Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Old Essays and Frankenflowers and Pears

Last year my friend Lynne planted a pear tree in her back yard and this year it is bearing fruit. That is about as 'instant-gratification' as a garden gets.

This year, I bought potted geraniums that had already bloomed from Costco and transplanted them into pots in my backyard.

That's 'instant-gratification' but not from nature. Oddly, the blooms are still going strong, but not natural, there's something 'Frankenflower' about them. They are super-hardy, almost looking artificial, except that they do bloom and die and regenerate.

I am injured this year with a neck issue that makes my left arm weak. That's my excuse - and the cost and the time and my lack of knowledge.

Years and years ago, when I lived in another place I wrote an schmaltzy essay. It's about the year I decided to grow a garden. I haven't made any attempt since.

Here it is again. Reprise.

My friend Lynne, who writes ESL textbooks and has often included my essays, likes to paint pears (among other things.) I'm the one in the picture.

                       One Garden at a Time

t's the first warm day of the year. I look out onto my barren back yard and wonder, will this be the year? Will this be the year I cultivate a gorgeous garden like the one I had in 1989?

My eyes scan the hopeless expanse of mangy yellow grass with the huge brown blob of a pitching mound set plunk in the middle, and it's clear that the only color in my garden this spring afternoon radiates from a sky-blue pair of road hockey pads lying on the ground, a red and white soccer ball lolling in a flower bed, and the neon-yellow Nerf ball hiding in some mouldy leaf material, so I am compelled to answer, "No, probably not. This is probably not the year I cultivate my gorgeous garden."

My sons still feel believe this pale, lifeless plot to be their own private sports stadium. And even though their home runs now have the power to provoke law suits from neighbors, I doubt that they'll give up their territory to me, not without a fight.

Andrew, 10, has exhibited some signs of wanderlust already. He has begged to be allowed to ride his bike the three meandering miles to school every morning, but Mark, 8, well, he's still a homebody. I can hear the comforting thump of his game of "wall ball" behind me as I write.


I first moved into this small, brick bungalow just two days after Mark's birth on May 6, 1988. My husband had spent a few frantic days since the May 1st move-in date unpacking our possessions and making things comfortable for me and the new baby.

The day I brought my strapping blue-eyed newborn home, I hardly noticed the impressive V-shaped flower-bed taking up most of the front yard. All I could see was what that there was no fence around the perimeter, nothing stopping Andrew, then two-and-half years old, from running out onto the fairly busy street.

"Put a fence around this yard or we're all going to stay at Mummy's," I sobbed in a hormone-induced conniption. A homely dark green Frost fence went up the very next day. A compliant man, my husband.

But the V-shaped garden? Well, it succumbed to my husband's flora-phobia. He coldly returned it to Mother Earth with some lame rationale like, "It gets in the way of the new sandbox," or "Rose bushes are dangerous for little kids." Did I care? No. The sum total of my energies was being focused maternally on my little children that summer.

"Blow those dastardly bushes away," In short sighted fashion, I agreed.

But by the spring of 1990, I felt quite the opposite. After spending a biting Canadian winter housebound with two little children, I could only dream of the day the warmth would return. As spring approached I read up on everything I could about gardening. I bought a Time-Life set on the subject, and I borrowed a Reader's Digest opus on eye-popping perennial borders, spending many a snow-brightened afternoon salivating over pictures of other people's blissfully beautiful gardens.


Zinnias, hibiscus, hollyhocks, I wanted to grow them all. (I am convinced that the impulse to grow a garden from a handful of seeds comes from the very same place as the urge to create new life from the seed in the womb.)

And I couldn't get started soon enough. As early as February, I bought these little peat containers and started the seeds indoors: marigolds, zinnias, and cosmos. I covered two card tables in the living room with a couple of hundred boxes of these seedlings, and when they sprouted, I took the time to move them each afternoon from one side of the house to the other so that they could get enough sun. Being so well-cared for, the seedlings thrived, and I beamed like a proud new parent as I transplanted them into the perfectly prepared beds in my garden (one part peat, one part sheep manure, one part black earth) in early May. But spring comes late to Quebec, and I was forced to run out on many an evening thereafter to cover my burgeoning "babies" with large, thick pieces of plastic because of impending night frost.

