Monday, November 14, 2011


            It’s really stupid—my head knows clock time is an artificial construct—but the return to standard time always lifts my spirits. These days when the light streaming through our east-facing bedroom window wakes me up, the morning isn’t half over.

            I said it was stupid.

            “Falling back” easily segues into looking back, coming as it does in the waning of the year. Doesn’t take much to send me down memory lane…

            I wasn’t always the gardening maven you see before you—figuratively speaking—today. In fact, aside from a predilection to play in the dirt, the seeds of my future vocation had a pretty rough row to hoe (to mix metaphors). Everyone’s read gardening/lifestyle magazine articles that begin: “When we added the 700-square-foot conservatory to our 18th-century farmhouse…” or “This morning I walked down the hill to our 14–acre woodland to check on the trilliums…” or “I come from a long line of fanatic gardeners. I planted my first pansy at age two, with Great-Grandma Edna gently guiding my hand…”

Well, none of those writers is me.

Here's that pathetic American holly 
in our front yard in 1998. 
If you look closely on the right, 
you can spot two of the three
sad spindly live oaks,
toward the back of the house.
My roots (ha-ha) go back to a “Leave It to Beaver”-era suburb. I never truly settled down until moving to North Carolina, at the ripe old age of 44. Today I live in a 1000-square-foot single-story bungalow built in 1997 on a concrete slab, plopped dead-center on a 55’ x 120’ lot. The native vegetation left after the septic system went in consisted of three sad-looking live oaks, three even-sadder turkey oaks, a scruffy American holly and a healthy colony of sand spurs. Getting rid of the ugly turkey oaks was an early project. Hurricane Bonnie in 1998 tilted the holly to 60°: it fell over completely when 1999’s Floyd blew through. One of the live oaks started to threaten the screened porch, so Tim took her down. A stand of centipede grass eventually put the sand spurs in abeyance, until the town dug up a ten-foot-wide swath of the yard to install an obscenely over-budget sewer system that rendered water so expensive we could no longer afford to use any on the lawn. Long story short, the sand-spur seeds patiently lurking in the soil resprouted and bore fruit.

Here's the third live oak, also in 1998.

And yes, it's true that both my dad and his dad gardened all their lives. I was just never particularly interested in hanging out with them as they sowed seeds, transplanted, weeded, watered and harvested. In fact, Dad actively discouraged me from joining in after the spring that, in an well-meant but ill-conceived attempt at “helping,” I dug up his entire three-year-old asparagus patch just before the first harvest was due. I thought they were weeds.

Daddy died before I got into the gardening game, which is really just as well: the shock probably would have killed him anyway. 

 This is cabbage, also a Brassica,
left to bolt: pretty impressive, huh?
Garden Journal for the picture)
        My first solo garden was a desultory attempt at raising vegetables in the tiny back yard of my apartment in Hudson Falls, NY, during the late 1970s. That was back in my Mother Earth News phase, which consisted of diving in with great enthusiasm February through early May only to lose all interest by late July because I no longer had any idea what I’d planted where when, or when what was supposed to be coming in.  I did have success of a sort with the broccoli and Brussels sprouts: the stature of the plants so impressed me that I let them bolt (i.e., flower and set seed) just to see how tall they’d get. They towered to over seven feet before frost cut them down. Alas, bolted Brassicas are unfit for human consumption. 

The book that jump-started a career.
          After a 14-year hiatus and three moves, the gardening itch struck again, triggered by an impulse-purchase of Cheryl Merser’s intriguingly titled A Starter Garden: The Guide for the Horticulturally Hapless (see Good Reads at right). Merser gardens on Long Island, NY, only 250 miles and two hardiness zones south of Glens Falls: her relative geographic proximity and upbeat style eased most of my worries. She convinced me to give flower gardening a go.

The house where the book
jump-started the career.
(Just ignore Google Maps'
pink arrow.)
My back yard in Glens Falls was terraced. An L-shaped dry-laid New England stone wall broken by three shallow steps separated the upper level from the lower. I dug a little bed along the top of the wall and planted it with poppies and forget-me-nots. Encouraged when they didn’t die—and actually garnered a few compliments on their kindergarten colors—I dug another, larger flowerbed along the bottom of the wall, and filled it with plants chosen by the pretty-picture-on-the-tag method from Meads, a nearby garden center. I put in spiked loosestrife (Lythrum virgatum, which is not the evil, waterway-choking purple loosestrife), tall rue (Thalictrum polygamum), spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana), bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) and other beauties that don’t grow well south of the Mason-Dixon Line, knitting them together with ‘Gold Acre’ sedum and more forget-me-nots. (Try not to have more forget-me-nots if they like where you put them. Ha.) I also installed a couple of yellow sundrops (Oenothera fructicosa) to brighten a shady corner, which introduced me to the reality of vegetative thugs. The current owner of the house on Garrison Road may still be contending with them.

            Wow! I thought. This is so cool!

My love affair with bulbs started then too, as I learned you can never have too many. Even in Glens Falls—nicknamed “The Refrigerator”—where chilling hours abound, hybrid tulips didn’t put on much of a show after the first or second year. There’s some pecuniary method in that particular breeding madness, I think.

Then Tim happened, and, after a year's wild roller-coaster ride, we ended up in NC, where a clean slate, a salubrious climate, and easy digging made gardening for a living look doable.

And so it has been.


Brian Greene and some strings
Because I believe in the illusory nature of life, I also believe in infinite parallel universes, where the paths we don’t choose on this plane spin alternative selves off into worlds of their own. Theoretical physicists are beginning to think there might be something to this on-the-surface-of-it-wacko idea. In fact, PBS’ “Nova” is running a series on this very topic right now, hosted by string-theorist Brian Greene. Now, I don’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of string theory or dark matter or the elasticity of time—any more than I understood Stephen Hawking’s point in A Brief History of Time for more than 56 seconds after I closed the book—but I am infinitely grateful that in at least one of my universes, I get paid for doing what I love. I get paid for playing in the dirt.

How neat is that?

Thanks for dropping by.