In praise of everyday gardeners
Lately I've been walking in my neighborhood early in the morning and enjoying the small touches of beauty sprinkled about front yards.
A stately palm tree spreads its wings beside a triple-decker bird feeder hosting a flock of chickadees. Three fat yellow sunflowers facing the road make me smile. A persimmon tree is loaded down with green fruit, and I hope they will ripen in time for the owners to enjoy them.
Many of these delightful surprises belong to ordinary gardens, where a designer has never set foot. Most likely, they belong to busy families where time for gardening is scarce. Plants are stuck in the ground here and there without any pattern - a cherry tree here, some blueberry bushes there, a few rose shrubs dotted around for color, a hanging fuchsia basket by the porch.
I love these signs of everyday gardeners who don't take growing plants too seriously. Buddhism speaks of 'beginner's mind,' that refreshing state of awareness when everything is new and possible. I remember how gardening was like that for me early on, before it became my career. I loved growing velvety purple petunias and lipstick red geraniums, white sweet alyssum and bright yellow and red marigolds! I want to recapture that feeling of discovery and surprise again, for that's where the pleasure zone lies.
For example, lately, one of my biggest thrills is going down to the former pond in the lower part of my garden. Originally, I had that area dug out, hoping that the heavy clay would naturally hold water in the rainy months. Ducks and geese and maybe even a blue heron or two would visit. But each winter the water level sunk lower until it became clear that the pond was a flop.
Turning lemons into lemonade, I filled it with leaves, grass clippings, weeds and kitchen debris, originally intending to turn it back into a bed. Then I realized that I'd built a huge composting area that could generate ongoing fertile soil.
Now, I go down to the pile every other autumn, pull away the top-most layer and harvest the compost. It's soft and silky, dark as devil's food cake, and perfect for mulch. I also mix it together with perlite to make potting soil for containers. Wearing surgical gloves, I run my hands through the mix to remove twigs and any remnants of noxious weeds like morning glory runners. Then I scoop it into buckets that I take to the greenhouse for winter potting, and shovel it into wheelbarrows to blanket the plants with mulch.
As a child growing up in New York City, I never played in the dirt. Now I'm getting my fill.
When I look at the garden with 'beginner's mind,' I can enjoy the sudden eruption of white boltonia flowers in October, even though they don't pair up with any companions for a stylish vignette. The long stems sway with the breeze, doing an autumn dance, brightening an overcast day with light.
A few last clusters of 'Lovely Fairy' roses also offer some cheer. It's the end of their final bloom cycle, and I love each little flower for this last burst of color. Soon the rose bush will be quietly green, and eventually bare, as the nature's cycles keep turning - so I treasure these last blossoms all the more because they're so fleeting.
Lately I've been dreaming of growing individual plants in containers and giving up all the effort of matching them up with each other in riveting combinations. Yes, there's pleasure in the arranging, but there's also relief in giving up the striving for perfection.
I have more understanding now for the elderly man who owned my property before I bought it, who plunked trees and shrubs in the ground any which way. Originally I was appalled at the chaos. But now, I'm wondering if perhaps he felt free and relaxed and playful about his garden.
Whatever makes you happy in your garden, do that. If you dream of laying in a hammock and listening to the birds, go out and buy that hammock! If you love digging in the dirt and watching the earthworms wriggle, get yourself a sturdy spade and have at it. If you want to grow every variety of rose, start now. If scent makes you delirious with pleasure, find plenty of fragrant shrubs - mock orange, lilacs, roses and lilies.
Let your passions inspire you to make the garden that delights you most, and happiness will be yours.
• Dormant Spray: What to Spray and When, 1 p.m., Oct. 24, Al's Garden Center, 16920 S.W. Roy Rogers, Sherwood, free and open to the public.
• Armchair Garden Traveler: Gardens of Southern Italy, presented by photographer Julie Maudlin, 7 p.m., Oct. 23, Multnomah Arts Center, 7688 S.W. Capitol Highway, Portland, Tickets $6 at the door. For more information, contact HardyPlantSociety.org.