Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Gardening Alone

I’ve noticed in extended conversations with gardeners that the first person singular “I” eventually shifts to the first person plural “we.”  The idea of the solitary gardener donning his or her gloves and hat of a morning and toiling away until dark is too romantic to survive reality.  When pressed, everyone has a spouse, partner, unwilling child or paid helper to assist.  One day you realize that no matter how many hours you stay on your knees, no matter how fine your tools or modest your ambitions, the garden has gotten away from you.

But where to find a helper?  In the suburbs, efficient maintenance companies seem to have limitless access to seasonal workers. Suburban lawns are mown, leaves are raked and blown, and garden beds are weeded.  In the country, the same work used to be done by high school boys.  As a breed, they have disappeared into air-conditioned spaces.  They might start out in your garden in May, but with the first hot spell they will have found a job in the Mall.     

I am fortunate in that a helper appeared just as I was about to throw in the trowel.  In July of 2006 a note was dropped in my Catskills mailbox by a woman wanting to rent a house; she was starting a business looking after houses and gardens.  While I couldn’t offer Natalka Chas a roof over her head, I could give her one day a week in my garden.  It has changed my life (and advanced beyond one day a week).

Her first job was to tackle the lycoris beds.  I had worked vigorously to clear the beds of all but a few lycoris, but they returned to mock me.  The thistle is their ally and once established the combination is almost impossible get out.  Although I vowed to eradicate them early, the lycoris were beloved by the Laissez-faire Gardener, and so they remained.  But we have managed to narrow then down from a cast of thousands to a mere representative sample.  

Emerging lycoris, before Natalka
Their habits are unfortunate.  They are the first plants to emerge here,  pushing their noses out of the ground when there is not a speck of green showing elsewhere.  They then send out mounds of strappy foliage, obscuring the opportunity to plant anything else. As soon as it is too late to plant around them, the foliage disappears completely and the thistles have taken over.  In late summer, when you have completely forgotten about them, leafless stalks appear, with stunning blooms at the crown.

July border, after Natalka

Within two days, Natalka cleared the beds of weeds, scuffled the overgrowth out of the gravel paths surrounding the beds, built up the edges of the beds with flat stones collected from the endless supply scattered in the woods, and appeared with a station wagon filled with monarda, buddleia, Russian sage, nepeta, and black- and brown-eyed Susans.  They were to keep company with the few Shasta daisies and phlox I had managed to shoehorn in, and the old peonies which were strong enough to withstand any insult.

The work of a garden helper is immediately measurable, but the subtle influence is incalculable.  One would think it would free you to sip iced tea and read all day, but it reality it galvanizes you to contemplate new work.  In the five years since Natalka arrived, we have been deep in restoration: The old peony walk has been greatly expanded and improved. The berry bramble and the cutting garden have been brought under control ever since we installed raised beds.  A rock hollow that used to be surrounded by lilies of the valley is planted with the same once again.  The adjoining patch of tiger lilies, seen in an old photograph, has been re-established.  The perennial border and the old cutting garden behind it are flourishing.

August border, after Natalka
The old rhododendron bed opposite the porch has been refreshed with a number of varieties, underplanted with tiarella and fern. The sunny, dry half of that border is filled with rugosa rose and lavender. The old stone edge buried under decades of frost heave and leaf mold has been uncovered.

Other gardens followed, each one bringing the neglected landscape back to life. None of this would have happened if Natalka had not dropped a note into our mailbox.  This wild corner of our universe is finally coming under limited control.  In the meantime, we water, check in daily on the well water production, fill in the bare spots, divide and give away, and wait for the arrival of butterflies, lightning bugs and the night sounds of katy-dids.

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