I’ve been doing yoga in the mornings, recently focused on a DVRed episode that is a series of seated twists, exactly what I need as of late.
At the beginning, the instructor talks about asking her mother-in-law, who was nearly 102, about the secret to a good life.
Plant a good garden.
It’s such a profound statement, one I’ve pondered as I adjust to a life with less drama, more security, and more time.
Two years a Southerner. This feels like a statement that any authentic Southerner would quickly call out as a lie. “Why bless her heart, she called herself a Southerner!” I talk too fast, walk too fast, I suppose, to ever be anything other than a Yankee who moved south.
Someone at our local Southern States asked us if we knew why the locals call Aiken “Half Back.” Tom and I were clueless, so he explained.
A bunch of Yankees moved south to escape the brutal winters. They found Florida to be far too hot in the summer, so opted to move “half back” to Aiken.
So there you go.
I left behind gardens in New York that had been cultivated, on and off and sporadically despite long periods of my neglect, over 20-some years. I didn’t realize until I was photographing them for the house listing just how beautiful they’d become. Mostly they felt like a chore, or a reminder of something I wasn’t taking the time to do very well.
There are certain aspects of gardening which I find gratifying and which bring me uncomplicated joy. These are: contemplating the purchase of plants, purchasing plants, and looking at beautiful plants. I also find pruning to be strangely gratifying. Out with the old. <snipsnipsnip> In with the new!
The other aspects, the parts of the hobby that actual gardeners consider to be, well, gardening, those things I feel much more “eh” about: Planting, watering, mulching, and weeding. Weeding is the worst of the worst. I only like weeding after I’ve done it. (Much like making a bed. Or cleaning out the interior of my car. Or filing business paperwork.)
Yet, here I am with this complicated relationship with gardening, starting over.
Our house was built in 2019, and the previous owners did some limited landscaping — a handful of crape myrtles lining the driveway, a few gardenias and a fern in the bed outside the master bedroom. Some knockout roses outside the guest bedroom. An azalea here, a few hibiscus there. Six heirloom rose bushes by the entry way.
Roses? Oh dear, I’ve never had roses!
My brother in law, Rick, who has lived in the South for over thirty years assured me, “You can’t kill roses!”
Hold my beer, Rick.
Tom helped me yank three of them out, deader than dead, this spring.
I replaced them with plants that I fancied, by the main door to the house, such as it is, a garden I can see from the living room, or when I sit on the patio watching the birds at the feeders, or sharing a Friday night cocktail with Tom at our little pub table, talking about our week, planning our weekend.
I picked plants that will be green during the winter. Plants that attract pollinators — bees and butterflies — plants that hummingbirds love, since I can be irresponsible about filling the feeders. Plants that are shades of red and purple. Plants that are assertive ground covers, and will fill in and eventually choke out the weeds. (See above about weeding. This is strategic.)
There are three rose bushes remaining. They are alive, sort of. I prune them and feed them and I look at them with my head tilted, contemplating the point at which they too will get yanked from the ground. (For you rose-huggers, I will take them out to the edge of the woods and plant them there, hoping they’ll find a change of venue to be re-invigorating, but with low expectations.)
I’m getting better at giving up more quickly. I do my damnedest to accommodate a new plant, but if it’s not happy, it just wasn’t a match. I move on.
I’ve refused to plant annuals, with two exceptions, because if I’m going to dig a hole and water something, I want some reasonable expectation that that sucker may return next year. I buy mandevilla because they are so prolific and so happy in the heat.
I buy one other very red annual because I accidentally bought one last year and it was so happy and SO RED I felt it deserved a spot again. I will feel sad when it dies in the fall.
I have a couple of unhappy houseplants, one that thrives on high humidity, so I stashed it outside; it’s June and Mother Nature is providing humidity in steamy plentitude. Sometimes we just need a change in scenery.
We have an armadillo, or maybe it’s a raccoon, quite possibly a rabbit, that visits our bird feeders at night, resulting in alarmist dog barking, so I’ve become disciplined about going out each evening just after sundown, to take the feeders down and stash them in the garage. It’s the simplest way to keep the peace. This long-awaited peace, it is so precious.
I find myself wandering through the gardens during that quiet time before dark, with the last of the house finches, the Carolina chickadees, cardinals and goldfinches snatching a few more seeds before bedtime. The mourning doves coo and peck at the ground. I shake the feeders as I remove them, scattering some seeds. I’m not opposed to feeding the nocturnal creatures. If they can come around in a stealthy way without creating a canine alarm signal, that’s just between us.
