The symbolic promise of a new year is not enough for me this time around.
Normally happy to raise my glass and cheerfully throw out The Old as the clock ticks towards midnight, this year I am not so simple-minded as to think that the Fates look at December 31, 2020 and January 01, 2021 and say “Let’s make everything different, starting…..now.”
Events of the last week would seem to support my cynicism.
So in practical matters of life and everyday, I am perhaps pessimistic as we continue to face a very grim, messy and heartbreaking pandemic, and wait for the associated monsters that cluster wretchedly under its Dickensian skirts.
In matters of the garden however, the start of the new year will always mean a new start to a new garden, and that is a joyful thing and worth embracing with one’s entire body and soul.
Whether a gardener contemplates their very first garden or one they have tended for thirty years, each spring confers the excitement of ‘new’ to all. There is simply too much that is still yet to be experienced: new growth, new plants, new pairings, new opportunities, new mentors, new foods, new learning opportunities…new plant friends perhaps. The very best kind.
My garden technically goes into its ninth year this spring, and I say ‘technically’ because most of the gardens thus far came into being a few years after the actual transfer of papers across a title company desk. I will mention this casually if you find weaknesses, but happily use it to my advantage if you are amazed by the progress so far.
My New Garden Resolutions
There are many separate gardens here, but my energy this year will focus on four of them. As you will see, it’s a tall order, but not one to be undertaken during any one season. A year tending the garden represents 365 days, not as too-commonly believed, its best 100.
The Kitchen Garden
This year the vegetable (or kitchen) garden that was initiated five years ago with cast-off 2x12s will be renovated with new, sturdier raised beds made from 4x4s, gravel substrate and a gathering platform and fire pit where (someday!) friends will once again converse late into the night. Let’s hope we remember how.
I’ll be leaving room for a greenhouse, as I try to match my horticultural needs with my financial ones, and will start to eke out a respectable design with the hodge podge of trial plants, cast-offs and rare nursery picks that make up a great deal of this space and have been planted fairly randomly depending on their needs.
Drawing up plans is both exciting and terrifying. What it could be, vs. what it will be, has much to do with my energy and time. Will those two things come together? How quickly can I move on this? Will I have cold frames up and running before the tropicals need to come out of their winter digs?
Yes, exciting and terrifying.
The Woodland Garden
I will be spending many winter hours in the Woodland Garden (I’ve already spent several in these first two weeks), clearing multi-flora rose, wine berries, oriental bittersweet, wild grape, honeysuckle, poison ivy, and a massive underground network of paw paw suckers.
The paw paw lovers amongst you will gasp and clutch your pearls as I ruthlessly mow them down (and then do so again and again), but I am fortunate to have paw paw over much of this property and a grove of single clone, fruitless saplings gone amok cuts down on other shrubs to be grown and appreciated such as Viburnum wrightii, Aesculus pavia, and Lindera benzoin.
Once the galanthus, mertensia, trillium, sanguinaria, cyclamen and dicentra have bloomed, I will plant even more into the soft, rich soil, marking them with little colored flags that confuse my neighbors, but allow me to keep track in the early days of this garden. It is an ephemeral garden, meant to be viewed and studied in the late winter and early spring – meant to be walked with a cold drink thereafter.
I also hope to build another human sized ‘nest’ toward my end goal of five. These nests are perhaps the closest I will ever come to creating any manner of what could be termed “installation art.” They cleverly make use of the copious twigs, trunks, and tangle emanating from trimmer and chainsaw, and with their undeniable, if somewhat odd, presence, signify Garden in the midst of a beautiful natural space. I thank the many wonderful volunteers at The Delaware Botanic Gardens for inspiring me with their woodland nests to use my trimmings wisely.
The Serpentine Bed
I am claiming a further fifteen linear feet of the Serpentine Bed for planting this year. This is an odd thing to read if you have not followed my approach to this bed up until now. Let me explain:
The 103 x 20 Serpentine Bed makes up a large part of the lower gardens, snaking through this sunny area and creating an undulating pathway. It is a spine that mimics the gentle curves of the stream and links many of the other lower gardens. The pathway leads out of what will be a barn courtyard someday, through to the kitchen garden and beyond to the mini-meadow, thuja berm/hedge and bonfire area. (And perhaps someday, a Terraced Garden if funds and flesh are willing.)
I set out the full outline four years ago, filling it in with a hügelkultur of sorts which incorporated all the discarded biomass from the property, and gave the bed an ever-changing height. Wood, brush, weeds, stems, compost, manure, straw, dead bodies…everything.
Just making sure you’re paying attention.
Slowly I ‘claim’ a few feet each year, mulching that area heavily, planting with strategy and with pure caprice, and allow the rest to go to weed and pumpkins.
It is simply self-preservation – I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew and end up losing good plants; but I need the outline, ever-present, to guide me towards the finish line where a weeping copper beech has held court for three years, Amsonia tabernaemontana at its feet.
The Long Bed
Also known as The Boring Bed or The Inherited Bed. 113 feet long, 30 feet wide and better than Unisom for promoting good, REM sleep. Some decent azaleas, kerria, ferns and Japanese maples are there, but it’s so choked with Japanese stilt grass, and various other weeds that it requires a vaccine certificate and appropriate protective clothing before you get within ten feet of it.
In addition it’s filled with naturally seeded and exceptionally plain hosta which become celery sticks in early July when the deer population sniff them out – increasing the ugliness factor and lowering my tolerance at the very sight of it.
I swear I am going to do something other than mow around it this year. Even if means suffering the tragedies inevitably meted out by a weed whacker. Sadly I planted many ‘good’ plants in its depths before I realized the extent of maintenance needed to tame it. Perhaps it will simply be a rescue mission.
I’m signing this particular resolution in blood, as I think I might have made the same resolve last year. Or was it the year before? I can take another year of boring, but I can’t take another year of boring and overgrown.
Every year a new garden. Even in an old garden.
Even in a crazy world.
This is what gets me excited in a year where there is much to drain energy and disrupt sleep. This is what helps me dream and fuels my happiest thoughts. It is mine – dangerously and beautifully mine, and it does not entertain the troubles of the world.
There are no masks here. No riots. No frightened looks, twitching curtains, political signs and social media snark. The only hand sanitizer sits in the cart, waiting for tools and a soft cloth.
I cannot draw a line between catastrophe and normalcy with the advent of 2021, but I can excitedly enter the world of my ‘new garden’ with great awareness and joy. I might even accomplish 50% of what I have now publicly resolved to do. That’s enough.
Whatever your ‘new garden’ happens to be in 2021 – windowsill, balcony, patio, hellstrip, abandoned lot, acreage or wilderness, I hope you grasp it with both hands and give in to its eternal message of optimism: Life goes on. Differently, beautifully, passionately. We must allow this to fill our souls. – MW