When I arrived in Maine to view the house I’d found while sifting through properties on the Internet, I already knew it came with a good sized yard. That was the most important piece of criteria outside of being able to walk to town. I wanted enough of a yard to plant a good sized vegetable garden. The idea of an enclosed garden with raised beds, and perhaps an arch with a gate to give it a bit of old fashioned charm appealed to me. Years of flipping through the pages of Fine Gardening, Sunset, and Martha Stewart’s Living made just as much an impact as living in a house for nearly 20 years which had little or no yard at all. Surely .41 acre would be enough, wouldn’t it?
Because I was focused primarily on the house for my visit, I spent no time at all sizing up the surrounding property. Everything was covered with snow, so anything I might have been curious about was lost in the wonder of that alone. Snow to someone who has lived in warm, sunny regions all her life is fascinating. I vaguely remember the realtor pointing out what appeared to be a sort of hedgerow as our property line while she suggested I could put a vegetable garden in the space alongside it. But all thoughts of yards, gardens, and vegetables evaporated once I entered the house. I was captivated. Before the end of that week, we had purchased the house. Three weeks later, my husband returned with me to sign the deed and accept the keys.
There was no snow on the ground late that April, so I was able to see bits of what filled the flowerbeds I couldn’t see on my previous visit. A variety of evergreens defined the bones of the garden, but Irises had begun to push through the soil, and tulips and hyacinths bloomed in random places. The portion of the yard the realtor had pointed out was now clearly visible and the grass greening up nicely. Yes, a vegetable garden would fit there, but without knowing where sunlight fell in the course of a day, I couldn’t be too preoccupied with it yet. I had far more important decisions to make regarding our move.
Fast forward six weeks. The sight that greeted me when we finally arrived in Maine was one I hadn’t expected outside of everything being greener than any other place I’d lived. I recognized some of the plants in bloom; Rhododendrons of all colors, Aquilegia or ‘Columbine’, a patch of Creeping phlox, and Dicentra or “Bleeding Heart” were familiar to me because I’d grown them myself at some point, or had lusted after them in magazines, unable to plant them in the Hardiness Zone 9 or 10 I was familiar with. I knew I’d have a steep learning curve, but I had already begun to do my research on Zone 6a.
Within a week of our arrival, the Peonies had begun to bloom. They seemed otherworldly — something I could only vaguely associate with a scented candle, or a bar of luxurious soap. First, the three tree Peonies put on their show with flouncy, elegant ball gown worthy blossoms in pure white, vibrant pink, and deep mauve. I soon realized that if I didn’t pay attention, especially on an unexpectedly warm day, they would be finished, petals scattered on the ground beneath them. Soon after, the herbaceous Peonies blossomed — all twenty of them, give or take a few. Most were of the same pink variety, all lined up on the sunny south facing side of the house — somewhat like an unruly chorus line. They are nearly as beautiful after they’re spent, their heads hung low at the end of arched stems as if exhausted by their effort.
Soon after the Peony show, the Irises command attention. The Day lilies, the Rugosa rose and Rose campion. The Hostas, Coneflowers, and Rudbekia. The Lavender, which if I hadn’t seen it myself, would never have believed could survive a Winter with temperatures below zero, to blossom again each year — and self sow! Each day it seemed something new welcomed me on my morning stroll through our yard. Even the weeds seemed interesting. There were so many seedlings throughout the beds, almost indistinguishable from one another until they grew into their respective identities. Sometimes the wait involved seeing whether the curious plant would bloom. The idea of pulling something up before I knew what it was kept me vigilant, and my garden set to rival a jungle, because I didn’t want to make a mistake. Plants in general were notably far more expensive here so I didn’t want to have to replace anything because of my carelessness.
For example, what I believed was chicory began to grow en masse. I decided to thin the patch because it was quite dense with the plants appearing on the pale side. It wasn’t long before telltale bulbs grew at the end of very long, hairy stems. I had thinned a lovely bed of Poppies! This increased my worries about pulling up the wrong plants, of course. Thankfully, there were enough to keep the view from the kitchen window a colorful focus point.
By August, I realized the former owner, whom I knew was an avid gardener, had a keen eye for succession planting. Many of the beds were planted with two or three different perennials that bloomed one after the other from late Spring, through Summer, and into early Fall. I was truly amazed, and I had to admit, a bit overwhelmed. An inventory was in order — and a plant identifier app. My goal was to get to know the garden as well as I could so that by the time our first Spring arrived, I could be ready. I’d know what needed to be divided, what might need to be transplanted, what needed to find a new home elsewhere, and most importantly, what I wanted to add beyond the Rose of Sharon I planted our first Summer. Somehow, the vegetable garden I had longed for had been reduced to a couple of tomato seedlings I purchased at a hardware store, and six pepper seedlings gifted to me by our farmer friend. Anything beyond that was on the shelf, but only until the seed catalogs began to arrive later in the year. I now had a basement, so I’d be able to grow seeds!
I had so many questions about what I was discovering.
- Did I have to mulch? It seemed more for ornamentation than insulation on the East Coast, and too much mulch could be unhealthy for the plants. (Mulch, but only a couple of inches at most, and make sure it isn’t touching the base of the plant.)
