I paused on the garden path this morning to tuck in the stray hairs from the ponytail I had hastily pulled tight when I hustled outside to water and weed. The slight breeze tickled the strays against my cheek, making me aware of the welcome movement in the air. It’s self-preservation to take advantage of the early morning respite from Georgia’s summer heat. So far, the just rising peek-a-boo sun has beckoned one lone Carolina Wren to greet the day, which promises to be a scorcher.
The stone path crunches as my dog, Journey and I walk towards the greenhouse, keeping a keen eye out for the languid resident rat snakes that need the sun to wake up and move out of the way. They like to lie on the warm paver stones which retain heat that the snakes cannot hold onto for themselves. They move along as I stomp my tall red rubber boots to make some noise and alert them that I don’t mind sharing space with them, but not too closely.
There are all sorts of sensory surprises strewn on both sides of this path. Breathing in, I fill my empty morning reservoir with the scent of oregano and peppermint and the sound of a dragonfly that buzzes close by my ear. Journey and I pause to pluck and chew a sweet basil leaf that offers up its store of calcium, vitamin K and antioxidants. The hummingbirds have been scarce this year, but this morning, two ruby-throated beauties are visiting the feeders and the whirring of their wings fills my creative well too. The feeders are a small gesture, one thing we can do to support a natural world that is struggling to show its importance.
We’ve lived here for nearly two years, slowly reclaiming the property and it’s existing gardens from a state of jungle ruin. In the process of reclamation, we became acutely aware that we are not so much masters of this space as we are temporary caretakers. We can guide colorful morning glory vines up the fence post and coax bright white moonflowers to climb the bridge, but a garden has a mind of its own.
A garden expresses its freewill in unexpected ways and challenges us to work with some tangles amidst the order we try so hard to achieve. It is a competitive scramble between the form that I seek to bring to this space and the randomness that nature prefers. I glance over at the gangly unidentified tomatoes that are volunteering and flourishing out of the compost pile while my carefully tended and pruned heirlooms contracted leaf curl and had to be uprooted and discarded. Nearby, a stray butternut squash has sprung up from a carelessly dropped seed and now it crawls along the leaf pile in an inconvenient location. It doesn’t seem right to pull it up given the obstacles it overcame to work its way to the top of that pile and declare it’s rightful place in the world.
It occurs to me that this backyard landscape is akin to my inner landscape these days. Just when I think I’ve got the television news somewhat figured out, up pops another surprise to contend with. I constantly have to back up, turn around and reassess to contend with situations I had not anticipated. I am challenged daily to navigate the tangle of weeds and vines to find the information I need to do my part to bring order to chaos.
Like the news, this living garden landscape sometimes feels so much bigger than me, especially when it resists my efforts to give it form. It’s aversion to taming challenges me to think in less linear ways. The garden’s willfulness demands that I put into perspective imperfections and carefully assess whatever existing inhabitant of this space wishes to express itself. Do I allow this one to remain in my garden? Do I cull that one to make room for a healthier more beneficial plant? It is a series of small everyday decisions that determine which existing growing thing stays or goes and what others are invited into.
As Arnie and I work to coax the land back, we’ve taken care not to eliminate any plant, shrub or tree until we are sure what it is. We have found a few that didn’t look like much, but given a chance, proved valuable plants. We try to research and inform ourselves about what will make a positive contribution to the whole.
The result may not meet our original creative vision, but we’ve been generously rewarded by discovering a number of plantings like
hibiscus and gardenia that had gone dormant when the jungle overtook them. In summer, the tall magnolia has been offering dappled sunshine to hidden iris bulbs that just needed to be gently exposed. They rewarded our patience by bursting into bloom when the choking vines were cleared away.
But then there is the thistle.
There is always a line, a boundary that is just unacceptable and for me, that is the thistle plant. I cannot and will not accept thistle and the former gardener here evidently felt a kinship with it, allowing it to proliferate. Thistle is the smug dictator of the plant world, intent on nothing but its own selfish brand of thorny invasion. Despite its proclaimed value, it’s aggressive and destructive nature is detrimental.
