After ruminating on the bigger picture in her memoir And I Shall Have Some Peace There, Margaret Roach has returned to the garden, insisting as ever that we must garden with both our head and heart, or as she expresses it, with "horticultural how-to and woo-woo." In THE BACKYARD PARABLES, Roach uses her fundamental understanding of the natural world, philosophy, and life to explore the ways that gardening saved and instructed her, and meditates on the science and spirituality of nature, reminding her readers and herself to keep on digging.
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The Backyard ParablesLessons on Gardening, and Life
By Margaret Roach
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 Margaret Roach
All right reserved.
The likeness of this present life is as water that
We send down out of heaven,
and the plants of the earth mingle with it
whereof men and cattle eat,
till, when the earth has taken on its glitter
and has decked itself fair,
and its inhabitants think they have power over it,
Our command comes upon it
by night or day, and We make it stubble, as though
yesterday it flourished not.
Even so We distinguish the signs for a people
—THE KORAN, SURAH 10:24, “JONAH”
Author’s footnote: The Koran (AD 610–629) variously uses “We,” “He,” and “Allah” to refer to God.
I AWAKEN TO GUNSHOTS. Have I fallen asleep with the television on again? No; no electronically induced gloaming emanates from across the room. As that fact of darkness registers, so does awareness that it is no longer deer season—meaning that cannot be it, either. No one is shooting, not some MI-5 character on the TV monitor, risking peril in defense of the realm; not some local hunter tromping through the woods in the predawn, hoping to fill the freezer or perhaps just bring home bragging rights with a six-pointer.
It is winter, a very cold night in winter, and the trees are talking back.
My aging skin is talking back, too, thirsty for the thick, steamy aftermath of an August sun shower, or even of the fog that settles here on fall mornings as the earth releases warmth it stored all growing season and with it moisture into a receptive, alchemical sky that completes the equation, sending down the lowest kind of cloud. Why hasn’t my species adapted better to life indoors in winter, the way many bromeliads shaped themselves to their high-in-the-sky, not-rooted-in-the-soil native treetop homes by forming their leaves in a cuplike arrangement to catch whatever droplets fall (and the occasional yummy insect, who turns the collected water to nourishing broth)? I absentmindedly scratch the dry patch on my forearm in the mist of semisleep, take a thankfully insect-free sip from the Mason jar located by groping in the general vicinity of the nightstand, and try to settle back.
Someone fires off a few more rounds.
Apparently none of us can get comfortable tonight—not the trees, and certainly not one fifty-something gardener sequestered like a piece of tinder inside a heated box she calls home in every season, not just in this brittlest one spent mostly therein confined. In here—or truthfully maybe anywhere, anytime at my age—I cannot take in enough water to plump up all dewy and fresh. I am no garden after a spring rain; I am not spring at all, any longer, except in my ever-juicy cache of recollections. Nothing lasts; just yesterday, I stood before the mirror in the dining room and pulled back my face momentarily as if a too-tight ponytail were doing the pulling, while contemplating mini-face-lifts, low humidity, and the inexorable ravaging of age. Outside, the native black locusts and maples are feeling not old or parched, exactly, but rather overstuffed—too big for their britches, or at least their bark—as sap and other liquids inside them expand beyond capacity.
Bang. Bang-bang-bang. Shoot ’em up, baby.
Nobody seems to be at ease right now, a consequence of the watery nature we living things have in common, the trees and me included. It hurts to be too dry or too cold when you are really just one of nature’s many intricate vessels, as we all are, far more labyrinthine than the jelly jar beside me perhaps, but each a mere vessel just the same.
And so I adjust again in the darkness, shifting the duvet and my hoodie and nudging at the men’s white cotton sweat socks, the ones I buy in the plastic three-packs, urging them upward one after the other with the toe of the opposite foot to please cover any gap where the cold might find me. Then I nestle in to listen to the arboreal artillery. Might as well enjoy the show; there’s no fighting back.
As another long night evaporates a drop at a time, I find myself thinking in liquid form: like how frogs and their amphibian kin seem most comfortable in their skins in a rainstorm—the bigger the better—when they move about on the hunt with positive celebratory abandon. (Slugs and insects beware!) I recall longingly how in the wake of soaking rain recalcitrant weeds become compliant, agreeing to slip, roots and all, from the ground with just a gentle tug. It’s as if they are happy to come away with me and give up their lusty ways—as if it were their pleasure, not mine. I think about days when the sweat socks stay in the drawer and bare feet press, four prints apiece, into dew-soaked grass when they step outside first thing, even before tea, to feed the fish and birds out back—the ritual like an ablution with which I baptize each new day—then make their way back home.
