Our house was built in the 60’s. It was maintained for 40 years, then trashed for five and hastily remodeled before we bought from a construction company two years ago. The remodelers found the yard a wasteland of debris, and by the time they were finished they’d removed five dumpsters of junk and blackberry vines. But before all that, one family had tended and loved that garden for forty years.
When we arrived, the property was a nearly clean slate with only a few old hearty plants – an ancient, moss-covered dogwood, a cherry, a plum, and a hawthorn. I could see the character of the gardeners that came before me in what remained. Near the fence were two Japanese maples, one with green leaves and one with red, that had been trained to twist around each other so they formed one two-toned unified shape above the trunk. The same technique was used on the old lilacs, with half of the tree blooming early and half late in the season.
There was a sprinkler system. It seemed to work, except the heads were all broken or missing and water shot in every direction – primarily away from the needy plants. I replaced the heads but for that first summer, with a new house and a six-month-old, I didn’t do much planting or maintenance. It was all I could do to water on the hot days.
After a year of semi-regular water, mysterious plants began to emerge from the ground – a cluster of trillium next to the new fence, hyacinth, daffodils, and the dogwood bloomed delicate pink flowers. Under the stairs the ground was covered with heart shaped leaves and tiny pink cyclamen. Near the deck was a cluster of daisies and another of iris. I started to see how the previous gardeners had used the space. The cutting flowers were in the bed near the deck and stairs. The roses were in the side yard and the shrubs were lined up against the fence. Except for a few months every winter, there was always something in bloom.
We’d been in the house about eighteen months when the wisteria bolted from the dirt, its vines all needy and grabby, looking for the trellis it used to climb. I found a bamboo lattice and when I placed it next to the plant, I could see how it must have looked in its glory days, with purple flowers draped over the deck rail.
Now that we’re settled and Josie is two, I’m able to do a little more work in the garden. We’ve built vegetable beds in the side yard. Frequently while I plant, prune, trim, train and water I think of the family that lived here and loved this garden for forty years. I know from their mail that he was a veteran of the Navy. I imagine him as a guy’s guy. I picture him building the sprinkler system and her tending the cut flowers. I can see them together but I cannot figure out who had the vision, the foresight, and the persistence to twist those trees together. Maybe it wasn’t him or her alone. Maybe it was something they did together.
I imagine they used chemical fertilizers, that’s the way people did things then, the nitrogen giving the plants a boost of short-lived green growth. I wonder if they used pesticides, wiped out the beneficial microbes and organisms in the dirt. It’s likely they treated the lawn, and if they did, when it rained the leads, toxins, heavy metals from all this “help” washed downhill the few blocks to the lake where the couple swam in the summer.
Then I think about the years when the yard was overgrown with ivy and blackberries, when none of the plants were given any attention, when many of them withdrew into the dirt to wait for better days, and I realize those years of recovery, when the dirt could regain some of its natural composition, were one of the best things that could have happened to this yard.
There’s still a lot of work to do in our garden. I hope this year to get the vegetables in the beds for cool season planting, to prune the weigela and the lilacs, and to plant some peonies in the bed of cut flowers. We plan to live in this house for a long time and sometimes I wonder about who will love it next, if they will care for the yard. I hope that I will be lucky enough to tend this yard for forty years, and that I will leave my mark in the form of strong branches and dirt that will continue to give for many years after I am gone.