Hartley Magazine

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Still, we garden

Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum) is a Midwestern native wildflower that can be coaxed to bloom in a garden with well-drained soil and part shade.

It’s always something, for a gardener. One year it’s drought, the next year it’s hail, another year it’s a new tomato blight. This year it’s a worldwide pandemic. But still, we garden. So we adapt.

This year, some of us had trouble ordering the seeds we wanted. Sudden interest in gardening among involuntary stay-at-homes resulted in spot shortages of many vegetable seeds, just as the sudden interest in bread baking has vacuumed yeast from supermarket shelves. But a determined gardener can’t be stopped. Knowing that old seeds often germinate, though not at the rate of fresh seeds, I dug like an archeologist among my ancient accumulated seed packets. I planted many seeds under glass that never sprouted, but I have as many tomato plants as I need.

This year, there’s no meeting with friends to swap newly divided perennials. We don’t want to swap anything these days. So most of my overgrown clumps will remain undivided this spring, growing a bit bigger, which means I’ll have more to share (I hope) next year.

This year, the plans I carefully laid for my garden just a few months ago are out the window. I’m concentrating on taking better care of what I have. It’s an opportunity to enjoy plants that are paying off after years of care (redbud! trillium! serviceberry!) and focus my attention on those I hardly notice any more. Why do I still have that mildewy lilac that never blooms, now that the maple has gotten bigger to cast it in shade? Wow, look how that Canadian wild ginger has spread! Maybe I should dig some of it up and use it to underplant the fern bed before it overwhelms the coral bells.

This year, I’m not browsing dreamily through the whole garden center, or three or four garden centers, carefully choosing just the right colors of annuals, composing novel container combinations and prowling for untried shade perennials. My usual plant sources are doing their best to stay in business, but the supply has been erratic, and my family thinks I’m committing reckless endangerment by shopping for plants at all. My compromise was to snatch up whatever I could get in a quick trip, masked and gloved, while keeping a generous social distance, even if what I took home wasn’t quite what I wanted. So: hot pink geraniums, instead of that perfect color of magenta-tinged scarlet I usually insist upon. Lemon thyme, because that’s all they had. A bright red trailing begonia, although I’ve always felt red was too garish. But you know what? Now it seems cheery. Maybe this year will give me a shake and make me think differently. Maybe we all will think differently, after this year.

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a small tree that opens lavender-pink flowers all along its branches in spring before the leaves open. It’s popular in urban gardens because it can tolerant some shade.

This year, I’m cooking up my vegetable plantings from whatever sprouted. I’m composing my containers from whatever houseplants I can take a cutting from and whatever came to hand in my quick trip to buy plants. For mulch, I’m using leaves and wood chips from the village forestry department instead of manhandling bags from the home center. I’m spending more time weeding and spreading compost and less time shopping (a lot less time). I’m waving cheerfully to the neighbors from behind my mask instead of chatting over the fence.

This year, I have time to stoop and weed until I can’t unbend, prune deadwood until I look like I’ve been fighting cats, and get so muddy I have to shed my clothes in the kitchen. I have time to pause and listen to birdsong and watch squirrels squabble up and down the trunk of a hackberry tree.

And this year, I’m so grateful that I have a garden at all. Every hour I spend focusing on soil and plants and what to do next instead of on dread and horror, helplessness and uncertainty, makes me stronger and gives me hope. I wish I could give everyone food, jobs, medical care, trust, safety and a vaccine, and I wish I could give them a garden.