That struggling houseplant is sprouting leaves, tiny little buds, at an impressive rate. The mandevilla adore the increasing heat, thriving when everything else is thinking about wilting. My hostas, which were epic in New York, are starting to tell me, just like they did last year, that South Carolina heat is not really their jam. I make a note to mulch them a little more this weekend. The boston ferns need shade as it gets hotter, so I place them a bit further under the patio.
I check on the eucalyptus plant I found just a few weeks ago, just before Kathi’s birthday, and immediately bought. She loved eucalyptus and used to keep bunches in her car. That smell was intoxicating, and to me is Kathi.
I’ve got rosemary and thyme in the garden in the yard, and when Tom and I cook together I love going out with my kitchen shears to snip some for the meal. Tom is a hell of a sous chef and don’t let him tell you that he’s the executive chef; that’s only true for grilling, griddling and breakfast-making. Okay, fine, so maybe sometimes he is the executive chef. (Shhh.)
When I discovered that lilacs are nearly impossible to grow down here, Dale and I found vitex (affectionately called “Texas lilacs”) which bloom similar purple flowers. As a bonus, it has leaves and structure which greatly resemble marijuana. What could be more fun than that? So I have three.
There’s no grand plan, no neat edges or formal plan with my gardens. There’s just the daily joy of puttering around, setting a new plant here or there to see how it looks from various angles and speculate whether it will get enough light or water. It’s tending to living beings, experimenting without any real goals, taking joy in watching the butterflies, listening to the hummingbirds squabble as they do, catching the scent of jasmine or gardenias, or stopping to examine an extraordinary clematis bloom. Making plans, none too firm, seeing how it works out and what needs to be adjusted. Setting an intention to do this or that during the upcoming weekend, when I tend to do projects with the tractor. Or will have Tom’s help lifting heavy things or reaching stuff high up. And if it doesn’t happen, there’s always tomorrow.
You will live with what you pay attention to.
[Someone wise said that, I’m not certain who, but it was my friend Kate who first mentioned it to me. She’s also wise.]
I got a calendar and wrote “Nature” on the cover with a Sharpie. The first spring we were here, the crape myrtle looked so dead in March that I contemplated pulling them from the ground. It turns out that some things just need a little more time. The same with the hibiscus, which look like nothing but a few sad sticks in the ground late into the spring months. The calendar will save me a little anxiety next spring.
Every year I worry about why there are no cardinals, until they all show up late in the spring, and happily stay. I noted in the calendar when they returned, and when we first found bluebird eggs in the house by the pasture fence. I take note of the fact that bees like basil more than me. I squealed last week after a long work travel trip when we peeked in to find our blue birds are on their third round of baby-raising.
I feel like a voyeur watching the fox squirrels courting in the yard; we even have an awkward teenaged boy. I’m rooting for him to get lucky.
My friend Rachel recommended the MerlinID app for identifying birds by their songs and I’ve become a teeny bit obsessive, having Merlin listen in as I hike with the dog, or do barn chores, or sit on the patio with Tom.
I look forward to looking back.
I recall planting flats of myrtle under the cabin in East Otto, perhaps thirty years ago, finding an antique cultivator to stash in a rock garden and honeysuckle and clematis to grow and climb around it.
Gardening is an investment. In so many things.
One evening recently, during my bird feeder stashing task, I lingered outside for so long that Tom checked on me. I was bent over and staring at Japanese beetles on my hibiscus. I got caught in the moment before I marched into the garage to find the insecticidal soap to wage (an organic) battle against the intruders.
Tom’s interest in my gardening? Almost non-existent from a horticultural perspective. However, if it makes me happy, it makes him happy, he says, and it’s obvious true by how he pitches in. He hangs planter hooks, shovels the big holes for magnolia trees, digs up dead roses and lets me borrow his pickup to get wood mulch. When I find myself prattling about this plant or that one, I stop myself. He could not care less. Instead I choose to brag about stopping at a nursery and leaving without buying a thing. Which I’ve done exactly twice.
A few weekends ago, we had houseguests coming. On our to-do list was ‘weed the gardens.’ All of his tasks done, Tom jumped in to weed without a word. I caught him in the garden, kneeling and pulling errant weeds from the ground, sweating. Smiling up at me. Just helping cross off another item on our list.
I fall in love with him again in these moments.
So here we are, planting a good garden.