The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life.[...] –Wendell Berry
I’ve been doing a lot of digging lately. As usual this time of year, I’ve entered a maniacal phase of grooming, assessing, and re-arranging my garden. I try to accomplish as much as possible early, before it gets too hot, plants grow wilty, and I grow lazy. That hasn’t happened yet, so let’s take a look at what’s going on in my back yard.
A Brief History
I bought my house as a “fixer-upper” eleven years ago from a tiny woman named Petra. Petra was around 102-years-old and had lived alone in the house for 30 of those years. When Isabella was a baby, we lived a block away from Petra (but didn’t know her). I would routinely stroll around the neighborhood stalking fixer-upper properties, dreaming about owning a home and waiting for the right For Sale signs to pop up. One day, I spotted Petra’s baby-blue, cir. 1922 Bungalow and it appeared to be in an appropriate state of decay to fit my budget. But it wasn’t until I went around back to look at the yard — a big yard was a must for a gardener like me – that I fell in love.
People thought I was non compos mentis. But where they saw disaster, I saw delicious. I wanted the house.
A For Sale sign never did go up, so my neighbor-realtor friend and I conspired with a note in Petra’s mailbox offering to buy her house. Petra’s relatives who regularly checked in on her got the note and welcomed the idea of selling the house because Petra could no longer afford to live in it — physically or financially. As it turned out, the house was almost in foreclosure and they wanted to take her in.
Petra’s relatives were ecstatic that I offered to shovel out the property as part of the purchase deal. We got to know each other for a few weeks while Petra was moving out and I was cleaning.
Every inch of the house, basement, garage, tin shed, and back yard was packed with stuff ranging from useless flea market junk, to knickknacks and vintage, to animal droppings of indeterminate origin. After Petra’s family hauled away approximately 13 truckloads of her more personal effects (destined for her three storage units), the remaining detritus filled four-30′ dumpsters.
Petra was a bit of a hoarder.
She was not happy about parting with any of her things. I gave her plenty of time to take whatever she wanted, but her family begged me to throw it all away when she wasn’t there because there was no room for it in their house. Enough was enough.
I did what they asked. But still, there were sightings of Petra after the closing, perched on the side of the dumpsters, fishing out more and more from the overabundance and loading it into her tan Celica.
I found something puzzling In the basement: shelves stockpiled with commercial-sized goods: dusty cans of tomatoes and pickles, jars of olives, bags of shriveled garlic, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, maraschino cherries… I couldn’t figure out why these unopened, rotted things were there. Until I remembered that Petra said she’d worked for many years at Jack’s Restaurant & Lounge. So, the tiny woman who’d grown up very poor in northern New Mexico, who had run away from home to escape being married off at the age of 13, who never had a family of her own, made sure she always had enough.
After closing, I started renovating the yard while the house was also being renovated.
By the time I finished, there was but a single 5′ tree standing (not pictured).
Then it was time to make something. So I offered my sister the use of my backyard for her wedding rehearsal dinner – nothing like a deadline to motivate. I started by building a pond. Because if there’s one thing you need when hosting a rehearsal dinner in your back yard, it’s a pond. I talked to a few pond owners, read some articles, and started digging. Things have grown from there.
I’m pretty happy with my yard now.
But change happens. Trees grow and sunny places become shady, things die and need replaced, the pond and deck need maintained. And no matter how many plants I’ve already planted, I can’t seem to stop buying them. Gorgeous plants. With their endless variety of textures, colors, shapes, smells, sizes, habits. Big plants, small plants, common plants, exotic plants, edible and inedible plants, pond plants, sale or full-priced plants, local or mail-ordered, plants in pots, plants in the ground, plants in the air.
There is always room for more and more and more.