- Leave the heads on the Peonies, or dead head them? (Dead head them.)
- Split the Bearded Irises and the clumps of Siberian Irises? (Yes!)
- And what time of year is best to prune the Junipers? (Early Spring before new growth.)
- Do I even like the Junipers? (Not really, but I tolerate them.)
- How invasive were the Chinese Lanterns? (Extremely.)
- Are they worth keeping? (Only if you want to control them.)
- Was there anything to be done about the red beetles eating the Asiatic Lilies beyond capturing them and smashing them? (Nothing as effective in my opinion.)
The list goes on and on and on, because as you may know if you’re a gardener, a garden is ever changing. There is always something new to think about and learn, always something to take care of, or to let go. Tending a garden is sustaining in more ways than I imagined when I first saw mine in bloom.
I appreciate my garden most in the early morning before the sun has risen over the trees, and in the late afternoon just before the sun sets. I love its lushness at the height of Summer — right now — as much as I do in Fall as the leaves on trees and shrubs begin to change. In Winter, I respect the evergreens and Junipers because the wildlife — the birds and squirrels all find shelter there. They give dimension to the yard when it’s covered in snow. They’re green when nothing else is.
I now tell others we bought a yard that came with a house, and I thank goodness for that frequently. If I’ve not had time to be in the yard because the weather has been bad, or because I’m working on something in the house, I long to be out there. And it’s a good thing because there really is always something to be done. I’ve learned to pull the seedlings early because I don’t need hundreds of the same flower continuing to reseed the garden. In fact, I collect the seeds of some plants. I dead head what needs it. I pull weeds and then pull more weeds, because like the plants I want in the garden, different weeds come up at different points in the growing season. I move seedlings to cluster them in other places. I research, buy, and integrate native shrubs whose blossoms will benefit pollinators, foliage and stems will bring interest either by shape or color, and berries will feed wildlife in winter. I plant, I prune, and I water. I fertilize infrequently. I do not use insecticides or herbicides of any kind, ever. I tend not to clean up very well because it gives my husband a task I appreciate him volunteering to do. And at the end of our short growing season, I’m the person who chooses not to do “Fall Cleanup” because those leaves and dead stems are important for the insects and wildlife over winter. The insulation the leaves provide is also good for the perennials and shrubs. My yard may not look as pristine as others because of this, but I don’t mind. That isn’t what’s important. Nothing about the type of garden I grow is pristine.
My garden is fairly wild — a barely controlled sort of chaos. That isn’t an accident. If a garden reflects the gardener’s personality, then my garden is very nearly a reflection of me. If some beds are too exact, the plants too preciously placed equidistant from one another, I find I’m impatient for them to grow and mess up the orderliness — or blur the lines. I understand the loose structure I want to achieve, and so that allows me to let go of much of the control I think can spoil a garden. Is a garden about the individual plants, or is it about the overall effect those plants achieve in relation to one another? Is blossom color, leaf shape, and the overall structure of the plants that grow together interesting? And are the changes they go through during the growing season harmonious?
To me, it’s all about that harmony. More than just about anything, it’s what brings me peace of mind at this point in my life. I know I can go outside, pull on my gloves, take hold of my hand hoe or pruners, and be utterly content with whatever task I’ve decided to do. The reward from my effort seems obvious — I can sit back and enjoy my garden when I’m finished. I can take pride when someone walking by stops to tell me how beautiful it is. But that’s only part of it, because “being finished” is related to specific tasks — like planting a rose. But if the rose is one of many being planted to create a rose garden, and that rose garden is part of a larger project to redesign a long bed on one side of the house, then when is a gardener really finished?
Can a garden really ever be finished? I don’t think so. How can it be? It changes as it grows. It evolves, given its circumstances and growing conditions — just as we do. In this, the fourth summer I’ve tended this particular garden, I fully understand that the true reward is not in the simple appreciation of its appearance. My reward is in the act of tending it. That, in and of itself, has been the very best kind of self care.
I’ve learned from my own experience, and when I most needed it, why gardens are so good for the soul. Most importantly, my garden has helped me process emotions and provided me constructive, creative time to make some sense of lemons life threw my way — to find understanding and acceptance. In “Garden of Solace”, published in the New York Times (Oct 5, 2019), author Margo Rabb wrote that a garden is “a place where complicated grief [is] a natural part of love”. I know this to be very, very true.
I look at the riot of color along the gravel path that extends from our front porch to the street, the brilliant yellows and soft lavender, purple and white, crimson and peach all swaying the the late afternoon breeze. The bees buzz through it all, working, always working. Monarchs visit daily. Birds hop through the shade in the undergrowth I can only pretend to keep up with. It’s glorious and I’m grateful for it every day regardless of the ache in my wrists when I prune too much, or the occasional pain in my right hip if I’m bent over too long. It’s worth it. My garden is my place in this world now.
My soul is there among the roses I planted in May two years ago. It’s in the shade garden I’ve patched together beneath a row of evergreens where not much else thrived when we moved in. It’s in the wild front path where I decide what stays each season to have its time in the sun. And in the long bed out back, it’s in the only part of my garden that’s somewhat symmetrical — the mezza luna bed. Even it wants to be wild, fighting control, just as I have all my life.