I contemplate the pull, and power, of water—the place where all life began, and the only naturally occurring substance found in all three states at earthly temperatures, solid to liquid to gas—until it is time to welcome another dark morning and put the kettle on to boil. As much as I can study up on water, memorizing that it weighs 8.33 pounds per gallon, for instance, or that beneath a depth of 656 feet almost no light penetrates the ocean, I do not thereby become one ounce more capable of convincing this primal element to do as I would like, tonight or anytime.
None of us can have his or her or its way, at least not now; we must simply try to lay low, each in our own manner, until it’s over—not unlike what our analogs in the driest, hottest places must do in their most severe season, in the torpor of estivation. Frozen water, no water, too much water—obstacles all for we who try to live on in spite of something. (No wonder we coined the expression “in hot water” for troubled and uncomfortable times. Ouch!) Though they have been unseen since November, I know that aquatic frogs, whose mad splashing and syncopated belching delight me when conditions allow, now lie in a semifreddo hibernation on top of the muck at the bottom of my backyard water gardens. The weeds have mostly likewise made their retreat, but they have posted rhizomes and roots and seeds like sentries on stakeouts so they can recapture territory for each of the invader species the minute conditions are deemed favorable. That will be no time soon; we all have months to go, whatever our intentions. I shouldn’t even think such thoughts, though, as they stir the start of a shiver no socks or sweatshirt can insulate against. How much longer; how many more times must we call for the gravel spreader to liberate us, or have the oil tank retopped?
We must wait, because the year ushers itself in at 42.11°N latitude and 73.51°W longitude—the center of my universe, and my center of gravity—not all fluid and cooperative and available, but typically quite inhospitably frozen, as if to say just go away. Many sometime-resident songbirds did just that, and other creatures burrowed underground or into a crevice somewhere before the current realities set in, in rock or trunk or maybe even in my penetrable old foundation and the holey basement it pretends to enclose. Brrr, baby, brrr.
On the most brutal days, sap, soil, and every surface is as solid and cold as ice, or even enclosed in or bursting at the seams with water’s winter avatar, since it’s not that things like silt or clay or sand or gravel or rocks freeze, exactly—it’s all about the pores. The water that filled the pore spaces between those particles of soil, or between bits of stone large and small or any other void it could find, has been transformed to pore ice, taking up more room as a solid than it did in liquid state. Ouch again. Up comes the fencepost; there go the Heuchera I tucked in a little too late last fall in the bed along the front walkway. Such levitation acts are going on (unsanctioned by me) behind the curtain of snow, I know they are. Ice is the puppeteer; all of us are merely its marionettes, and for my part I am inclined to lose my footing with regularity when in its not-so-nonskid grip. My bone density scan indicates this is a bad place to be right now.
I live on seasonally frozen ground this time of year, like more than half the land in the Northern Hemisphere, an equation whose main causal factors are temperature and water. But other than in such violent heaving as always befalls my Heuchera, or when the wind gets really bossy, or when I dare to try to walk over to the sand-and-salt bucket to treat the driveway when I should be crawling, we are all—living and nonliving things here alike right now—joined in a suspended animation of sorts, or at least on notice not to push it; to take things really, really slow. Trees dare not bend too far; I, too, hear my joints popping in complaint when I climb the stairs each night (or even late afternoon, when I have had it with days that go dark at four and cannot endure an upright position of attention a moment past five).
We wait, all of us—though some more quietly and uncomplainingly than others.
THIS IS MY TWENTY-FIFTH WINTER in this place, though I suppose I am stretching it a bit to say this piece of land and I have endured twenty-five winters of each other’s company. It’s only since the closing days of 2007 that we have lived together nonstop. In that time, I have spent only a single night away, to lecture in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2011. We are constant companions now, yes—truthfully, neither of us has anywhere else to go or to be—but you know how that is: Some days are frankly better than others. And some are downright rocky, even when you have paid your dues in time and attentiveness, as we both have, each in our own way.
Perhaps the garden’s and mine is a long marriage by virtue of the very fact that for most of those years we were long-distance lovers, unable to be together more than weekends and vacations. I had a job, and it fed both of us, keeping us in shovels and seeds, so off I went each Sunday night or Monday morning after another embrace or temporary fusion of a gardener and her garden, each an all-too-brief encounter. I had to support my spendthrift darling, who always had a real jones for plants that I was happy to indulge. As it goes with all such geographically challenged affairs, though, you reach a moment where either you break up or one of you must relocate, and the garden wouldn’t move. That’s why I live here today.
Twenty-five years. Looking out the window right now, I think how fitting it is that to commence our quarter-centennial, nature delivered to us a gleaming tundra—a nonstop silvery winter landscape, a gift wrapping, if not a gift exactly. Its windblown surface is wildly beautiful if also a bit overwhelming, not unlike the way I feel about the garden beneath the surface when the wrapper melts and (s)he gets naked and shows her truer, needier side.