My husband often scrambled out after me to help. He knew better than to get in the way of the forces driving me to create my first beautiful garden. He knew better than to question the ever-increasing amounts of money I was pouring into the project. Like children, seeds come cheap, but also like children, it takes an awful lot of time, energy, commitment and, yes, money, to bring them to bloom!

Was it worth all the effort? But, of course! That summer, my garden was a glorious vision, the most splendid garden I have ever had, as if sprung from out of the imagination of Matisse, the mind of Monet. My marigolds were thick of stem and a brilliant, buttery yellow, my giant zinnias overflowed with bright blooms, and my cosmos daisies bloomed delicate yet hale.

One day, however, the marigolds started to break. One by one, these robust-looking plants were being felled in their prime by some invisible lumberjack of a pest. Cutworm!? "No problem, just use this insecticide. It's reasonably safe," the florist told me. But I couldn't possibly. I had other babies to watch out for. Clearly, a choice had to be made, here!

Once again, I learned that life is a compromise. I would have no beautiful garden, I decided, if it meant putting poison within a country mile of my children.

And it has been pretty well downhill for my garden since then. Each year, I spent less and less money and less and less time on my "outdoor" room and with the help of erratic weather patterns, weeds, and bugs aplenty, my beautiful garden, my humble little Eden, quickly declined.

Instead, I channeled my creative energy into other areas like gourmet (ha!) cookery, interior design, and, whenever I got some, advertising work. You could even say I have brought my garden indoors over the years: A Matisse here, a Monet there, rosebuds on the kitchen wallpaper, lotuses on the bathroom borders, and my favorite flower -- tulips -- everywhere: tulip paintings, tulip sculptures, tulip-covered ceramic tiles. "You must have been Dutch in your past life," my petal-shocked husband quipped.

But my fresh-air garden? Well, those people who tell you that a garden grows itself, getting better and better as the perennials establish themselves, are plain wrong. I must have planted two hundred perennials over the years and, except for the daisies and black-eyed Susans, nothing has taken. I once dreamed of poppies peaking their broad blushing faces over my back fence, and of hollyhocks, thick with bloom, waving in the summer breeze, and of a Wordsworthian sea of daffodils swirling deliriously outside my bedroom window. But nothing! Of course, the hockey rink didn't help. And flooding a garden every winter for six months does take a toll on ground cover.

Which goes to prove another point: Growing a garden and raising children may have a lot in common, but kids and flowers don't necessarily like to share the same space. Certainly, hockey-crazy, baseball-loving, soccer-mad kids and gardens don't mix, not one whit.

As my boys grew, I made a promise to myself: If it ever came down to a conflict between my kids' need to play hard and fast and the welfare of my plants, my boys would get the nod, as long as they didn't show any deliberate disrespect to my plants.


So, my garden deteriorated even more, my beautiful four-year-old peony bush becoming last year's most noteworthy casualty to a "wicked" blast of a soccer ball. That big brown blotch of a pitching mound set plunk in the middle of the yard seems the only thing actually growing in my garden, expanding out each year in direct proportion to the sweep of my sons' strides and the arc of their home-run swings.
Let's face it, my glorious garden is a dud. (The other day my eldest asked me why sports arenas are often called "gardens," as in Madison Square Gardens in New York and Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. VERY good question, I answered.)

But it's April 18th, the warmest day of the year and I can't help but look out over my long-neglected yard, with the weeds choking the succulents in my rock garden and the overgrown blue spruces blocking every bit of sun. "Will this be the year we trim back the trees and plant a few new beds of tiger lilies and columbines? Is it time once again to cultivate my garden? (If you learn anything from gardening, it is that everything comes in cycles.)

And then I watch my boys argue over who gets to pitch first, like two young saplings rooted for the moment to the center of that even bigger brown blob of a pitching mound swallowing up my garden whole and I think "Not yet."

They'll be uprooting themselves soon enough, my boys, my most precious creations, and taking off like dandelion seeds in the wind. Why hurry things? One garden at a time. "No, I will not make my garden this year. There will be plenty of time for that later."