Doing Penance

– Posted in: Garden chores
10 comments

A small space cleared in the Juneberry bed
I’ve never hidden the fact that my garden lacks adequate maintenance. It all started innocently enough with a strip of land between the house and the driveway, dubbed the birthday garden because everything in it was a gift for my birthday. I seemed to have no trouble keeping that up, so I started another bed, and since that was going okay, I started another one. Then I got to the point where I promised myself I would catch up on whatever I was falling behind on, but at the moment I needed to do something else. And for a long time I persuaded myself that I would be able to get things back in shape, in no time at all–next week, next month, next season. Finally, I realized I was in way over my head, and however many years it took me to get into this mess, that’s how many it would take to get me out. (This parallels my experience in other areas of my life, coincidentally.)

Sometimes I regard the mess that is my garden with cheerful acceptance, other times with resignation, and sometimes with dark self-loathing. It depends on how much sleep I’ve been getting, whether or not the sun is shining, and how many other aspects of my life are making me feel incompetent at the moment.

Looking back, this is exactly what made me hesitate starting my very first bed. I could see, in various neighborhoods that I happened to pass through, landscaping projects of an ambitious nature that were not maintained. Mailbox planters filled with weeds. Creeping juniper with grass growing through it. Projects that were better not started if they couldn’t be maintained. I don’t want to be like that. Well, look at me now.

But Failure is lurking around every turn in the road, and if we let our fear of him paralyze us, we don’t get anywhere. The truth of the matter is, an encounter with Failure is rarely fatal. We may fall flat on our face, and we may be directed down a path we weren’t planning to trod, but for crying out loud, it’s not going to kill us! And if I’m really honest, it’s not failure I fear so much as imperfection. Yes, I want to be in control of every detail, and get every detail right. How many times have I meticulously weeded a yard-square patch, when it would have done me more good to lop off the flowering stalks of the weeds throughout the whole garden?

Ah, well, that’s so much water over the dam. This gardening year I’ve just been trying to do a couple of hours of work every day I can manage, and what I can get done, gets done. Gardening is but one aspect of my life, which already has more aspects in it than I can manage perfectly. To help myself prioritize, since disaster is on every side, I decided to work first on what was most visible to the public. So the birthday garden was tidied first, since it’s right by the main going-in-and-out door of the household. Next was the peony bed bordering the driveway. Then, abandoning the white lilac bed to its fate, since it is to become a shrub bed, I moved onto the Juneberry bed, pictured above.

I’ve been working on the end located closest to the road. This end has the bright scarlet Oriental poppies interplanted with Campanula glomerata ‘Joan Elliot.’ I’ve always told myself that I’d weed this area after the poppies went dormant, but when they went dormant I was always putting out other fires. In other places I have tried to remove Oriental poppies, and they come back from pieces of root. Not too surprising, because propagation by root cuttings is a very common way to get more Oriental poppies. So I dig them up, and then there they are, propagating right in place. So, I decided, this is stupid. I’m not going to worry about killing off these poppies when in other places I had to work hard to kill them. And it’s not like they’re rare or anything. So no more pussyfooting around.

Which is a good thing, because with all that grass in there, it would have been difficult to give anything the delicate treatment. Poor Joan Elliot was in danger of suffocation. I soaked the chunks of sod I found her in overnight, before attempting rescue. And who knows if she’ll survive? But I originally got her from Bluestone Perennials, so I’m assuming I’ll be able to find her again. If not, then another clustered bellflower, or something completely different. I do love that scarlet with deep purple, I know that.

So, I’ve been quite aware that I’ve been paying for my sins–specifically sins of omission. If I had kept up on the weeding of this bed, I wouldn’t have to be removing sod now. What’s done, is done, Kathy; move on.

Which brings me to another sin of omission. I’ve got a muscle spasm in back. No, that’s not the sin, that’s the penance. I had been congratulating myself, a tad prematurely, as it turned out, on my first back-pain-free gardening season since–well, five years, at least. And I credit this turn of events to the program of stretching and strength training I’ve been adhering to for several months. Actually I’ve been doing the stretching part for quite a bit longer. But in the last two weeks I haven’t been sticking to the program quite so diligently. Sometimes it was to make more time for gardening, ironically enough, and other times I had to get out of the house early and devoted my time to that.