Happy silver anniversary, baby. I’m sorry that I always try to push you around, and make you do things that don’t come naturally. I’m sorry that I am a control freak and a critic, even worse, walking around with my stupid clipboard muttering about and noting your vulnerable parts that I deem to be in need of cosmetic surgery (look who’s talking), but never making similarly bulleted, exclamation-pointed lists of your many assets. Was your life better when you had more privacy, and weekdays to yourself?
We try to make each other happy—we really do—but sometimes, well, (s)he can be a little relentless and demanding, or at least that’s my side of the story. I assume I would be accused of being distracted and even neglectful; of spending too much time staring out at the situation or writing my ridiculous to-do lists rather than taking action—of letting her let herself go. Relationships, particularly long ones, take patience and passion both, two words springing from one root—the Latin pati-, “to suffer,” whose past participle is pass-, meaning “to feel,” or “suffer,” or “endure,” or “submit.” (Makes you want to ask your doctor to start calling you a client, doesn’t it? At least the root of that word only means “to listen, follow, obey,” which beats suffering.)
“Patience is passion tamed,” wrote the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century progressive Congregationalist clergyman Lyman Abbott, who also confessed a fondness for flowers but not for dirt, preferring to buy rather than grow his blooms. Smart man; it saves a lot of heartache, laundry soap, strokes of a stiff brush—and time.
Winter, in particular, takes a taming of one’s passion and extended patience. Things are locked up tight, and there is no set day marked for the reopening, though for me summer, with its sometimes-blazing heat and potential shortage of rain resources, is the most hard-hearted time of all.
DEEP FREEZE OR NO, the garden never closes. Yes, I am upstairs burrowing—though not as productively as the local female black bear, who actually often delivers her young while in hibernation in January or February. My other fair-weather cohabitants are underground or underwater or gone south, but even in an old-fashioned winter such as this one’s proving to be, the garden never closes.
Each fall, gardening friends can be heard swapping tales of garden cleanup and whatever the year’s aberrant weather brought, while also sounding their annual lament: “The season’s almost over,” they say, the level of their voiced despair growing louder as each week passes. “Another year gone.” Maybe I am just stubborn—not a bad quality to have when you work a steep hillside in USDA Hardiness Zone 5B—but such talk rankles me. I see no evidence that the garden is ever really out of season. Not even today, at 19 degrees Fahrenheit with thirteen inches of snow on the ground. It doesn’t close up shop or shut its doors on me or to visual enjoyment. It never stops teaching, either, making its at-once spectacular, scientific, and sensual appeals for awareness. The local garden centers may need to stand idle a portion of each year, between the last Christmas tree strapped to a car roof for the trip home (fa la la la la, la la la la!) and the first flat of violas or pansies put out for sale just over three months later, but not the landscape itself.
And so, stubbornly and defiantly all these years, at first accidentally and lately more intentionally as my knowledge has grown, I suppose I have made a garden for 365 days. Good thing I did, since I now live in it year-round, having left my career, paycheck, and the relentless city for a place where not much else is on the social calendar but staring out at it or writing about it or being outside in it, depending on the time of day and year.
Hear my confession: To make a year-round garden was not my plan, or at least not a conscious one I could have explained when I began digging holes on an overgrown, bramble-infested bit of Columbia County, New York, land, a steep tract two-plus hours and a world away from Manhattan, where full wheelbarrows fight against maintaining an upright position and carefully applied mulch relocates great distances downhill at the slightest provocation in the form of a downpour. The spot had little more to recommend it horticulturally beyond a half-dozen very old apples, two big conifers, and a mismatched trio of ancient lilacs—two pale lavender Syringa vulgaris, sort of your basic old-time garden variety, and one a slightly less typical silvery-blue variant. My 365-day garden style was actually a happy side effect—but in this case my curiosity about birds was the catalyst.
Because birds’ needs vary at different times of year, I read up and intentionally filled the garden with plants to satisfy them—and in the process unintentionally surrounded myself with plants that do more than flower momentarily and then just stand there, the way a lilac does, or (shudder) a forsythia. I call that ubiquitous yellow upchuck “vomit of spring,” and prefer to look at it from a distance, like the two very large unpruned old Forsythia x intermedia far beyond my fence line that probably once marked a long-gone farmhouse’s drive. The genus Viburnum, for instance, became one of my original collectibles, as I sought among its many species a self-serve automat of summer fruit, fall fruit, and even some winter fruit to sustain avian visitors who were raising families, traveling onward, or staying here into the tough times and somehow keeping warm. Fruit comes from pollinated flowers, so (in pursuit of fruit) I got the blooms to enjoy in spring—and in some cases good fall foliage, too (though that had nothing to do with the reproductive process the way the flowers did). It was from plants like these that I learned that the garden was willing to show off without a day off—and also attract the maximum number of birds if only I helped it a little with some strategic decisions (more specifics on how to make a bird-friendly garden are in the sidebar on page 189).
