Somewhere about July 14th I was trying to finish spreading my crazy enormous pile of mulch (like we’re talking 12-15 cubic yards). I had covered every square inch of the gardens and there was some leftover, so I decided to tackle the south side of my neighbor’s garage, which they ignore completely but which I must look at through the largest window in my house. Weed trees and belladonna and plantain (the weed, not the banana) and other weeds had run rampant. There was an elm that was already two stories high, which I decided to keep as a replacement for the giant sugar maple we had to cut down last year. There was a black walnut sapling that had to go. And the English Ivy was stretching and reaching across our driveway, intent on eating it on the way to our house.
If they won’t care for it, I will. So I starting to trim and pull and dig and lop and edge and mulch. And all was looking very nice. I got about halfway done when the manuscript I was listening to came to the end and I needed to get back to work inside.
The next day, I saw them. Angry red bumps that swiftly bloated to taut, bulbous blisters. I puzzled over this. There was no juniper in there (I’m allergic to juniper). There was the elm that I trimmed. Perhaps I was allergic to that? I’d seen elm on the list of things my son had recently been tested for allergies. Since we were off to camp later that week, I went to the urgent care.
“Were you in contact with poison ivy?”
“No. I haven’t been in the woods and my yard is all cultivated and I know exactly what’s in there and I don’t have poison ivy. There was my neighbor’s weedy area, but there’s no poison ivy in there.”
Steroids. Calamine lotion. And home to look up poison ivy.
Yep. I was in contact with poison ivy. I’d never, in 34 years of romping through forests, encountered it. I thought the leaves were much smaller. But there it was.
So…three weeks later, I’m still itching and pretty miserable.
Do yourself a favor and avoid this:
Also, it feels like maybe there’s a lesson in here about minding my own business and not meddling and not needing everything outside to be perfect…
But there’s also a lesson for neglectful property owners in here about taking care of your yard and not exasperating and infecting your neighbor with poisonous weeds.
My roses are mostly pink…
…but why miss an opportunity to share some lovely Robert Burns with you?
When I was a kid, we had a standard garden plan each year from which we rarely deviated. Constant structure was provided by groomed yew bushes. Red geraniums, dusty miller, and a spike plant populated the flower boxes. The shady side yard became home to multicolored impatiens. The only perennials were a common bleeding heart plant that appeared by the apple tree and an ever-expanding patch of peppermint I had started with transplants from the Heritage House, an old museum of a house by the junior high school we all toured as part of our well-rounded education.
When I started my own garden, I was very interested in creating expansive perennial gardens, inspired by my mother-in-law’s beautiful garden and the glossy pages of her many gardening books and magazines. I envisioned a riotous cottage garden bursting with extravagant flowers all summer. But it’s harder to get constant color than you might think, and I realized at some point that the only moment those gardens in magazines looked perfect was on the day the photos were taken. I’ve also had to adjust my expectations of my back yard garden as I take into account the heavy shade, the heavy soil, the walnut tree that slowly poisons many other types of plants.
Just as with my new garden bed around my new tree and that immovable stump, you have to work with what you’ve got. You can spend years amending the soil, trimming trees, and doing lots of extra watering or fertilizing to get your ideal garden to thrive. Or you can simply look for plants that will be happy in the conditions you already have. And when we start looking at our current situations as opportunities rather than liabilities, we’re a lot happier.
As time goes by and my gardens evolve and new varieties of hostas and huecheras and many other plants are developed, I find I’m just as happy with the many textures and shades of green you can get with the right assortment of plants as I would have been with a garden of nothing but flowers. The above photo collage shows just a few of these.
It’s not hard to extrapolate this lesson into the rest of life. Even when we’re not in the exact job or relationship or state of personal or professional development we might want to be, we can find ways to thrive right where we are. We may need to adjust our expectations. Or we may simply need to recognize that there are different opportunities waiting for us to take advantage of them. You know the term “bloom where you’re planted.” But maybe you don’t even need to bloom right at this moment. Maybe you just want to be a cool green plant with lots of texture. Be assured that you’re just as interesting that way (and a heck of a lot less trouble to keep happy).
We’ve hit that point of the year when the days start really flying and we’re busy with life and it’s hard to find time or inclination to sit down and reflect for a few minutes. The past week was a flurry of activity and merriment with friends and family as we celebrated our son’s birthday four separate times (2 with grandparents, 1 with our family, 1 with all his funny little friends at his party at the dojo).
During the same week I realized that it was past time to finish getting the vegetable gardens planted and transplanting some perennials. I finally planted a new tree in the front yard to replace the ice storm-damaged crabapple after two friends worked hard trying to remove the old stump (alas, strange planting practices from a former era foiled them as the entire root structure was intertwined with heavy duty wire that fiercely resisted the ax). So we planted the tree a little further into the yard and were left with a stump. What to do? Create another garden!
With a spade, a wheelbarrow, and my neighbor’s tiller I made a new bed Sunday afternoon and began populating it with divisions and transplants from other areas of my gardens, plus a few new varieties of hostas from a friend. I still have more plants from her house that need to go in the back yard, and lots of work to do back there expanding some of the shadiest parts of the garden into areas where it is clear after eight years that grass simply will not grow.
