Here in the upper left corner, spring arrives in various guises. The calendar proclaims the date, but the weather cares not for the calendar. Confirmation of arrival demands observation, a look out the window, which often reveals a different truth.
Winter yielded weeks ago. Clocks have all been reset, in compliance with the annual “spring forward” nonsense.
A sample local weather report:
“It is quite normal that we don’t see that much sunshine this time of year. We average only 2 sunny days (“Sunny” = 70% sunshine) in February and March. As of today, though, we have gone 38 straight days without an official sunny day.”
And if that isn’t straightforward enough, the next graf shares this bit of encouragement:
“Today’s weather will be dominated by rain.”
During the early days of spring, the garden is at its worst. More hours of daylight reveal only winter decay. It can get ugly out there. This year has brought a bumper crop of moss, in the lawn, on the pavement, on the roof, places where moss normally does not grow.
A few years back, freezing winter temperatures ended my hopes for the small Jasmine I planted the previous summer. At first, it was an eager participant which twined around the iron railing on the front porch. I should have known better. Ever since the mature jasmine that preceded it met a similar fate several years ago, I have held out hope that freezing temps would ease and again provide habitable winters for the tender green vine and its delicate white flowers with their intoxicating perfume. But my little jasmine, a ten-dollar impulse buy, was dead. With remorse, I dug it up and unceremoniously disposed of it in the compost bin.
This year, the mild winter and plentiful rain has resulted in a riot of growth, by almost every plant and tree in the city. Even the city’s stubborn crabapple trees which line the street are putting on a once-in-a-lifetime show of blossoms. I have made a start on the obligatory spring maintenance, with spade and shovel, clippers and weeder, mower and edger.
When we bought this house from my mother, gardening was not on my mind. We had just sold a house in a small forest out in the suburbs, and were searching for whatever would be next. I was thinking waterfront condo. In the middle of that adventure, my mother presented me with the news that she wished to sell her house, explaining that four years living alone since the death of my father was enough. My thoughts about our next home were suddenly changed.
The compact brick-front rambler on a small city lot was well known to me. Jeni and I decided to buy it. We painted. We replaced windows. We remodeled the kitchen.
The outside was another matter.
In the style of the 50’s, the landscape consisted of lawn, and a few foundation plants snuggled up to the house and along the fences. On his watch, Dad had removed all the lawn on right side of the entry walkway. In its place, he planted little evergreen shrubs. Over the years little shrubs had become giants, many times their original size. With the overgrown evergreens on one side and nothing but flat expanse of lawn on the other, it looked unbalanced, like the whole thing was about to tip over.
In back, it was worse. Dad viewed the backyard as a utility area, sort of a second garage without a roof. In one corner under a Douglas fir tree stood a rusting sheet metal shed for the mower and yard tools. Against the fence was what was left of his cordwood pile, with a makeshift plywood roof. The largest part had been converted into a parking space for their twenty-foot motor home. He brought home buckets of beach rock and sand to firm up what used to be lawn, so the thing wouldn’t sink out of sight when he backed in from the alley. The only plants left were a small lilac tree, a hydrangea, a fir tree too big to be removed and a boxwood shrub. Not an inviting place for lawn chairs and ice tea.
The rusting shed was the first to go. I didn’t so much disassemble it as push it over. Not long after, I noticed Jeni digging in the place where the shed had been. This was unusual because neither of us had ever gardened. Oh sure, we’d spread bark under the rhodies at the suburban house. But I’d never seen her working soil. Remembering the perennial garden we had often visited, she began working with her ideas in this wreck of a back yard. Over several weeks, the little space where the shed had been slowly turned green. Perennials were planted. The open spaces between the lilac and the hydrangea filled in. It wasn’t more than several square yards in size but, with Jeni’s care, it was becoming attractive, turning into a garden.
It was clear she required a larger canvas for her new creative work.
The next season, the renovation began in earnest. After several visits to a nursery, with pencils and tablets, we presented our plan and selected several large trees to be delivered and planted, to give it a head start. A truckload of topsoil was spread by the workmen. A large dogwood tree planted. Instant lawn unrolled.
Over the next two seasons, Jeni worked it, first in back and then in front, where she brought to life a sketch I’d made one day and which, to my utter amazement, she’d saved.
The rehabilitation of the little garden was her sole focus for several seasons.
Like every other artistic endeavor interest, Jeni was untrained in gardening. But like every other artistic endeavor, she leads with her instinct. Jeni possesses an ability which I do not, which I cannot even understand; she sees things in finished form, before they exist. The garden was no different. She would look at a section, visualize it; then, she’d set to work. In few days, something new would emerge, something I had no capacity to comprehend, with only the work of her imagination and hands.
Jeni’s gardening style was jazz. Impulse and improvisation ruled her selection of specimens, and their placement. If they subsequently grow too tall, spread too wide, or took space away from other plantings, no matter, they could be transplanted. She also preferred more to less. In the true fashion of the classic perennial garden, her garden was dense, thick, lush. Specimens were planted close, leaves and branches allowed to mix, to blend, to segue one into another into another. With her sense of color, even foliage takes on the characteristic of a flower garden, greens light and dark, yellows, reds, variegated. The garden became a palate, in which she used color, texture and light to realize her vision.
For several seasons, from early spring until the leaves fell, she was out there, adding, transplanting, revising. I’d come home after work each day to find yet another incremental change. The transformation was total.
Several years on, it now needs a major overhaul. It no longer looks anything like it did at its peak. So much of her plantings are no longer living, other more invasive specimens have reached far beyond their intended boundaries. Ornamental trees thought to have a maximum height under fifteen have outgrown the places they were planted. I have had no choice but to remove several; several more must be taken out as well. Lawn has succumbed to conifer needles, clover and unidentified broad leaf invaders. It has gone wild, turned unruly.
Absent her ability to continue her garden work, it has fallen into decline, but I see an opportunity to be of help. I feel like I have one re-landscape project in me. For several seasons, I have limited my activities to maintenance only, mowing, mulching, weeding, while ignoring the areas long past help. But I have spoken quietly to this old garden, telling it repeatedly that it’s time is coming again.
It will be a much different landscape this time. We’re a couple decades older now. Health and physical ability are not what they used to be. This landscape will emphasize, of need, a maintenance-free objective. In this version, the lawn will expand a bit, the new plantings will be placed with greater space. Bark will cover the surfaces.
But within that constraint, it can become a pleasant place to be, once again.