Winter’s first major flock of cedar waxwings took on fall’s remaining supply of crabapples yesterday, for instance, and I got an even better view when they came to drink at the frog pond this morning, treating the floating deicer as a pontoon from which to launch maneuvers. Like his accidental mother, Jack is a birdwatcher. He is, for good reason—to protect songbirds—not allowed outdoors during daylight hours unsupervised. But he’s content these days to watch the feline “Discovery Channel” I have long called Cat Network TV through the windows and glass doors pretty much all day, or at least between naps and meals. These crisply painted birds with their crested heads and masked faces home in on off-season fruit in the garden, such as the hollies’ and the crabapples’ and the eastern red cedar’s (Juniperus virginiana), from which the waxwings get part of their name. I have a giant such tree in my front yard, and I can watch them from my bed each morning, which, because the site is so precipitous, is on a level with the top third of the juniper—not something I planted myself, or planned. Knowing what I know now about the pleasure of birdwatching in bed, however, I would highly recommend figuring this angle of observation into a garden design. Bed as treehouse? Dreamy.
That from-inside-out anecdote is an example of the other important thing I know about garden design, another insight I got inadvertently as well, simply because I never sit down in the garden long enough to really view it from outdoors. Out there, I am typically doing something—weeding, dragging hoses, mowing (or simply panicking, which takes a lot of time, but is good exercise if you pace or stagger about and wring your hands while in the throes). It’s from indoors that most of my garden viewing takes place—including long hours just watching in the colder-weather months such as today—a fact that motivated me to make the “off-season” scenery more inviting with massed winterberry hollies, colorful twig willows and dogwoods, or remarkable conifers, for instance, on various axes from my favorite seats. Looking out the window is where any home landscape design process must begin (see the Garden Design 101 sidebar, page 11).
GARDEN DESIGN 101: LOOK OUT THE WINDOW
I am no garden designer over here, but this much I know: Look out the window if you want to make a garden. That’s step 1; that’s where the siting of a successful home landscape should begin. After all, as a gardener, aren’t you usually working, not viewing, when you’re outdoors? With that in mind, here’s my pretty basic Garden Design 101 for Real Gardeners:
Ask yourself this: Where do you see your garden from most often, and at what time of year? Where does the magical light of various times of day, or year, happen to catch your eye? For me, it’s a few places. The best seat in the house is the dining-room table, where I often plunk my laptop and heaps of messiness when writing, and where I just generally like to be. (So does Jack, who adores the west view in winter in particular.) It’s technically the center of the house, and I can see a long way due west from my old Chinese wooden chair, and also pretty far south, with a short easterly snapshot as well… so those directions, starting at the point of my favorite chair and emanating outward, are the primary axes of my garden. From my bedroom window, and also from my bathroom, where I chose a clear shower curtain because the view’s so good, I see the bird’s-eye view of a similar westward scene. The garden stretches out to the west from where I see it, and gets backlit in the afternoons to boot. Nice.
Along that axis are some spring things, including viburnums and lilacs, to draw the eye in each of those moments, but mostly I use foliage, which is typically longer-lasting than a single plant’s bloom period. Gold foliage does a great job of screaming. Heading west, the eye stops for a second at a gold cutleaf sumac, Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’, for example (better known by its patented name Tiger Eyes), and then, way in the distance, a grouping of carefully placed gold-leaf Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, and the ghost bramble, Rubus cockburnianus (which has white stems in winter once its yellow leaves drop) just shy of those will signal to me April through November or even December, in the case of the spiraea, after the closer-in things have had their moment. I place a big, potted red-leaf Japanese maple on the one corner of the terrace to the west, echoing the little red shed door in the same direction. The terrace itself, sited perpendicularly to the house as if it were an old foundation of a wing or garage that no longer exists, does a good job of commanding attention as well, a platform for staging potted gardens.
On a flatter site that lends itself more to linearity, the botanical barkers could be something as loud as an allee—or you could use a nonliving element to announce a destination, such as a bench, a statue, or a structure.
I mostly stick to plants here, and being greedy, I want good company when it’s not “gardening season,” too. Even after the leaves have fallen, a mass of maybe twenty winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata) shouts from all the way west near the fence line, forming a wall of red—my long-distance view from October to January or so, which looks like so many holiday ornaments strung up out there in the shrubbery. When working on long axes, remember to amp up the impact with multiples of each element.
