A Back-Breaking Shangri-La

Good Sunday Morning. It’s story time again. Today, as most of the country is digging out from under heavy snow storms, I’ve turned to one of my favorite topics–gardening. Thinking about the rebirth of spring in the dead of winter gives me hope. So, sit back and enjoy a story about one of my most ambitious project that keeps on giving pleasure and back-breaking work.

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A Back-Breaking Shangri-La

By

Barbara McCloskey

Have you ever planted a garden? I’m not talking about plopping a potted plant in the corner of a patio pot, or tending to a couple of tomato plants in amongst geraniums. I’m talking about landscaping, digging, pulling and getting so dirty if you were a kid, your mother would send you to the basement to strip before she’d let you in the house.  I’m talking about selecting plants that compliment one another—tall ones in the back, low ones in the front, colors that weave a tapestry that blooms from spring to fall.

I never really thought about taking on such a large project until my husband, and I bought a “fixer-upper” house with an equally ignored backyard. After the interior of our home was to our liking, it was time for the backyard to match. My dream was to create a quiet place where I could hide from the world. A place that would greet me with open arms after a day of frustration or disappointment in the corporate world. I wanted a safe place which I could relax. A place that would bring me smiles whenever I was there.

My space had to be perfect—but after consulting with professional landscapers, I knew that their price tags were far more than my meager budget could withstand. On top of that, my husband bugged out early, stating that his gardening expertise was confined to pulling out the lawn mower once a week. Needless to say, he wasn’t keen on helping me create my Shangri-La, so how was I going to accomplish this task?

The answer came with Jon, a poor, struggling college student who agreed he could handle whatever our city lot jungle could dish out. So we made a plan and went to work. He would labor in the hot summer sun, and I would make LOTS of lemonade.

We started by deciding what part of the existing mess would stay. That was easy. We had two 20 ft. pines and a 300 ft. locus that we’d work around. During the excavation of buckthorn, grapevines, old raspberry bushes and a forest of thistles as tall as the neighbor’s six-foot fence, Jon discovered a couple of young maple trees that would stay.

Through the hours of shoveling, pick-axing, sawing, straining and pulling, Jon uncovered slowly made progress in taming the wilderness. By fall, the land was clear enough on the east lot line to begin to planting a couple of small shrubs and a couple of dozen spring bulbs. We finished it off with a cover of golden mulch that would protect the new plantings through the winter.

While the snow billowed outside my window during the winter months, I focused on research. I watched the gardening experts on TV, visited websites, bought magazines and poured over dozens of bulb, plant and seed catalogs wondering if I really had it in me to make my piece of heaven half as wonderful as the pictures in the books. So, just to be safe, I prayed to my Grandma, who could grow flowers and vegetables out of a rock. If she could bequeath her green thumb to me, I knew I would never fail.

The snow barely melted before I started to itch to resume what Jon and I had started last summer. The first joy was watching the early crocus pop their pretty little heads through the snow. Then the grape hyacinths showed their delicate flowers shortly thereafter, and I wanted to rush right out to the garden center to buy the annuals to enhance the pots that I had scattered around the yard. But knowing the strange sense of humor of Mother Nature in Wisconsin, I restrained myself to not plant anything before Memorial Day. So I waited. Not patiently. But I waited. In the meantime, I pulled weeds. Lots of weeds.

When it was time, I turned my mid-size SUV into a weekend pick-up truck that found it hard to pass a garden center. I bought whatever was on sale and every week came home with a load of plants to fill in the spaces that were ready for planting. I sectioned off plots for a pink garden, a yellow garden and a shade garden. A flowering tree here and an evergreen shrub there. Maybe not a scientific approach, but I felt like I was putting the “right” plant in just the “right” place. I was faithful to my new babies, watering them every night and fertilizing them on time. I clucked over my plants like a hen watches over her chicks.

When summer came again, Jon came back to tackle the worst overgrown part of the project. He worked for weeks to get down to the soil and hauled away truckloads of debris and weeds. Jon had archeologist moment when he unearthed about 100 antique paving bricks that had been manufactured in several different states. The previous owner had used the “pavers” for the floor of old gardening shed that had been torn down before we even bought the house. After a bath with a power washer, the bricks revealed themselves to be a very suitable edging for rest of the garden.

On a hot July afternoon, Jon and I finished the project. We mixed wheelbarrows full of soil, peat, fertilizer and grass seed and gently laid a carpet of the mixture over the worn out dirt where the pavers had sat for many years. Now all I had to do was add water and watch the grass grow. In a couple of weeks, my baby grass sprouted and turned into a brilliant lush, green carpet. I felt like a proud parent.

Throughout this project, I learned that a garden is an entity of its own. It constantly changes as it grows. It elbows weeds for growing space; basks in the sun, and withers in drought. The garden lives on a knife-edge delicate balance of wet and dry. It sleeps through the winter and resurrects in the spring.

As its caretaker, every year I feel a sense of frustration, exhilaration, and satisfaction. I’ve also learned this project is on-going. It’s never finished. And that’s part of its charm. I know that claiming my own backyard as a safe, beautiful place will grow old with me. We’ve become comfortable with one another, and like old friends, the time we spend together will enrich each of us as long as we live together. It’s good for body and soul.

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