The maddening, marvelous garden evolves

Climbing roses at the front of Ginny Smith's East Falls house. "This is heresy, but sometimes I wish we could weed and plant and be done with it and not have to start up anew each spring with the unwelcome pests and plagues that visit every year."
Climbing roses at the front of Ginny Smith's East Falls house. "This is heresy, but sometimes I wish we could weed and plant and be done with it and not have to start up anew each spring with the unwelcome pests and plagues that visit every year." (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 21, 2013

The English poet laureate Alfred Austin once said: "Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are."

No need to channel your late self over to my East Falls garden, Al. I'll make it easy for you. I think you'd conclude that I'm a bit of a dreamer, and very enthusiastic, but not especially organized or blessed with leisure time.

Fortunately, with Emily Tynan, a professional gardener who has been my helper over the last 18 months, the garden has come a long way. It's better organized, less dense, and delightfully different from what it was even a year ago.

Emily has not only lightened my load - the girl is a workhorse - but also rekindled the excitement I felt in 2003 when the first sections of lawn came out and the initial plantings went in.

"I love working in your garden," she says. "It's such a joy."

It truly is. But gardening is not like building furniture. There's no finished product. It's more an endless loop of pleasure and pain that's both exhilarating and exhausting.

I excel at "exhausting."

This is heresy, but sometimes I wish we could weed and plant and be done with it and not have to start up anew each spring with the unwelcome pests and plagues that visit every year.

Emily laughs at that idea. What fun would that be? And she is so right, but . . .

The carpenter ants are boring through the holes my husband filled with wooden cement last year. The downy woodpecker that tormented us last summer, and left in the fall, has been replaced by a hairy woodpecker that's even bigger.

A cheeky squirrel, part of an aggressive extended family that plunders the backyard like it's a Magic Kingdom for rodents, has inexplicably gnawed a cedar beam in the pergola right down to the giant screws holding the structure together.

And now, ta-da! Emily finds mildew on the phlox and holes on the heucheras. "Could be caterpillars or slugs or root-eating weevils," she muses.

"We're being attacked by the entire animal kingdom," I moan. Emily is laughing so hard she's barely able to mouth the words: "That's . . . so . . . funny!"

And the weeds! We have crabgrass, bindweed, ground ivy, violets, dandelions, Pennsylvania pellitory, and Japanese stiltgrass - and how about hundreds of cleome seedlings shooting up an inch a day?

They threaten to smother some of the plantings Emily installed out front in 2012. The redo was necessary because that entire garden, almost a decade old, had been ripped up for new drainage pipes designed to keep damaging moisture out of the house.

Emily and I chose the new plants with care, selecting unusual varieties that required less maintenance than the perennials of yesteryear. Last summer, as they were settling in, one mysterious cleome popped up.

I thought she'd planted it. She thought I had. It proved to be yet another random, and extremely fertile, "gift" to the garden, one that will keep on giving and giving if we don't organize a massacre.

Last Friday, Emily and I had another of our occasional work days, where we do what needs to be done and talk as we go.

The main order of business was to plant a native redbud tree out back, a bold initiative that will change the garden's look and feel and, in time, add some welcome shade in the middle.

She digs the hole, marvels at how rich the soil is - yay! something goes the way it's supposed to! - and lifts the baby tree up and in. All the while, we chat about what a garden is.

It is - or should be - a refuge from all that rushes and stresses, fatigues, and hurts. It's a place of restoration and silence that both of us, with our overbooked lives, need.

Today, after a pounding rain the day before, the garden is not exactly silent. Birds are chattering in every direction. We suspect our presence here - it's their Magic Kingdom, too - has set them off.

They zoom low across the garden like planes lifting off a runway. It may be overcast and only 57 degrees, but the sounds, the sights, are spectacular.

This spring, after an excited "what if" discussion about growing more food in the back garden, Emily dug out the stepping-stones that divide it into four quadrants. They were overrun with lemon balm, bee balm, and meadow rue, all good-lookers with promiscuous habits.

Then came the fun.

In each quadrant, Emily built a bamboo tepee for peas and beans. All along the stepping-stones, she sowed seeds and starts for beets, Swiss chard, radishes, cabbage, carrots, pac choi, parsley, rumex, and a dozen kinds of lettuce. She planted zinnia and nasturtium seeds for color.

As the weeks unfolded, the harvest grew ever more bountiful. Even now, looking at those tepees and stepping-stones makes me happy.

Emily, too.

We talk about how much this garden has changed in the short time we've been working together. "There are things we can control and things we have to roll with. Change is constant," Emily says.

Here's another constant: mistakes.

Glass-half-full Emily thinks this is a bonus. "A garden is actually a good place to make mistakes," she says.

I immediately brighten, for I excel at this, too.

"Because life goes on," Emily continues.

So it does.

As my garden goes on, the person tending it will try to see the joy, as Emily does, in its constant state of change, rather than dwell on the frustration of what cannot be controlled.

For Emily, big changes are coming.

Friday, she is to be married at her family's home in Deer Isle, Maine. In a few weeks, she and her new husband will be moving to Asheville, N.C., to start a new life - he as a graduate student; she, as always, as a gardener.

Emily hopes to restart her business in Asheville and plant a raised-bed vegetable patch behind the new house. It borders a forest, not far from the French Broad River.

She's excited - "I can't wait" - but sad to be leaving her small family of clients. One client, for her part, may be sadder still.


Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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