Due south from the best seat in the house is the bigger of the two homemade frog ponds, watched over by the Indonesian buddha, who stares right back at me through closed eyes, and straight uphill from him an increasingly massive copper beech I planted more than twenty years ago. I don’t have to move to see them. When I work in the kitchen, I am treated to the scene of a nearby magnolia that’s underplanted with many little treasures to entertain me whether it’s March (the first minor bulbs) or November; the aging magnolia’s massive gray trunk itself is beautiful 365 days.
And then there’s one particular living-room window that catches my eye most of all when I come down the stairs, as if to say hello each morning. To heighten its importance, perhaps fifteen feet beyond it lives a true four-season shrub: the red-twig dogwood Cornus sericea ‘Sunshine’, whose gold leaves scream in fair weather and whose red stems pick up the job in foul.
Did I know this when I started here twenty-five or so years ago—to look out the window and plan the garden accordingly? No, not at all; it still startles me that I managed to do this well, which I know is mostly because I didn’t overthink it. In famously twenty-twenty hindsight, I realize this was what was at work unconsciously: I was building a garden that I could enjoy, because it could be seen from where I really live when I’m not out there in the moment of doing it. I instinctively placed beds and created axes in spots I related to, being not just the gardener here but also the resident of the house’s interior. I have never regretted these somewhat accidental gut decisions.
Whether your best seat in the house is a deck or a den or a favorite reading chair for winter afternoons, or even the place where you stand a few minutes each day and brush your teeth, plant yourself some well-placed pictures to greet you, and you will be well on the way to a garden that works. One more thing: Sometimes people do visit, of course, and I guess I almost forgot my tip on that score, when it’s not all about me. Gussy up the front walkway—the first thing people who don’t live in the house will see (and, as a side benefit, the route you probably use yourself more days than not). Once inside, invite them to sit in your chair and enjoy the view.
Making any garden, but especially one with more than one-trick-pony performance in spring or summer, requires a combination of tactics, not all of them horticultural. There must be water that remains unfrozen, whatever the weather—even a little water, a trough or a birdbath or a small-scale inground pool with the right-sized floating heater to keep it open, not iced over. No other element works harder than water to sustain the garden’s community; we are all made of it. And yes, you must also select good plants with a range of features and peak moments, and site them well—easiest to accomplish by first going inside and looking out the window, imagining what the desired view is before digging any holes. But that’s all the intellectual part—make a water feature, choose multiseason plants—that’s part of the “how-to.”
I am fairly certain that to make a 365-day garden you must also learn all over again how to see—to see beyond the big blue Hydrangea and other obvious show-offs, right down to the shapes of buds and textural complexity of bark, and the way the play of light and shadow, sounds and smells, and even movement contribute to the living pictures. When I go lecture to garden groups, a process that builds to a crescendo of incessant (insane?) hand-waving as I speak, I always notice that I touch my chest reflexively when I talk about this last bit, as if to say, “You must learn to see with your heart; the eyes won’t do in the hardest months.” You must look viscerally, not somatically; it will take you in the direction of the light. This critical cultivation of the other senses forges a deeper communion between garden and gardener, and recognition of the one life cycle “it” and we are both part of. And that is where the “woo-woo” portion of my gardening equation comes into play: when that connection is made.
A dose of “woo-woo” definitely helps, particularly when you are looking out on the dead quiet of an old-fashioned snowy winter as I am now—quite a different scene from the one in May, or even October. Most days I can be patient, but at this moment I am the little girl I was on all those annual winter trips to Florida, hocking my weary parents from the backseat of the green Ford station wagon: Are we there yet?
I DO TEND TO TAKE A BIRD’S-EYE VIEW, even from my preferred vantage point on solid ground. During a break in a big storm one night, I made the ritual rounds: shovel, sweep, salt, sand the walkways—and then somehow found my way to a few special conifers in the garden, high-stepping in my tallest boots. With gentle upward strokes, I moved to lighten the snow load on those who bear their burdens badly, but whom I could not bear to lose.
Whoosh! Out from the invisible interior of one tree’s limbs burst a spray of dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), like four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. Oops, but also: Aha! What a startling reminder for uncertain times that would seek to blow us off course or ruffle our feathers: best to just hunker down and wait it out. If creatures weighing in at just over three-quarters of an ounce can find shelter in a storm, so can I.
This is how it is between me and the birds: a constant dialogue, even when they are not singing. Like my grade-school teachers bringing a wiggly class to order, or the Zen master sounding the alert anytime, birds always seem to be calling, Attention! Attention! I openly admit to paying them heed, since to do otherwise would be to forgo some of nature’s most instructive and inspiring object lessons. The birds are guides, totems, and trusted friends. I count on them, so it is a small price to grow all those hollies to provide lipid-rich wintertime fruit, or fill the feeder and keep the frog pools unfrozen all winter, where the birds don’t just drink but also bathe—feathery shades of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club.