As much as I wish I could do that all week, I have lots of “real” work to do. My publishing company recently acquired a line of books from another publisher and so there is a lot of work to do to aid the transition. So you’ll find me at my desk most of the week, scouring someone else’s copy, making corrections, and checking a little box to import it into our own database. Tedious work, but someone has to do it!
Maybe when I need a break from sitting I’ll pop outside and pull some weeds.
I’ve once more been in the throes of novel revision during the past couple weeks, adding subplot and subtext, honing here, shaping there, putting everything just so before sending it all off to hands waiting in the cybersphere. At the same time I have been forced to pay closer attention to my vegetable garden as the heat and rain combine forces, spurring on quick growth and a crop of weeds that must be eradicated.
It occurs to me, as I consider these two activities, that writing a novel is much like plotting out and planting a garden. If you start with nothing, just a bit of land and some muscle power and some seeds and plant starts, you can, through hard work and sweat make bare dirt into food. You can make this happen…
And if you start with nothing, just a blank Word doc and some brain power and the barest germ of an idea, you can, through hard work, make bare creative impulse into engaging fiction.
In fact, here are 14 ways writing a novel is like growing your own vegetables:
1. You till the soil. You prepare your mind to be receptive to writing ideas (these are your seeds) so that when the seeds are planted it is into a mind that is already at work helping them to grow. In gardening this means removing rocks, adding nutrients, and loosening the soil. In writing it means removing obstacles to creativity (like, say, forgetting to worry about the state of your house or waistline for awhile), adding muse-bait (taking more walks in the woods, traveling to some interesting places, or playing hours of Mario Cart–whatever helps you think creatively), and loosening up your writing muscles (by blogging, writing short stories, writing poetry–heck, even a Twitter tirade could get you loose).
2. You plan the layout. You can’t just dump a bunch of different seeds together and expect your garden to grow. You have to plan. For some people that may look like lots of drawing and erasing and drawing again on paper, scouring reference books for light requirements and companion plantings, and whipping out a protractor and one of those chalk line thingies. For others it’s just getting everything in line in your head before diving in head first with a shovel. Whatever your method, whether you’re a compulsive outliner or a free associating free spirit, you need to have some idea of your goals and how all the different parts of your garden will interact with each other. Otherwise you end up with a big mess on your hands come August and a lot of extra work as you try to fix your errors.
3. You plant the first seeds. These are the cold-hardy seeds that just need some thawed ground and the strengthening spring sunlight to get started. They’re your strongest ideas, the ones you can’t get out of your head, the ones that persist despite bad weather and not writing them down. Don’t worry about a late frost. Just get those suckers in the ground so they can get growing. Seeds don’t grow unless they’re planted. Your garden, your novel, will never happen if you don’t take a leap of faith and trust that the strongest ideas will survive.
4. You water. Here’s where you give those seeds a little push. When you write, what is it that helps you develop your ideas into something approaching a story? Whatever that is–giving yourself a word count or time goal, doing character sketches, etc.–do that.
5. You wait. Put your work away for a bit and let things start to happen. In the garden, beneath the soil where you can’t see, roots and shoots begin to grow. In your mind, the same thing happens when you put your writing aside for a while, get some distance, and let things develop beneath the surface.
6. You plant the next wave of seeds. While you were waiting, I bet you got some new seeds, didn’t you? Plant those when the time is right. Some seeds can’t be planted until the soil is warm. Some ideas don’t occur to us until we’ve already gotten started and the story gets going.
7. You water. Again. Keep an eye on those little ideas you’ve planted and don’t let them struggle for life on their own.
8. You wait. Again. No matter how much we may want to sometimes, we can’t force a garden to grow and we can’t force a good story to develop faster than it should. Time is a writer’s best friend and we should try to work with it.
9. You plant some baby plants. Remember that scene you cut from your last writing project? That subplot you’ve been dying to find a place for? Those are your baby plants. They’re already pretty far along and sometimes you can find just the right place to plant them in your current writing project. Don’t force them in if there’s not enough room for them. But sometimes they’re just what you need to make your garden whole and productive.
10. You water. Again.
11. You wait. Again.
12. You weed. Ah. And here is where it can get tricky, time consuming, and hurt your back. Sometimes you won’t know what’s wanted and what’s a weed. Very early on, it’s really hard to tell sometimes because seedlings can look very much the same. But if you let all these ideas develop a bit (through watering and waiting) eventually the weeds will show their true colors. Those things that stick out, don’t belong, and aren’t productive? Pull them out! And when you look over your work again and find that a new crop of weeds has popped up, pull those out too! Don’t let weeds take over your garden or your crops will suffer (and it will just look like one big mess).
13. Repeat steps 10 through 12 as many times as necessary. I’ve lost count on my first novel MS. But the number of times isn’t important. What’s important is that you repeat these steps as often as is necessary in your particular story garden.
14. Finally, you harvest. At some point, if you have been diligent and attentive, you will have a harvest. A lovely, verdant, productive garden that you are eager to share with others (because you can’t keep all that great food to yourself!). What you do with your harvest is up to you. Self-publish? Find an agent? Give it away for free?
But one thing is sure: you’ll never have anything to share if you don’t plan, plant, have patience, pull up the weeds, and put your back into it! So get out there and get dirty.