Gardens are not static environments. You can’t just plant a flower bed and a tree and then expect them to stay put like, say, an arrangement of furniture.
Those lovely flowers will instead grow (hooray!), bloom (yowza!), get spindly (huh?), wilt (wait a second…), and die (ugh) before scattering their seeds to areas of your property you wouldn’t have thought possible (WTF?!!). At the same time that tree you planted will also grow (and grow and grow) until it eventually shades out the flowers below and the seed scattering which seemed like such a problem in earlier years will no longer be the issue. It’s now the bare dirt where nothing survives.
Even though I fell in love with growing green things in adolescence when my first, obliging houseplant survived, I didn’t discover this longer-term, dynamic garden relationship until my forties. This is because, for the first 37 years of my life, I didn’t live in the same house for longer than three and a half years. For the first seventeen, I was a Marine brat and that’s how often my father was transferred. The next six years of migration were the result of my on again/off again college attendance. And the last fourteen involved first one husband who bought and fixed up properties (our homes) for resale, and then a second husband who was adventurous and highly mobile.
Due to this nomadic lifestyle, I’d never had a long-term, committed relationship with a garden before. Oh, sure, I’d dated quite a few, but always with the understanding that it wouldn’t last. I was basically in it for the botanical sex; sticking my seeds of choice into the fresh, fertile soil and then devouring the resulting, delicious fruits of the tryst before cinching up my roots and moving on to the next plot.
I was a confirmed bachelorette of the garden world…and perfectly happy with the life. So when the hubster (adventurous husband #2) and I made our fifth jump in five years and landed in Boise, I had no reason to think this garden would be any different.
I went ahead and sunk my heart and soul into tearing out all the old landscaping (i.e. roses and grass) and replacing it with something more eclectic, but mentally, I always kept myself ready for the next move. For the first five years, I told myself I could still dig everything up and take it with me when we moved again. Then, once it became clear that this plan was delusional, I resigned myself to taking a smaller collection of favorite things; a few large rocks, all the container plants, and the old bathtub I’d rigged up as a fountain. (Basically anything that weighed more than a quarter ton. The hubster usually fell silent during this part of the conversation.)
This lie survived for eight more years before transitioning into the final period of denial where the hubster and I no longer talked about moving at all, but didn’t realize we were no longer talking about moving.
And then, in 2008, I suddenly realized I was trapped. I’d held still for too long. My roots…which had been kept oh-so-carefully tucked up in the belt for decades…had slipped loose while I wasn’t paying attention, snaked their way down into the soil, and transformed this house and garden from temporary way station into permanent home. We’d accidentally and unintentionally created something I could no longer afford to lose.
I had no idea until that moment just how badly I’d needed a home that I wouldn’t have to leave behind.
So. That’s the story of how, over the last sixteen years, the garden and I (I call her Redbud) have become intimately acquainted. She’s the lady who landed me, the one who finally got me to settle down.
But, as with any good relationship, I’m always discovering something new, too. Redbud’s microclimates are constantly shifting with the changes in tree cover and watering experiments. (I do so love to tinker.)
One of our recent successes involves a narrow strip of side yard on the north side of the house which leads from the front yard to the back. It’s barely eight feet wide and, for the first nine years we lived here, I mistakenly assumed that nothing would grow there but shade plants.
Upon closer study I realized about half this strip actually receives direct sunlight from May through early July, enough time for any seedlings planted to get a good head start. So I began to think vertically. I suspected that if I built a trellis tall enough, any vines started in May would be able to to chase the southward shifting sunlight high enough to escape the return of shade in mid-summer.
And lo and behold, I was right.
You can see how the lower squash leaves die off from lack of light (on the right) while the vines on top flourish. This year has been good for butternut squash. I have six vines and will probably get fifteen or sixteen squashes. I try and alternate years between winter squash and pole beans.
To utilize growing space, I planted four shade-loving Schisandra vines on the shadier (left) side of the trellis. (They require both a male and female for cross pollination so the more vines one plants, the better the odds of getting one of each.) Schisandra berries are supposed to be a powerful herbal remedy but I wouldn’t know anything about that. After four years I’ll finally harvest a single cluster of berries this fall, which is not enough to have an herbal effect on anything.
Since the fence that continues along the northern border of the backyard has the best southern exposure on the property, I’ve lined it with espaliered fruit trees. There are two pears and two apples, which all failed to produce this year because the f—g squirrels bit off almost all the fruit buds in late April. Here are the espaliered pears:
The two muslin bags in the lower right corner are protecting this years crop–two pears–from further depredation. It’s working so far.
I’ve had better luck with the peaches; so much so in fact that, despite early fruit thinning, three branches have broken so far under the weight.
The squirrels are chewing off upwards of ten or fifteen fruits a day now, so I’ll probably revert to last year’s strategy and strip the tree early, allowing the green fruit to then ripen in a protected area. While the taste is inferior that way, at least I win. Gardening, like any good, long-term, committed relationship, is full of compromises.
Redbud’s grape predators are threefold; squirrels, robins, and Dane the mangy rescue mutt. Muslin bags have been an effective deterrent for all three.
Occasionally, a frustrated squirrel will chew through the stem causing a grape cluster, bag intact, to fall to the ground. Dane has discovered that if he picks these up and delicately mouths them, he gets a delicious shot of grape juice. He therefore leaves the squirrels unmolested when they’re working around the vines.
Dane is the sole predator of garden tomatoes. He stripped the bushes once this year.
We were forced to cut down a couple of beloved but badly misplaced trees this year. We decided to create pedestals out of them. The driftwood are pieces we’ve collected from various spots along the Pacific Northwest coastline.
And now, I apologize for the abrupt ending but Redbud calls and I must away. Happy gardening to you all!
copyright 2011 Dia Osborn