We’ve been experiencing some very autumny weather the past couple days in mid-Michigan, which makes it the perfect time to start ripping out spent vegetable plants and replacing them with some perennial transplants. Since we plan to put the house on the market in the spring, there’s no reason to plant a labor-intensive vegetable garden next year, so I’m going to be filling those empty spaces with some perennials from the front yard that are crowding each other out and need some more breathing room.
The first immigrants to the back yard are four squat little hostas with chartreuse leaves that were in too sunny a spot in the front yard since the ice storm took the crabapple tree a couple years ago; a couple lady’s mantle that were crowding an evergreen shrub (and, as it turns out, hiding the cell phone my husband lost a month ago); and three lavender plants that had been subsumed by overzealous golden marguerites this summer. I also took two more lady’s mantle and put them in my front door urns to replace the annuals that burnt when we were away at camp. Once the tomato plants are done in a month or so I will fill up those spaces with other varieties of hosta and perhaps some cornflowers or black-eyed susans.
Strangely, I’m not that upset about not having a vegetable garden next year, despite the fun the boy and I have while planting it. This is largely because I must harvest my tomatoes before they are ripe in order to keep any of them from the ravenous red squirrels, who will take a few bites out of them once they start getting red and then leave them to rot on the ground or on fence posts. If I’m picking them before they are ripe, I may as well get them unripe at the store! So next year we will depend exclusively on the farmers market for our produce and make the backyard into an even more beautiful retreat to entice buyers.
Between last night and today, I’ve spent seven hours of intensive labor weeding, trimming, deadheading, and tidying up in the yard in the August heat. Good gracious. I had to take a nap this evening just to function enough to write this piddly little post. But when July is lost to swarms of mosquitoes and a week out of town, there sure is a lot to do when you finally get out there.
One of the things I have enjoyed over the past ten years as I have planted and transplanted my gardens is the challenge of getting blooms all season long and getting those blooms to “go” with one another. I haven’t always succeeded, but this year I’m seeing some lovely results from a decade of digging and trimming and watering.
In May, the gardens have a decisively purple tone.
In June, purple gives way to mostly pink.
In July, many blooms fade and foliage takes center stage.
And in August, things warm up with reds, oranges, and yellows.
There’s always something beautiful around me. It’s taken (and continues to take) a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it.
There was a semester in college when I had three classes that all lined up nicely in my brain and enhanced each other. I can’t remember now their exact names, but I know there was at least one history course, one English course, and something else. The stars aligned and nearly everything we talked about in one class helped my understanding in another. I felt very well-rounded during those few months.
This kind of synergy can happen in work, home, the books you’re reading, the news cycle. You can arrange it or let it be serendipitous, as it was for me just recently. It began with this book, which I read in April:
I’ve been an amateur naturalist, a conservationist, and an environmentalist since childhood, probably due to the large numbers of National Geographic nature documentaries I watched…
and the books I read, which all heavily featured animals, environments under pressure, or simply a deep connection to a particular place…
I’ve been keenly interested in the Christian environmental movement, which bases its conservation philosophy on the understanding that the Earth was placed in humankind’s care and stewardship and that we have a mandate to protect it and utilize its resources thoughtfully. I’ve always been troubled by the disconnect in the secular outlook toward environmentalism because it is fundamentally illogical. If evolution and natural selection are simply natural processes disconnected from morality, there’s no real reason for humans, the most evolved, to protect the weaker species or the endangered species because that’s simply the way the world is evolving. But if everything we see in the natural world was created, declared good, and given into our care, environmentalism and conservation make sense — and must be taken seriously by those who would call themselves Christians.
What’s helpful about Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology is that the authors root their arguments not just in Genesis but in many other parts of Scripture, in systematic theology, and in history, and then they follow through into the very practical implications of praxis. They do not take up the evolution debate at all. They do not pit science and religion against one another. They don’t waste time arguing about things that, while they matter, cause division that leads to inaction. While I didn’t always agree with everything the authors said, they didn’t always agree with each other either. And yet, disagreement in some matters should not cause us to sit in our corners and not act on one of the fundamental crises of our time.
I thought the most important part of this book was the distinction the authors made between talking about the natural world as a subject and talking about it as an object. Making that little semantic shift in our thinking and speaking about our environment has enormous implications. Seeing trees and animals and wetlands and resources as subjects rather than objects puts them not simply at our disposal, to do with what we will, but in our care, which is where they should be. It means they matter in and of themselves, not just in relation to humans. So a tree is good as a tree itself, not just in how we can use it for our own convenience. A bird or a snake or a bee is valuable in and of itself, not just in relation to us. And every thing in the natural world can point us toward the One who designed it. It’s not just there for us to use, it’s there to instruct us and cause us to glorify its Creator.
