Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Story of My Garden

Our Gardening Geneology
(Or ~ Are Thumbs Green Because of Green Blood?)

My mom could grow a mean African violet. She didn't try for much else, actually. Except one summer she threw some seeds into a half-dug bed in the South Carolina clay behind our Navy base house in the middle of a swamp. She thought the shade would be a more pleasant place to work in a garden. She assumed the humidity alone would water it. And it sorta did. We got the screwiest, sad little corkscrew cucumbers out of that attempt. It was a bit of a joke to us kids. My mom happily let the garden idea fade away after that, with little regret. She's the world's best cook, and a world-class grocery shopper; a garden was extra work and worry she didn't really need.

But, my Mom's Mom, our North Carolina grandmother, knew how to grow a garden. I found a picture once in a shoebox full of old photos at her house. I wish I had it now to post here. She's in her twenties or thirties, and gorgeous even in a pair of jeans and her hair tied up in a bandana, Aunt Jemimah-style. She's leaning on a hoe in the middle of a perfectly prosperous WWII victory garden. Even in black and white, you can smell the green of that vegetable garden. I'm not sure if her dad was a proper farmer, but I get the impression he was, and the knowlege of gardening probably came to her naturally. I still remember her for her long row of collards off to the side of the house and her many fragrant rose bushes.
(Above: Not actually my grandmother's garden...)

My Dad's family were city people. My very colorful grandmother from that side of the family grew plastic flowers and pink flamingos in her front yard. Not a gardener to be found on that side of the family tree. But they could argue up a good afternoon over cups of coffee so strong and black it made your hair curl just to smell it. So, in the interest of other kinds of seeds planted, we forgive them the lack of interest in dirt gardening.
(At right: not my other grandmother's actual flamingos)

My husband's family kept a tasteful yard in Southern California while they were raising their two boys, but being the top dog at the water department of their city, his Dad had to avoid a lush green yard for political reasons. He got a chance at gardening, though, when they bought a beautifully landscaped yard in Western Colorado. While they were there, Grandpa seemed happy to tend the plants and flowers and even scored with a bumper crop of home grown tomatoes last summer. Grandpa's definitely got promise.

But, you can see that, though a bit of heredity might have eeked through from my North Carolina grandmother, our thumbs were not nurtured green. It was never an ingrained lifestyle kind of thing for us. But, it always seemed like a good idea. Good for the children. Healthy. Pretty. What could be better than all that? So, after a few years getting used to raising up youngins, we turned our minds to raising a garden ~ starting with little more than a notion, and a Rodale's Organic Gardening book.

The Hook
(Or ~ Why We Started Watching The Victory Garden on PBS)

We had just bought an old victorian house on a half acre lot in town and had visions of a secret garden paradise. After we cut down a few dead trees, knocked down some rotting fences and hacked away about a third of an acre of weeds, we at least had the space to work with. And virgin soil. The guy who came with his tractor to plow up and smooth things out said it was so. He said he thought those prairie grasses were original. Lucky us, huh? So, we dug, and smoothed, and improved, and planted, and consulted Rodale. After much sweat and sore muscles, our very first garden was a rousing success. Everyone was shocked, including us.

We were hooked.
It turns out that, next to bringing a new baby home from the hospital, nothing is more satisfying than bringing in a basketful of tomatoes and cucumbers from our own garden. After that first experience, we always had some kind of garden in progress. Some years, especially those when I was pregnant and on bedrest, the gardens were a bit ragged around the edges. And we have a bad tendency to get all excited and work-happy from April through about the middle of June, then lose our enthusiasm in the heat of the summer. What are ya gonna do? The peas and spinach have always been good, anyway.

Reeling It In
(Or ~ How We Thought We Had It All Figured Out)
We really hit our stride out here on our high prairie farm-ette. We moved in on the day of our tenth anniversary ~ and it was a cross between being the answer to a prayer and the beginning of a nightmare. If we thought the old half acre was a project, it was a box kite next to an airplane out here on the prairie. The house was a shambles, a dark little cave of a cottage. There were forty acres of broken down century-old fences and outbuildings. If it had ever grown anything other than pigs and cows and tumbleweeds, there was no sign of it. But we had vision ~ and four boys approaching their teen years. It was a good thing, really. The best thing we ever did for our boys.
And it was a dang lot of work. For one thing, this is dry land, folks: no irrigation. But our oldest son, Paul, led the charge, and within a few years, we had a farm to be proud of. We raised dairy goats, chickens, and pigs and boarded a couple horses. We had a plot of sweet corn next to a big pumpkin patch, a raised bed "salad garden," and a landscaped yard with a beautiful perennial garden up against the house. The boys built miles of picket fences and constructed two ponds, one with a working waterfall. We planted pots and window boxes full of flowers. My husband's little lawn was prospering, and all was right with the world.

Then, when everything was perfect, we felt a call to move.

The Challenge
(Or ~ "Man, What a Bummer!")

We were gone for two years on the Western Slope of Colorado. We absolutely loved it there and don't regret for a moment making that move, even though we had no place to garden in our yard. But it was not meant to be a long term stay, anyway, it would appear. God crooked His finger and we headed back to the old farm again last November.

