Spring is one of the most glorious seasons in New England. It feels like living in the middle of a time lapse video in the way that things quicken to burst, bloom, bud, and basically run amok. A leafless tree in the morning sports a full, arbor afro by the end of the day. Magnificent. It’s as if Mother Nature decided to juice herself on Red Bull and Meth just to “see what might happen.”
It’s also the time of year when a whole host of my own hang-ups take root (pun sort of intended).
It means tending—to mulch or not to mulch, that is the question that everyone is happy to answer with their own rule of green thumb, but continues to leave me baffled. It means an inventory of what survived another season, what mysteriously disappeared (“failure” whispers the soft indentation where the green thing had been not more than 6 months ago) or was taken down by fungus or some rare species of beetle that hasn’t been seen in this area since dinosaurs roamed the earth. It means the overwhelming, near paralyzing decision about what to plant and where. What’s the difference between part-shade and part-sun? Is there an app for that?
It’s too much. My teeth itch just writing this.
Somehow going to the garden center makes it worse, and yet I find myself returning season after season to this botanical house of ill repute like a gambler who thinks she can take the house.
I can feel my jaw tighten as I walk through the automatic doors into the humid and wonderfully perfumed greenhouse. Baskets bleeding fat blossoms sway lazily overhead like some kind of madman’s beautiful diabolical booby traps. People look so happy, so relaxed, so confident maneuvering their carts chocked full of pots and palettes of flowers and veggies. What do they know that I don’t? I imagine them going home to their organically maintained yards awash in lush, green grass. I picture them moving swan like through gardens so perfectly manicured they would make a French aristocrat weep. Maybe they pause briefly to admire a new, exotic strain of orchid bought on the black flower market. Believe me, if you can buy an organ online you can buy contraband fauna. A plague of snails, which I only recently discovered were not welcome harbingers of healthy plant life, but ruinous slimy bastards, on your houses, I think.
I clutch a piece of paper, my map, my guide, my weird talisman on this quest. On it, I’ve written a list of Latin names along with cryptic notes—“good for near Holly bush,” “dry will work,” and “full sun, fence, not side.” They’re clues to a riddle I wrote and still cannot solve.
I want to stick to this list, badly. I want to fill my patches with goodies that will thrive and be happy. When it comes to the garden I can’t help but think in these, somewhat embarrassing, emotional terms. I associate this with the vernacular of gardening from my childhood. I remember walking around the yard with my mother and Nona as they weeded and pruned and clipped whatever was growing. “She’s getting too much sun, so she’s not very happy here,” my Nona might say, gently cradling a stalk in her hand and looking into the flower’s tiny, vulnerable face as if they were speaking directly to each other. There’s so much heart involved in growing and of that, I have it to give in spades and spades. The head you need–the willingness to crack the code of Ph soil levels, proper drainage, and the quirks of cultivation—is where I seize up.
I rarely stick to the list. I am easily seduced by something with tall, violent magenta stalks. I suddenly decide that the plant with variegated leaves and bursts of pink is better than whatever it was I was going to stick near the Holly bush per my notes. It’s like going to the shoe store for sensible flats and gorging yourself on impractical open-toed, strappy stilettos.
I leave with cardboard boxes of leafy things, two of something, one of something else, nothing matched or coordinated. I feel the way you do when it’s closing time at the club and the lights come up, disoriented, a little foggy on the details, but certain that you had a good time.
I drive home and the buyer’s remorse sets in, but it’s more than that, it’s performance anxiety. Will these look ok? What if I kill them in the end despite my mothering? Who was I to think that I could have nice things growing in my yard?
It’s just a garden. I actually have to tell myself this. It’s just a small, nearly non-acreage plot of land of grass and flowers and trees and shrubs. It’s just a garden.
There’s a part of me that longs to give up and call it in the dramatic tone of the surgeons on medical shows, wrenching off the gloves: you just don’t have the skills, the green brain. It’s the part that wants to be free of garden envy, to be done with Pinterest make-your-own-flower-boxes-repurposed-from-old-shutters-and-car-mufflers disasters. But there’s another part of me that hangs in there and forges ahead despite the tide of trial and error.
It’s the part of me that can see my Nona bent over the cherry tomato plants that she somehow got to miraculously thrive in a stretch of sandy, malnourished dirt and grass running alongside our driveway. She’s checking the undersides of the leaves for slugs, snails, and other nasty critters. As she works, she picks the plump, ripe rounds and drops them into the fold of her house dress, which she gathers in a makeshift tray. Every few minutes she pauses and pops one of the juicy red tomatoes in her mouth as if she were a kid with one of those cinnamon gumballs from a quarter candy machine. She smiles and turns her face to the sun.
That’s the part of me that picks up the trowel, the part I nudge to get moving because the light is climbing and soon it will be too hot to weed or dig. That’s the part of me that whispers, it’s not just a garden, it’s your garden. It’s weird and a little wild and ruled by impulses that might not make sense to someone walking by, but it’s clearly loved with conscientious hands and a generous heart. I smile and turn my face to the sun.