it is now mid-spring and I am in a familiar dilemma: staying ahead of myself. Gardening is a reciprocal relationship, I do something, it does something. My partner, Nature, is alive and way older and more experienced than I, with encoded instructions regarding environment, timing and growth. I am a wily human, trying to control my plot, to make music, to orchestrate flushes of bloom, color harmonies, and surprises; to feed myself, in succession, with the foods that will grow here.
All this requires staying ahead of myself, as nature has her own plan and tolerates my art-making so long as I am on the job, anticipating, clipping, clearing, planting, mulching, and providing water when needed. When I am gone my vision will not last long, a season or two at most, as my partner goes her own way. As a gardener I am pleasing myself this spring and anticipating the summer and autumn seasons. The hopscotch of there and back again goes on with the cycle of the year. March is the crunch, the weather is teasing me and I am so eager with anticipation that I lose track of reality. No matter what, cool-tolerant plants like lettuce and peas and pansies are almost ready to take the stage but, no matter what, warmth loving tomatoes, beans, dahlias and zinnias will simply not be pushed.
I must touch back with basics: feeding the soil is primary and winter and spring are the time to do this, particularly for edibles. Each year they give me salads and greens, onions and peas, asparagus and beans, rasps and blues – berries that is. How can I gratefully pick and eat these delights without being conscious of my debt? I owe them washed dairy manure and compost and lime and time to break these down. The trees, shrubs, perennial flowers and ground covers are less demanding, and my partner helps out there. I provide as much mulch as I can and allow a certain amount of fallen leaves and other debris to stay on the ground and she, as in her own realm, slowly breaks them down into soil and feeds those slower moving roots and shoots.
Then there is seeding: either starting things early in the protected world of the greenhouse or trying to time putting seed in the ground in, perhaps, this coldest-April-on record. I have planted and lost peas twice, my third effort is pre-sprouting in biodegradable pots. I have started more seeds than usual this year after seeing the inflation-driven prices for starts from the nurseries at $4.99 or, as we say, five dollars, for a single annual in a four-inch pot. I want my annuals in threes and sixes…hmm. Yet I do buy the wonderful starts grown by local farmers when the economics make sense. If I want one tomato plant each, of four different varieties, if one zucchini plant or two chards will do me, the price of the seed packet and ready-to-go plant cancel each other out. So I balance my choices and decisions.
Time falls away when I am digging holes for new, experimental, beauties: the wine red “English Daisies” next to the steel blue juniper, the thalictrum “Black Stockings” I bought to echo another in the same bed looks promising but I won’t really know for a year or two. This is the color-creative part, the painterly fun part of spring planting; all of it dependent on the previous months’ felling, pruning, raking, manure-spreading, clean-up and mulch-laying which makes up the toil of staying ahead of myself.
I am aware of the hubris in all this, my puny life energy thrown against Nature herself, daring to partner with her, wanting to make a world, or at least a moment. But what is life for if not to exercise our visions, our wishes, our gifts? Some see all this as endless, hated, “yardwork”. Their gifts and energy lie elsewhere – perhaps they are fishaholics, or mechanically clever, musicians, mountain climbers, scholars, or mothers of young children. Many endeavors, indeed all of life, contains the same push-pull of effort, preparation, attempts at control, failures and all the lovely, in-the-moment rewards of doing our work, taking our pleasures, and being ourselves.