible to early and late heavy snowfalls. I planted a fire maple (whom I named Matilda) last year not far from where my walnut stood. Every day I went out and hugged her young trunk, spoke to her, encouraged her. My neighbors already knew I was nuts. This was proof positive. Not only did Matilda make it through her first year, she graced me with my first bright red leaves last fall. I am eternally grateful. The yard will be, too, for the coming shade.
I’m learning what happens when you get invested in your lawn. Last year, while I was away at a conference for a month, my northern neighbor (known universally for three square blocks as “that asshole Jerry”) came over and without my permission, sawed off a long branch that happened to arch over his lawn. That’s highly illegal in Colorado, so is throwing downed pine cones back over the fence into my yard, which he was wont to do. Not only was his saw job clumsy and poorly done, it did damage to the balance of my tree. I called the cops on Jerry, went to all my neighbors to ask them to watch my yard (which is how I learned about the affectionate nickname) and informed his wife that if Jerry so much as stepped on a blade of my grass I’d have the cops driving up his alimentary canal.
I was pissed. These trees are my family now. You do not screw with my family.
My god. I sound like Tom Selleck’s police commissioner character in Blue Bloods.
Jerry came to our neighborhood from a condo. He thinks that all the air above his yard belongs to him, and that I should slice every branch of every tree that has the temerity to grow over the fence. Touch my trees again, Asshole Jerry, and let’s see what I slice off you.
I suddenly began to understand gardeners in a wholly different way.
Nature Finds a Way
The ornamental that had been pummeled to death in a hail storm popped up hale and hearty in another spot in the ground cover. The magnificent peonies which annually provided me with a plethora of fragrant blooms- assuming I was here in early June to pluck them- sent out volunteers. Now there are three bushes and this year I had about forty exuberant, incredible flowers to place all over the house.
You cannot compare this to silk versions, which I have all year. For the several weeks these exuberant blooms filled my house I walked around in a cloud of luscious fragrance. No room freshener can do that. NONE.
A friend directed me to a much-loved nursery, and warned me to take my credit card. She was right. I fell in love with ice plants, a succulent that can weather our increasingly hot and dry climate, and would eventually reward me by spreading out and locking down the sandy soil that I have been losing in the rains.
Last week I carefully planted each boxful. Two days later after a bit of watering, each plant rewarded me with the brilliant fuschia and white flowers that are the equivalent of a plant’s grin of happiness. I grin back, touch them with affection and thank them for showing up.
Certifiable. But That’s Okay
I’m slowly going mildly crazy but at least it isn’t cats.
Last night when I checked on my newly planted I-have-no-clue-what-they-are purple flowers, I noted the leaves. Promptly ran inside, filled a pitcher and gently poured water on each new plant. Touched the flowers with affection. This morning they are right perky again. Plant language for “thank you.”
I spent nearly a hundred bucks on a small bush that, when it fleshes out in a year or two, will be a butterfly magnet. I maintain the immensely tall and stately trees where, last year and this, a hawk family has nested and hunts my yard for the inattentive baby rabbit.
Last year, after having the damned thing sit empty in my garden for eleven years, I took note of the fact that I had a concrete bird bath. Not once had I ever filled it. Upon doing so (and you lawn lovers will laugh) I was promptly rewarded with plenty of birds, squirrels, and the odd lame fawn whose family raids my trees every fall. Funny thing about that.
A brand new retractable awning graces my deck, which was for years far too hot to step on after the walnut died. There are colorful deck chairs. Last night my newly-ensconced boyfriend and I stood on the deck enjoying a late evening breeze. His bulldog, Sophie, adores my yard. The rabbits, having observed her less-than enthusiastic response to their presence, ignore her. She explores, they nibble, all is well.
Every so often I catch him standing on the deck, just looking. While we both would rather live in the high country and be able to hear the wind’s symphony in the pines, this isn’t a bad short-term alternative. My work in the garden, clumsy and uneducated as it is, has deepened my appreciation of nature in a way that just hiking never could. It is quite another thing to plant, love and invite living things to thrive in your own yard. Ultimately it is yet another lesson in the interdependence, rich interconnectedness and immensely complex living world we inhabit. When we are too far from nature we don’t thrive. When we plunge ourselves into her richness, and give back for her beauty, we are enriched far beyond the truly minimal effort it takes to encourage growth and health. Such as it is with all living things, I believe.
My black thumb, long the enemy of nearly every houseplant I’ve ever owned, is slowly turning slightly more green. While I grew up on a farm, I didn’t know about plants. Not really. I now apologize to the weeds that I pull up and hug my trees with meaning. By providing me with shade, breezes and a bed of ivy they hug me back.
I am no gardener. Never will be in the formal sense of the word. But the increased appreciation I have for the green and growing things that populate my yard gives me pleasure if for no other reason than I have come to better appreciate what they are, who they are and their roles.
Certifiable. Damn right. But you should see my lawn now.