They also presented the ecological crisis as a moral issue, which it is but which many Christians sweep under the rug as they debate about other things that have less to do with their everyday actions (in other words, it’s easier and more fun to argue about others’ morality rather than face one’s own role in the destruction of God’s creation).
As I was finishing up Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology in May, I began reading Madeline L’Engle’s first book in her Crosswicks Journal series, A Circle of Quiet.
I had never read her nonfiction before and I was experiencing a period of mild despair over where my work was going (or not going) and so I picked this up to read about another writer’s struggles and insights. I’m so glad I did. In L’Engle’s need for nature and solitude, I saw my own. In her struggles to reconcile with a culture that was changing and a world that was under duress, I saw some of my own struggles. In her dark times as a writer with something to say but no platform from which to say it, I felt comforted.
In the pages of A Circle of Quiet was the personal end of some of the ideas I found in Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology. Simplicity. Family. Domesticity. Introspection. And as I was reading both books I was busy planting my vegetable garden, weeding the flowerbeds, trimming the dead wood off trees and shrubs — doing my part to keep my corner of the world clean and beautiful and productive and chemical-free.
This spring has felt good. And it’s beyond the combination of beautiful weather and almost no mosquitoes. It’s slowing down, lightening up, centering myself on what matters, trusting God to bring me through my small frustrations, considering others — other people, other living things — and doing what I can to lighten their burden. It’s puzzle pieces interlocking. It’s divine synergy. And I like it.
Have you ever told yourself you’d change and then actually done it? This weekend I really lived my new “to-be list” philosophy. I did do a lot, but I never made a list of things to accomplish and then checked it off, item by item. With everything I did, I felt no rush, no pressing need to do it now, no guilt in the doing or the not doing.
I spent time with my son at Van Atta’s Greenhouse and Nursery, I mowed and transplanted and weeded, I filled a dozen or more pots with annuals, I managed to keep the kitchen pretty clean. Saturday morning, Zach and I were talking about finally putting in a new fire pit sometime this summer. By afternoon, it was there! Suddenly we were roasting hot dogs and marshmallows in the backyard.
On Monday, the boy and I went downtown to visit the various war memorials and monuments and statues, and to check out the “fuzzy” Capitol building (the dome is currently covered with scaffolding as they do maintenance of some sort). We were practically the only ones downtown. We talked of war and sacrifice and men and women who served. We talked about how our state became the Arsenal of Democracy, turning auto factories into factories that made munitions and tanks and Army vehicles; how women built the machinery and the ammunition that finally subjugated the axis powers in WWII; how some wars must be fought and some do not make a lot of sense; how some people come home heroes, some come home to sneers and derision, and some never come home at all. We talked about men in our family who fought and those whose number never came up.
The wind was gusting and it started to rain on us. By the time we were home again the sun was out. We watched Charlotte’s Web for the second time in two days, and now the boy is a spider (with just four legs) who gives spider hugs and spider kisses and makes his webs out of the pile of dirty laundry his father gathered at the bottom of the stairs.
In the coming days we will celebrate the boy’s seventh birthday, his class will take a field trip to the zoo, we’ll take him to his first Brandi Carlile concert (shh–it’s a surprise), he’ll have a birthday party at the park with his friends, and we’ll celebrate with some family the next day.
May is always a big month here.
But I’m not sweating it. I’m loving every minute of it.
Spring has truly sprung over the past week in mid-Michigan, and the shade garden I expanded in the back yard last year is beginning to bloom…
I’ve been busy outside destroying and covering up my neighbor’s sidelot (with his permission) because I’m tired of looking at the mess of English ivy, poison ivy, weeds, dead leaves, weed trees, and trash out my dining room window.
Now it has been mowed, poisoned, shrouded in black plastic, and covered over with mulch.
Over the next year or so it should suffocate.
Then the mulch can be raked back, the plastic can be removed, and the remaining mulch and dead matter underneath can be worked into the soil.
At that point, it should be ready to sustain something beautiful and/or useful.
In the meantime, I’m on the lookout for some cheap or free pots and will try to stage a nice array of containers full of flowers on top of the mulch.
Two days after that big project I am still sore from moving edgers, swinging an ax, and shoveling and dumping and spreading mulch.
Sometimes you just have a string of great days full of irregular bits of life. We’re a family that is fairly set in our routine. Work, school, church, karate…over and over again in an endless but pleasant cycle. And then you get a weekend like this:
Friday – Attended the reading of a paper about 18th Century Gardens at the Lansing Women’s Club as the guest of a member. Very formal. Tea afterward. Did not embarrass my nervous host. 😉
Saturday – Ate the best pancakes my son and I have ever made. Began constructing an Itty-Bitty Bungalow for a contest at our favorite area nursery, Van Atta’s Greenhouse, out of items found in the garden and yard (pictures when it’s finished). Raked the leaves off the gardens (again) and trimmed the rosebushes. Ate scrumptious food and shared long and entertaining conversation at the home of some Nepali friends.