Not wishing to disturb anyone either botanical or avian, I use a household broom on some shrubby conifers, always working with an upward action—no rough stuff, either—because the coated branches are heavy enough without me pulling them downward that way, and can be brittle if the weather’s really cold. I used to use an apple-picker with a red basketlike contraption on one end, but I seem to have misplaced it many years ago—if you can misplace something ten feet long that does not fold or otherwise voluntarily shrink from view. But a broom can only extend my reach so far, and this is not ladder weather. For the upper reaches, I have repurposed a twelve-foot length of ¾-inch quarter-round molding from the lumberyard, a piece left over from some long-ago home renovation that serves its unintended task well; adaptive reuse. It’s strong but flexible, the best combination of qualities in so many situations both botanical and otherwise—bend but don’t break, baby—and I weave the flexible piece of wood up through the branches and then kind of jiggle it as if it were a lasso minus the noose at one end. My action causes a reverberation up top that shakes loose the snow without seeming to harm anything. It’s all in the wrist.
The reincarnated molding-that-wasn’t serves for tackling beginning icicles on the eaves that would in time form dams on the roof, too, if I let them get ahead of me—or if the winter is just too incredibly mean, like this one wants to show me it can be. Bully. But I go at it anyhow, eyes ever roofward toward a harsh and frozen heaven. Think pole-vaulter without the liftoff; me and my long strong-but-flexible stick. I’ve got all the moves, but I never quite get off the ground.
I DO SLIGHTLY CRAZY THINGS, but I have my reasons—or so I tell myself on the attempted rebound from each questionable episode as I dust or dry off and apply the appropriate balm or bandage. I blame the garden, and the water gardens I dug twenty-odd years ago in the backyard are particular culprits in my many mini-demises. Lead me not into temptation? Nonsense. A girl can really take a walk on the wild side in any season when there is a large water-filled hole, plumbing parts, and electricity involved, all ringed with irregularly shaped, winter-wobbly, summer-slippery paving stones that drop off abruptly at the man-made shoreline. If I were an Olympic diver, the move I made last night would have a degree of difficulty of 3.6, though I hoped to skip the somersaults and never even hit the water, with or without a clean entry.
For this attempt to rescue my frog pond’s inhabitants from death by suffocation under ice (apparently the floating electric deicer meant to do so failed), it was almost dark, air temperature 7 degrees Fahrenheit, winds eighteen miles per hour. The approach: Snow shovel at the ready, I maneuver through thigh-high drifts maybe halfway to where I approximate the snow-covered copingstones begin at the pool’s edge, just under thirty feet from the kitchen door. I cannot be sure since this all-white moonscape renders even my familiar backyard devoid of landmarks or perspective; I could be anywhere. In that last stretch of the journey, though—maybe for the final ten feet—I stop tromping through the deep white camouflage and dig a trench wide enough for my body and then some.
Before I lower myself into what I all the while try to avoid imagining may be my grave, I gently slide my shovel back behind me in the trench. Not gently enough: Like a luge on a well-prepared track the tool travels scarily fast to the end of the icy surface, jumping up and out onto the deep snow where my excavation project ends. Note to self: Move slowly. Or else. Then I lie facedown in the glacial hollow, now filled not with fresh snow that had some traction—the stuff I’d tossed aside—but with the residue of last week’s and last month’s precipitation, compressed, collapsed layers of the freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw slippery variety. This is the first prostration; I surrender to the holy water. I am hoping my head and shoulders are positioned near the pool’s edge now, but I cannot tell what starts or ends where, pool-wise, because ice covers its surface. That’s how I knew something was wrong and embarked on this mission: I had by chance looked out the upstairs window just before dusk, and the pool’s surface was all one color—white—meaning no yin-yang dark-light blend of unfrozen-frozen, such as it remains when the floating deicer is functional. In good times, open water reads as nearly black; ice as white. All black would be all right, but not all white.
Next I stretch my left arm almost beyond its reach hoping to find the outlet I know is positioned on the low wall behind the pool. Always best to power things off before attempting a repair, even if they seem to have oh-so-inconveniently done that themselves already. If I am guessing right, it should be about here, I calculate, and I dig in the snow with a gloved, outstretched hand, not a tool, to locate the gray metal trapdoor to the ground fault circuit interrupter box. Jamming a shovel in the vague direction of a buried electrical device seems imprudent. Bingo. I have found, and pulled, the floating heater’s plug.
Oh, but shit. Where is some small electrical device—a night-light or anything I should have carried to test whether there is power getting to the duplex at all, whether it’s the plug or the appliance that’s kaput? Forgotten. No turning back now; assuming it’s live, I need to disable the box, too. (Buy one of those pen-sized voltage testers, Margaret, won’t you?) Off with a glove, and then, a Braille-like moment of running a fast-freezing finger over the face of the now-empty duplex. I’m feeling for six holes and—if I can find them—two nearly flat buttons each half as wide as my pinky fingernail but elusively set almost flush with the rest of the works. Oh where are the buttons and which one is off? Groping, groping. Ah!