This past Monday, I had to take four children to the dentist. First appointment at 9:30am. Dentist 45 minutes away. Other people in this family might be able to shoehorn their exercise regimen in before departing, but my brain is too focused on getting every out of the house on time, looking presentable, teeth brushed. So no stretching. Tuesday I was determined to repent of my slothful ways. I rode my new stationary bike for the first time, did my strength training, and then dressed for gardening and went out. I made further inroads into the grass pictured above, and went back in the house. Once inside, I noticed a twinge in my back, which, just to be safe, I decided to put ice on for twenty minutes. As the day progressed, the twinge became a pain that has been plaguing me ever since. Thanks be to God, this spasm has been relatively mild compared to past ones. I’m not incapacitated, though I am uncomfortable. I haven’t been able to garden, but I can still cook, sit, stand, and perform acts of personal hygiene. And type.

And I hope I learned my lesson.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Nan December 14, 2006, 9:12 pm

Love your garden writing; I feel much better after reading the post about the garden getting out of hand. Thanks!

ilona August 23, 2006, 3:49 am

How amazing – I get to jon the clone group with kerri. You described me and I was totally relating to everything you said.

Whatever the present state of my garden, I have so many good memories of times when there was a success or a beautiful moment. My occasional attempts with the camera show me that my eye edits. I tend to focus on the beauty of individual bursts of what is beautiful and block out the messy “I need work!” parts of the garden. But sometimes I can’t and that is when I do that self-loathing thing you mention. No matter what I still have fragrance and green things… and on a milk weed near my rose, I saw three monarch caterpillars! I pointed them out to a daughter and directed that no harm come to those weeds…. they are producing something wonderful and beautiful.

kerri August 21, 2006, 8:10 am

Kathy, I can so relate to everything you’ve said in this piece! I think we might be clones…right down to the back pain! It’s comforting to know we’re not alone, isn’t it? And you’re right…we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about what we DON’T accomplish! focusing on what we can get done, and rejoicing in the flowers regardless, is always best 🙂
I do hope your back pain goes away quickly! I can really empathize there!! I intend to answer your e-mail soon…really!

Dianne Sperling August 20, 2006, 6:53 pm

Phew–I’m glad I’m not the only one–August is the hardest time in the garden–everything needs dead-heading, weeding, watering.

August is the month I find that all previous plantings are out of place–the shrubs I’ve planted to provide structure are shading my few sun plants–they need to be moved fast!

I need to plan my garden for next year, I need to take my kids for physicals, to register for school.

I need, I need, I need–I need to spend time in the garden to relax between chores. I break down the garden chores into manageable pieces to manage my sanity.

Kathy Purdy August 20, 2006, 6:41 pm

Jenn–the peony bed was in pretty good shape. The birthday garden was pretty much picking out all those mallow seedlings. The Juneberry bed is the first one with serious problems.

OldRoses–that’s exactly why I wrote that post, because I know I’m not the only one, but I also know it’s very easy to think that you are.

Sandy–it’s funny. I’ve been very diligent with the alternating heat and cold when I had worse back spasms, but because this one was milder, I wasn’t as diligent. Consequently I think it’s taken me as long to heal from this one as from spasms that were worse in the beginning. But I agree wholeheartedly with your advice, except I can’t vouch for the bourbon. 😉

Sandy Mullins August 20, 2006, 4:41 pm

Alternating heat and cold, a couple of ibuprofens every 4 – 6 hours and most importantly, a relaxing couple of hours in the recliner in the evening (with a bourbon or two, if you like)is the best medicine for back spasms. Take it from a “been there, done that” gardener!

Oldroses August 20, 2006, 4:10 pm

Phew! So glad I’m not the only one with too many beds now overgrown with weeds because life got in the way. Thanks. You made my day.

Jenn August 20, 2006, 3:55 pm

Rejuvenating beds is hard work. You being on the third one is a fair accomplishment.

I have been looking around with a jaundiced eye, reinvisioning my entire property. Too much work, even on a third of an acre.

So, one border at a time.