Sunday – Church (of course) followed by steaks on the grill and a phone call from my mother asking me if I had plans for the night (of course not). She happened to come into possession of two tickets to The Phantom of the Opera at the Wharton Center. Got into my jeans and walked around Fenner Nature Center observing foraging deer, mating frogs, and busy chickadees while waiting for mother to arrive in town. Changed back into a dress. Attended the opera. Randomly saw my sister-in-law and her family there, though they are from the west side of the state.
And then it got interesting…
Rather than deal with parking at the Wharton Center, I had asked my husband if he would just drop us off. Mom knew others from her church in Bay City who would be there and we could just ask them to bring us home. If they couldn’t, my bright idea was to take the bus, which is a fairly straight shot from MSU’s campus to near our house. Well, the people from her church had a pretty full car, so off we walked to the bus stop. However, I hadn’t thought about the fact that the buses don’t run as late on Sunday evenings. The last bus had picked up at our stop two hours earlier.
Zach couldn’t leave the house to pick us up without waking our sleeping son (who had school the next day), so I suggested we just walk home. It was a lovely night, the sidewalks are well lit, and there are no sketchy areas to walk through, so off we went. I figured it was about two miles. I lied to my mother and told her I thought it was about one mile. Turns out, it’s almost four miles. Which would have been fine, if Mom had been in tennis shoes. And if it hadn’t kind of started to rain.
After walking two and a half miles, we stopped at Quality Dairy and asked Zach to wake the boy up, stick him in the car, and come pick us up. All’s well that ends well, and at least we got some exercise! And now both of my parents have a story (about twelve or thirteen years apart) to tell about how I made them walk long distances due to a mistake regarding transportation and parking.
From the planned activities to the spontaneous, it was all in all a lovely April weekend.
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.
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…
For the past couple weeks, I have been mired in some rather tedious work that I won’t bore you with. Suffice to say, it may be a few more days before I can get my brain or camera back into working order. I will say that my weekends have been beautiful and tragic and backbreaking and relaxing, practically all at once. Two Friday evenings ago, I started ripping out sad tufts of grass from the very back of our backyard, moved about fifty large blocks out to expand the shade gardens, dug a long trench, and repositioned the blocks. It was hot, sweaty, mosquito-infested work.
Saturday morning I meant to go to church to plant some ornamental grasses and help mow the lawn, but as I was closing the lift gate on my Explorer, I accidentally ripped the thing off, which, as you can imagine, was fairly surprising. I caught the 50 pounds of window, etc. and stood there wondering what to do with it. I couldn’t put it down because it was still attached by a bunch of wires for the electric and one of the shocks. I ended up wrenching it from the other shock, maneuvering it into the back of the hatch, and fashioning a tarp cover for the gaping hole so as not to let the rain in that was expected the next day. Since no body shop in our entire city is apparently open on Saturday, I went back to the garden and worked six hours, digging up/dividing/transplanting what became 99 plants (I counted), and again got sweaty and buggy and dirty.
But Sunday–ah, Sunday!–was bliss. Gorgeous weather (after some helpful morning rain) and it was church, baseball game with friends, cookout, cigars, and great conversation into the evening. Fantastically relaxing.
Then after another mind-numbing week working on (and finally finishing!) copy for a few hundred books I’ve never read, my mother and I went to visit my almost-97-year-old great aunt who is closing her house and looking for homes for most of her treasures. I came home with a quilt that her mother (my great great grandmother) made from her and my grandma’s old childhood dresses, some teacups her mother bought on trips, some beautiful linens her mother had embroidered, a couple antique cameras, vintage aprons, and more. I also purchased her dining room set and was then faced with the problem of getting it halfway across the state.
Did you know that U-Haul will not rent trailers to you if you’re going to hitch them to an Explorer? True story. But an old friend on the west side of the state came through with his own trailer (which he pulls behind an Explorer) and on Friday we managed to get table, six chairs, corner china cabinet, and sideboard to my house in one piece. Some Old English and some Pledge and the set looks very happy in my home. So now Great Great Grandma Koch’s lovely linens can continue their useful lives on the very table they’ve graced for the past 68 years.
Saturday and Sunday were days of perfect weather, time with my boys celebrating one of the best dads I think there has ever been, and the prospect of returning to work this week with that gargantuan one-time (until the next time?) task checked off my list. I’m very happy with my lovely redesigned and expanded garden, the ability to keep some special things in the family, and a lot more storage space in the dining room. I’ve got my work cut out for me in the garden still this week. Every weed will be pulled in anticipation of 10 yards of mulch being delivered soon.
And then I guess I’ll be shoveling and spreading mulch for the rest of the month. 😛
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).