Finally. Onward; there is other work to do. From the pockets of my warmest jacket, which is nowhere near warm enough for lying in an icy ditch—um, do breasts get frostbite?—I grab a flashlight in one hand, and in the other, a hammer.
And now, finally, the big move itself, the one I came out here for: to crack the ice somehow before it’s too late. I am lucky; it’s not too thick yet. Banging on ice isn’t very friendly to those who slumber beneath, but neither is suffocation from a lack of gas exchange. Had it been thicker—oh, right now I can’t even think about that possibility, not until I thaw myself a bit, but failure would have involved a metal mixing bowl set on top of the ice dosed up with endless refills of boiling water to gradually melt a hole. It would have required lots of trips back and forth over a glazed surface with a steaming kettle in one hand to this impossible spot on this impossible night.
I have broken through, but I am not done. Can I get the heater to work after all? I have a backup I can try—or is it in fact the plug? Seems so. My hands can’t take this kind of work for long in these conditions, so I must soon surrender. Repairs to be continued.
Low-tech Plan B, requiring many fewer trips than the mixing-bowl scenario: I repeated the hammering periodically throughout the night, setting the alarm at three-hour intervals, to protect my beloved amphibians. Who needs beauty sleep, when potential princes are at risk? Damn the complexion, and what’s another cracked and bloody cuticle among many? A gardener—especially one with a frog pond in wintertime and friends who sleep therein—must be versatile, well equipped, and ever at the window, watching for beauty, yes, but for trouble, too.
IN MY VERY FLUID IMAGINATION, one thematic current of youth long past goes like this:
No school today! Mrs. Schelling cannot torture me about my awkward penmanship, a casualty of skipping third grade when apparently the art of smoothing blocky capitals into connected shapes was taught, or the fact that I—yes, again, ma’am—seem to have left my wooden recorder home. Freedom. It is Saturday morning, and I pedal my hefty pink-and-white-and-silver Schwinn down to the pet store, streamers catching the wind of my locomotion. Two long walls of stacked glass aquariums on heavy welded-iron stands hold countless tropical fish—hundreds of gleaming neon tetras, their metallic bodies striped blue and red; silver tiger barbs, whose black markings ran top to bottom instead; vivid orange platys; kissing gouramis the color of the palest pinky-peach inside of a shell, but pearlescent. Everyone shimmers, catching rays of simulated sunlight from fluorescent hoods that delineate the artificial tropospheres of their approximated tropics.
At first I imagined it was Mona who pedaled along with me on her bike, but of course my adult-brain reality check says it could not have been, for we would have had to cross busy Northern Boulevard unsupervised to get to Mr. Van Asch’s store that sat on the city line, straddling Queens and Nassau counties. That was beyond the limits of our privileges, I realize now, and of sanity or safety. Perhaps I biked there with Vivien, whose father kept giant tanks of salt- and freshwater fish in their basement, where in another alcove the female elders of her Hungarian family stocked brine-filled jars of pickles and other canned goods on heavy shelves, each awaiting its turn at the table. Glug, glug, glug.
Vivien lived on the same side of the boulevard as the pet store, but even so, I did not—so how did this all work?—but no matter, because in the fusion of accurate images sometimes recombined inaccurately that forms my story of growing up, I rode my bike there, and often. Creative license.
However I found my way, I can state without much hesitation that Elodea and sword plants were my first attempts at growing botanical things of any kind. I buried their rubber-banded, cut-off ends in gravel long before I sliced into any soil, and I confess that I included their plastic counterparts—yes, artificial plants, and not even good, believable ones in those days—in the submersed designs. My horticultural roots are not in the landscape but as an aquascaper; the first magazine after Highlights for Children that I subscribed to: Tropical Fish Hobbyist. It would be another decade or so before I traded up, literally, to above-the-surface-focused publications such as Horticulture or the Royal Horticultural Society’s The Garden. Maybe I should have stuck to aquariums and the similarly contrived, contained terrariums that have come and gone as a passion a few times in this life to date, too. Everything looks so much more manageable in a garden where a tweezer is the biggest tool, and no one can creep (or swim) out of bounds, beyond the glass walls.
I can also say with certainty that those dozens of Saturdays and thousands of other hours spent staring into watery worlds—and the happy gurgling and splashing provided by a charcoal-and-glass-wool filter that I’d dutifully change each week without being told—was the training camp for my older years as friend of frogs. It also explains the four pet-store comets (goldfish-like, they can live in water as cold as 35° and do here out back in winter). Feeding fish is something I have almost always done each day, like drinking tea or washing my hair. Water soothes, transports, cleanses.
