I’ve spent much of the last week at my sister’s gardening. It’s not really surprising that I’m alone because so many of the things I enjoy doing are more or less solitary pursuits.
After spending much of my adult life in New York City I can’t say that I knew much of anything about gardening. I moved down here and my sister, who’s allergic to just about everything on earth, has a huge backyard, by suburban standards. When I arrived, there was a greenhouse in the back. My brother-in-law, who doesn’t really enjoy gardening, kept up the flower beds in front of the house, but the back yard, which is long and narrow and reaches back towards an alleyway that terminates in a patch of woods, had long been neglected. Once, many years earlier, someone had planned and planted a nice garden, but that had since become overgrown.
Most gardening books I read had advice that started with planning a garden that seemed to assume that whatever you did you were going to start from scratch. I had neither the money nor the manpower, or womanpower in my case, to do that, nor would I have had the inclination to do that if I had. So, I had to make up my own gardening ideas.
The first year, I didn’t do anything at all. The main effort was to keep other people from trampling everything. It was a year of learning to identify a great many plants. I waited for things to come up, took pictures and ran to the internet to try to identify things. There were some tall white plants with pretty little white flowers on top which turned out to be garlic mustard, a rather nasty invasive weed. I started ripping it up when I saw it. That was how much of the first year went. Identifying what was in the garden and deciding whether it would stay or go. Unfortunately, since the overall image was one of a big, abandoned mess, people would walk all over everything thinking that everything was a weed. We have primroses, Polygonatum, Epimedium, Galium odoratum. These things were quite obviously planted. I have also found several native North American wildflowers which, while occasionally cultivated, have probably grown there themselves. There’s Claytonia virginica, Chimaphila maculata and some sort of Trillium that I have not identified properly. There had been a large patch of foxglove near the alley, but people have trampled it so many times there’s almost nothing left.
From the green house to a large old beech tree there is a stone path. I noticed a tall gangly plant growing up between the stone. I was about to pull it up when I decided I would wait to find out what it was. A month or two later it finally bloomed. It had rather funky looking brownish pink flowers. I was hoping it wasn’t anything noxious because I like the way it looked. I had quite a difficult time identifying it. I took some photos and tried again. Then suddenly, I remembered a little detail. There’s quite a lot of fungus growing under the beech trees because I see the squirrels dig them up and eat them. (I’ve nicknamed them “squirrel truffles.” I’m not the only person who’s observed this.) I had a vague recollection that there was a relationship between trees, fungi and orchids. On a hunch, I started looking up information about native orchids that might grow among beech trees. I will confess that I got rather excited about the thought of finding something rare, although intellectually I knew it was unlikely. Finally, I decided that it was Helleborine, probably Epipactis helleborine. I found it on a British site and it seems to be common there. It does appear in North America, but it’s not considered invasive or otherwise problematic, so I thought it was rather interesting and I left it. That’s a good example of the idiosyncratic “gardening” that I’ve been doing.
Slowly, I’ve been adding to the garden, favoring plants that encourage the local wildlife. This frequently means native plants, but there’s nothing ideological about it. I’m happy to have non-native plants as well. We have hummingbirds and I’ve planted Lonicera semperviens, Lobelia cardinalis and Spigelia marilandica for them. The Lobelia was planted next to a fern that didn’t thrive, so I thought that I would add to it and make a larger patch of Lobelia. Nearby, was a bit of Chelone glabra. So, my sister offered to help and she started clearing the weeds from near where we were going to plant the Lobelia. She pulled up the Chelone glabra along with the weeds.
A couple of days later, my mother offered to help. I showed her a weed, I’m forgetting the name at the moment, that I wanted pulled up. It was growing off to the side of the stone path. It was a broad leafed plant about half a meter high with pale green leaves with serrated edges. I thought this was a safe instruction to for her because it looked nothing like the Galium among which it was growing. I went to another area of the garden. Later I came by to see how she was doing. She didn’t do what I asked because she was afraid of poison ivy, although I told her there was no poison ivy in that portion of the yard. Instead, she pulled up some “grass” growing among the “flowers.” What she pulled up was Sisyrinchium angustifolium, a flower I’d found amongst some Hosta the first year and which I’d been slowly encouraging and had since become a sizable patch. Well, there’s a couple of examples she missed, so I guess I can start again.
I took a deep breath and told her to stop apologizing. I went into the garbage. Some of the Sisyrinchium she pulled up still had some roots on them, so I started putting them in pots to see if we can save them. Then, when I was going through the garbage, I found what looked like the orchid. I ran to the stone path were it had been, and indeed it was gone. I just sat on the ground and sobbed.
There are days I can’t do anything right.
A couple weeks earlier, one of the neighbors had come by and mentioned that her husband wouldn’t mind picking up a little extra cash if we wanted him to come by with a weed wacker. It’s so damn frustrating. I have a somewhat odd idea. I don’t want to clear everything and plant neat little rows of petunias and dump a bunch of fertilizer and pesticides. In fact, I’ve intentionally planted plants that bugs will eat, specifically I’ve been slowly planting the host plants favored by butterflies. I’m still trying to get my hands on a Pipevine for the pipevine swallowtail, but we’ve planted Milkweed and a Spicebush and we’ve seen Monarch caterpillers on the Milkweed, and, no, we do not want any help in getting those bugs off our flowers.
Sisyrinchium angustifolium, aka Blue-eyed grass. This flower is perhaps one and a half centimeters. It’s a pretty little thing if you stop long enough to look.