Admittedly, we pulled up the old dirt driveway a little disappointed, but we were determined to make the best of it. "At least," we thought, "we'll be able to have a garden again."
But, when we came back, the property was in ruins. The winter before had been extremely hard on the eastern plains of Colorado. Blizzards had stripped many of our old cottonwoods, and late freezes had killed a couple of the big trees. The salad garden and corn field were waist high in weeds and the perennial flower bed was completely taken over by horehound, of all things. (Little did I know when I planted that one little horehound plant three years ago...) The lawn was gone. Blizzards in the winter and droughts in the summer take a hard toll on a garden, even when its being tended. But ours had been left to fend for itself for two years.
As if all that weren't bad enough, the infrastructure of property was in a shambles. All our fences need to be painted and repaired, my flower boxes are in a terrible state, and not a single one of the hydrants works any more.
But, when we bought this place ten years ago, it was in worse repair. It was all bare prairie, weeds, trash, and rusted barbed wire, but we were able to bring it to life. And we'll bring it back again.
That's the beauty of gardening ~ and homemaking. The work is endless, and relentless. You simply cannot let things go, or it will be twice the effort bringing it back. But, it's always, always worth the effort. We may grumble a little while we're pulling out those danged thistles by. their. impossibly. long. roots... (Agh!), but we're always pleased with the results when we have a pristine, cleared vegetable bed dotted with sweet little sprouts.

For now, on the farm re-build, I just need my big boys home from school for the summer helping with the hammer-work and painting. We girls have already started the clearing and planting. Our last frost date is not until the middle of May, so we can't put anything tender out yet, but the peas, carrots, spinach, lettuce, radish, and pole beans are ready to go out (as soon as I get a hydrant working!). I've got the goodies to start working on my perennial and annual flower beds and planters, too.
It's far from lush here. But the sky is a huge eye-wateringly blue canvas for a landscape of clouds. The wind playfully ruffles the grasses on the rolling blond hills, tickling up the meadowlarks who swoop into the air in sudden laughing song. The remnants of the toil of a hundred years lies among the grasses waiting for us to find. As we've dug in our garden, we've found railroad spikes, tiny antique medicine bottles, horseshoes, ancient nuts and bolts, old tools and even the rusted-solid workings of a pocket watch. We aren't the first to try to make this land work for us. We feel like we've been handed the baton, though.

It's a hard-fought war, gardening on the high prairies, but well worth the challenge.
Landing It
(Or ~ Try, Try, Try Again)

You'll have to use your imagination, and please be merciful. I can't show you anything planted yet, but I can show you where it will all go and I'll try to post pictures as everything gets a coat of paint and some spit and shine and all the vegetables and flowers get growing.

There will be perennials replanted here next to the house: hollyhocks, daylilies, mini canas, all in shades of orange, yellow and red. You can just see the brick outline of the bed below.
Trying to decide what shade-loving plants to grow around the birdbath. Needs to be something easy. Maybe calladeum?

We need mostly perennials to fill in this big space. We did have a handful of tulips that survived. (What a happy surprise that was!) I'm thinking about adding shrubs or grasses maybe. It's a long way from a water source, so needs to be xeriscaped mainly, with maybe a touch of color from bulbs and some annuals in the wheelbarrow. Any suggestions for easy growing, low water zone 3-4 would be appreciated!
I'm thinking some sunflowers in varying shades might be nice in front of the playhouse. A new coat of paint and a new weathervane is in the plans, too.
I'm trying to decide between petunias and dahlias for this old trough:

Mixed annuals in bright colors for these pots (We have about ten of these scattered about).
Red, white and blue with maybe a zing of yellow in the flowerboxes on the barn.

A pot of impatience will sit on this bench at the top of the driveway. And a lot of patience learned through this whole process. But patience, promise, and hard work is what it's all about.


Bia said...

Wow, am I ever impressed! I have flower boxes and haging ferns on our front porch; containers of flowers in an old wagon next to a statue of St. Francis in our front yard; and flower containers everywhere else. Compared to you, it's very small scale.

I did try to grow tomatoes one year, but now I just let my very nice neighbors grow them . . . they always have too many and give them all to us. Yummo.

God bless.

Marie said...

My Grandmother was the green thumb of the family..Sadly none of us inherited her gift.

I shall be redesigning our garden now it is autumn in that the summer fried many of my plants:( and they were doing so well. But, we had 15 days where the temps raged from 100 to 115 degrees:(.

I also bought some statues in that I would like to create my own prayer Garden..So wish me luck!

Peace to you Lisa:)

Marie xoxoox

Sue B. said...

This was wonderful. I know that I will be back to re-read it.

Alice Cantrell said...

I love this story, Lisa! I can't wait to see the gardens as the evolve and grow. Keep the photos coming! :-)

Lisa said...

Bia ~ I envy you being able to grow ferns. They're tough out here! Good to get homegrown tomatoes, however you get them! We couldn't grow any last year, so were soooo glad my father-in-law had such good luck his first time trying!

Marie ~ My word! 15 days that hot! I can't imagine anybody's gardens fared well with that. Yikes. I hope you'll take pictures of your prayer garden and post them! I would really like to grow one, too ~ but have to get other things in order first. &:o)

Sue B. ~ Thank-you! &:o) I know it was kinda long for a blog post, huh? It was one of those posts that I started writing and what you see is what wrote itself. And I couldn't figure out how to shorten it! I hate that. Thanks for your patience, though!

Alice ~ Thank-you! I love the pics of your garden, so lush! =sigh= It takes so much longer for us to get going here! I'll take pictures as we go, for sure, though. &:o)