It does not play well with others when it imbeds its tiny thorns in Journey’s paw or my bare feet. It is greedy and given any bare spot, it will spread thousands of tiny hateful seeds in a bid for takeover with no regard for more fragile, beneficial neighbors. It is the metaphoric 1% of the plant world, taking for itself the wealth of resources that could be shared with others for the mutual benefit of all. With its distinctive head of hair, the thistle acts fast proclaiming to all that it is bigger, better, and more beautiful than all others.
In contrast to the thistle, the zuchinni florishes peacefully in the experimental “forest garden” across the creek and under the trees. Here, the existing soil is full of rich leaf matter and bark composted naturally over many years. The zucchini plants are nestled harmoniously alongside many of the native ground cover plants that live there, producing it’s bright yellow flowers to attract the bees needed to pollinate all the plants. I’m guessing that the natives are healthy and they have attracted interdependent worms, beneficial bugs and diverse nutrients that are welcoming the zucchini too.
These prolific squash plants asked for nothing special and needed no holes dug except that scraped with the heel of my boot. They have asked for no fertilizer and little tending as they offer up their contribution to our harvest. Here is nature expressing her generous vision and showing us the strength and wisdom of an ecosystem that has been built up over time and has plenty to share with all. The zucchini is the grateful refugee that has been welcomed to live in harmony with those plants that are already there because there are plenty of resources for all to share.
Our original drawings showed a happy garden with planned spaces for a riot of colorful perennials that encourage butterflies, bees and fairies to visit. It as to be a cross between a Monet painting and a stroll through Tasha Tudor’s famed gardens. I visualized it as a Zen place to sit and meditate. I’m holding on to that vision, but a whole lot more loosely than planned. A girl needs her dreams and I’m not giving up this fantasy completely, but right now this garden has more of a thread of black humor than light and airy fantasia.
I had not had time to fully accept the sad loss of the tomatoes that I had carefully nurtured from pricey seeds before the next round of black garden humor struck. My power tool loving husband weed-whacked one plot of butternut squash seedlings in a holy-hold-my-beer moment. I watched their demise from my vantage point on the second floor deck but couldn’t be heard above the motor. Good thing.
And I am not innocent in the doom and destruction department myself either. Last week, I tenderly sowed a new patch of cleome from seeds that my sweet neighbor lady shared with me. This morning I mistook the tiny sprouts for emerging weeds and yanked them all up. I should learn that if it comes up that easily when I pull, it is not a weed; it’s a seedling I planted. More black humor from the garden that seems to enjoy keeping me in my place.
The garden really is a great analogy for life itself. We do the best we can to sow good things and then we work hard to cope with the unexpected and sometimes unimaginable events and obstacles that life presents.
Maybe that’s how we can think about the current situation we are all facing in our country? Maybe we should face the tangle of perspectives, ideas and opinions that is America’s garden with as much informed intelligence as we can gather. Perhaps we could examine our own personal intentions and be sure that they are aligned with what is good for every person who wants to thrive and grow in harmony alongside us. Good gardeners do that. They do what is best for the whole, carefully tending and cherishing each individual at the same time.
Remember the thistle? We know damn well that when we dive in impulsively with our bare hands to pull up thistle, we are going to get pricked by thorns. If we approach the problem half-heartedly and without preparation, we will pay with painful wounds and a nasty rash. We may even scatter more thistle seeds unwittingly.
Instead, we could approach the task authentically and with courage, put on those gloves and work on the problem at its very base. Be tenacious, dig it out, and remove it. Treat it like the destructive weed it is, taking up precious space and blocking the beauty of the American landscape. Don’t break this weed off at its root and allow it to regenerate and reestablish itself. Get it all. Clear wide and deep so that we can plant something new and better for America’s garden in November.
Your vote is your shovel and with it you can remove the self-interested thistle that is spreading hateful seeds, all the while proclaiming that it is the biggest, best most beautiful plant in the garden.