Why do some like to garden, while others will do almost anything, even fold laundry, to avoid playing in the dirt? There are all the “old saws” of exercise, health and peacefulness. But, frankly, I don’t find getting tired and sweaty hauling wheelbarrows of soil and mulch, and balled trees and bushes, tranquility-inducing.
What I like is digging a good hole, correct width and depth-wise, the soil to be returned augmented with fertilizer appropriate to the plant (neutral, acidic, whatever). More particularly, I like measuring the hole in comparison to the plant ball, for which I use the grossly imprecise device of the handle of my shovel. Honestly, I’m the worst measurer of things, a horrible carpenter who cuts first and asks questions later. While door jambs and cabinets and shelves are unforgiving, soil is. I can play like a baby, always able to add some back or remove some more.
On a larger scale, I do plan, or at least try to. I mean you can’t exactly create five acres of gardens (my last completed project) without a little sketch of what’s going where. But my sketches, taking into account studying the plant material for mature size, flowering time, leaf shape, color and horticultural needs (like keeping material that’s dicey, like Eastern Redbuds in Zone 5, away from where the winter wind whistles), are always almost wrong. Planting the five acres was, for me, mainly transplanting; almost everything grew differently from what I planned and had to be moved, often not just once.
One of my daughters recently encouraged me to turn into the driveway of the house where I built the five-acre garden, a turn I hadn’t made since I got divorced and sold the house over a decade ago. I was apprehensive, expecting the new owner to be quite angry because only a real gardener — and I didn’t think he was one — would have realized the massive amount of time and energy the gardens required. But as he dismounted his John Deere sitting lawn mower, and pleasantly greeted us, I realized that what really scared me was the prospect that all he’d done for ten years was, well, mow the lawn.
That fear was realized; the perennial beds that wound through the property, terraced for slight rises, spotted with stone steps and places for contemplation, were essentially empty. Gone were the patches of steely blue globe thistle and blue-eyed flax that I started indoors from seed. Varieties of sedum, waves of various types of black-eyed susans, swatches of cone flower, all disappeared. No soaring hollyhocks that I’d religiously tried to protect from the humidity they so dislike. No more joe pye weed. No bee balm. In the shady areas, no more Virginia blue bells, waxy wine-colored ligularia, ornamental ginger. In their places, mainly well-weeded, blank soil, and a perennial here and there, mostly ones that had clumpy root stocks that enabled them to cling to life despite inattention and uprooting. But with all this destruction around me, why wasn’t I gloomy?
Turns out, a larger force was at work — trees. I’d planted many varieties of trees. Most of moderate size, say 3-5 inches in caliper, hoping that they’d reach maturity by the end of my life. Dawn redwoods. copper, weeping and fastigiate beeches. Exfoliating stewartia, paperbark maple, kousa dogwood and London plane. Silver lindens. Camperdown elms. European hornbeam. American horse chestnut. Katsura. Specially-selected, tortured-looking Japanese maples. Compact cryptomeria yoshino. Collections of magnolias and witch hazels. Ornamentals like redbuds, cherries and American dogwoods. Dwarf conifers. Lines of weeping willows in a culverts way in the back. Thirty sugar maples planted as bareroot sticks forming what now is a tree-covered alley that’s the rear entrance to the property. And, in the background of this terrestrial canvas, loads of hemlocks, spruces, junipers, pines, blue atlas cedars, river birches and patches of bushes, like double-file viburum and cornus mas.
In ten years of unattended growth, these bushes and trees transformed acres of rolling field into a linked set of openings, the absent splendor of well-tended perennial beds being a small price to pay for the wonder of wondering what’s around these newly-created corners. Despite, if not because of my successor’s, well, selective maintenance, I now have the pleasure of seeing the forest from the . . .perennials.