It is a sad time of year when the bedroom window must shut to cold, cutting me off from the sound of the water gardens. At first it’s just now and then, a chilly evening or two, and eventually for good, when seriously cold nights one after another force me to close down the pump mechanisms sometime in November, so that the just-a-bigger-diameter version of the tubing I brought home in my bike basket doesn’t freeze. Bubble, bubble, toil and (sometimes) trouble—but also pure delight.
WATER MADE ME DO IT. It was probably an upbringing beside a silt-choked bay that made me an organic gardener when I finally put shovel to soil instead of hook, line, and sinker into the drink, or an algae scraper into a twenty-gallon tank. Life beside the bay also formed me as someone who doesn’t eat fish or other seafood, despite growing up in a household where kippered herring were not uncommon breakfast fare—and in case anyone had thoughts of sleeping in, think again: There is no alarm signal quite like the smell of those nasty little filets simmering in milk on top of the range. Paella was a dinner-party specialty of my father’s, or if the weather permitted a clambake, the family even actually drank the gritty broth from the double-boiler-like granitewear contraption he had steamed the bivalves in. Each such day I—the milkman’s daughter—prayed that someone might throw me a culinary life preserver.
Long before I learned about the implied meanings of so-called “signal words” on household and gardening products—revealing whether a substance is merely worthy of “caution” or rather rates a prominent “warning,” or even “danger,” and possibly even “poison,” too—I had my own evaluating system, basically guided by my nose. I still remember my first experiences with the chemical aisle of the garden center, and how you could find it without looking at the overhead signs or asking. But what came first in olfactory memory was a whiff of what was dumping into the bay.
Giant pipes carrying storm runoff and with it presumably some effluent from hundreds of local septic systems jutted through the water side of the seawall ringing our town, pouring into Little Neck Bay where New York City meets Long Island on its north shore. Eventually, in the late 1960s, big rigs undertook a dredging project, and we finally all started to use the word “pollution” with regularity, as if it had just been discovered—or perpetrated for the very first time. Such sights taught me an early, lasting lesson about humankind’s formidable waste stream, and especially its impact on those creatures (literally) downstream from it, who can’t run, or fly, or swim away—mollusks, for example, such as the American hard-shelled clam that was once an edible prize of local waters. Equipped with one primitive “foot” more suited for burying themselves than traveling, it is hard to go anywhere, even if their habitat got clogged with deposits that didn’t make a suitable bed any longer, and loaded with toxins they couldn’t filter out with their set of long siphons the way they might a too-big chunk of something more benign.
THE POLITICS OF SEED-SHOPPING
I have been heartened in recent years to see some catalogs giving more real estate to organic seed. But why care? What difference does it make if the tiny seeds I start with were organically grown, as long as when I plant them, I follow environmentally sound cultural practices? I worry about contributing to pollution that “flows upstream”—and also want a seed that’s well adapted to my garden, where I adhere to organic methods. I don’t think commercially produced seed always addresses those concerns.
Unlike many vegetable crops we grow to eat—which are typically picked young and tender, and therefore grown for a shorter time—the same plant cultivated for a seed harvest must be grown to a much older age, requiring much more water, fertilizer, and chemical controls against pests and diseases. Seed crops require these “high inputs”; they are coddled, and regulations on chemical usage when raising them are also looser than on growing the same vegetable for the food market. Besides the pollution and waste of water resources this results in, it fails to do something else really important: It yields seed strains that “expect” this kind of pampering—not ones that are well adapted to organic conditions in our home gardens, where we (hopefully!) don’t rush in with a chemical at every turn of events, or prop things up on synthetics as a quick-fix substitute for diligent soil care.
There is not sufficient organically produced seed of every variety that gardeners, or farmers, might like to grow to say, “Buy only certified organic seed always”—and besides, many seed growers who are not technically certified are farming responsibly without a dependence on chemicals. Demand for ethically produced seed can foster supply, so I for one am sending more dollars in the OG seed direction when it’s available—happily paying a premium price for those packets—and being sure to buy the rest from vendors who meet other standards, even if they or their products are not “certified organic.”
If there’s no organic seed, that’s OK with me—but I am inflexible about this one thing: I shop for seeds for my edibles only from companies that take the Safe Seed Pledge, committing to not knowingly using or selling any genetically modified, or GM, seed, properly called transgenic hybrids. More than one hundred companies have signed since the pledge was initiated in 1999 by Vermont-based High Mowing Organic Seeds, a mail-order vendor specializing in certified organic product.
Excerpted from The Backyard Parables by Margaret Roach Copyright © 2013 by Margaret Roach. Excerpted by permission.
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