Sculpture Garden

TEN YEARS AGO, the area by the back fence was flat as a pancake, a thick mass of rotting leaves. The soil beneath it was moist and rich, but nothing green was able to penetrate the smothering leaves. We scraped them off and filled the area with buddleia (butterfly bush), and planted three fragrant pink clethora and a white spirea along the back border.

Two roses eventually were added, anchoring the front right corner; they only have to survive vernal floods in this low-lying area to have an ideal bed for summer. We threw in several blue and ruby lobelia and a clump of lemon balm, and they have spread vigorously. A small but sturdy patch of oregano flanks the front border, and there are scattered beardtongue and violets. It is huge, but the area can be spectacular once the jungle of buddleia bloom their lush, scented flowers.

As always happens, unwelcome visitors have migrated in, chiefly two helianthus-type plants inherited from the previous owners. Their main virtue, beside their virility, is height (one reaches six feet, the other up to nine). They have lots of room where they originally were planted, and their underwhelming yellow-orange blossoms clash with the cool blues and purples of the lobelia and buddleia. Each year, aggressive thinning action is needed to keep these invaders to a minimum, and to reduce the strangling bindweed that can engulf even a garden this size if allowed to grow unchecked.

This is the first year I have gardened solo, and even the simplest of decisions needs to be revisited. Color scheme, succession, massing, what is allowed to grow, and where; I no longer experience the synergy of collaboration — or its constraints. This year, everything I do reflects my tastes alone. It’s more difficult than I imagined, an awareness I had when picking out plants for the window boxes for the first time. It was daunting, to say the least. To what extent do tradition and habit influence my aesthetic? Do I truly favor heliotrope, or was it merely something we agreed on?

I decide to allow the low violets and lobelia to fill in the borders, a clear reflection of my sensibility. I remember a packet of nasturtium seeds and throw them in as well; I love their round foliage, orange blossoms, and delicate aroma. I thin the lemon balm to a few discrete areas.

With loam this rich, though, the buddleia garden is a lot to manage. As soon as the weeds and surplus growth are cleared away, the seductive soil begins to lure them back. I’ve got to find a way to cover some of it back up.

The solution sits ten feet away: a pile of thick, mismatched maple stumps that a year ago I naively thought I could split for firewood without the aid of a gas-powered splitter. I cut up the small stuff last winter, but the remaining pile of stumps, despite their impressive shape and bulk, is not much to look at.

Merging this with my garden dilemma, I resolve to move the stumps into the buddleia bed, filling the newly-cleared spaces with a slowly decaying sculpture. I can enjoy the pattern of stumps, I reason, or stand on them, gaining a fresh perspective. The logs will keep weeds down and reduce erosion. They will look far better arranged among plant growth than piled haphazardly on my lawn.

I BEGIN PULLING WEEDS at ten a.m., and it is not until one that I am ready to move logs. Weeding is an exercise in patience, and being open to all kinds of tasks. To do it well, it cannot be rushed.

Some people like to start a massive job like this at one end and methodically advance to the other, so the garden emerges fully realized in an ever-widening swath. My approach is more intuitive: like painting with watercolors, I work for hours without knowing for certain what the final product will look like, relishing the moment and trusting the process.

I complete a yard or more of the front border digging the earth with my fingers, and then walk to the back, hacking at stubborn roots with a hand-hoe. I take clippers to punky dead stalks from last year’s buddleia, pull more weeds from the space along the fence behind the roses. Then I start all over again. The frequent changes keep me from getting bored, or feeling overwhelmed.

Finally, the space is cleared, and I begin rolling the stumps. Most are too heavy to lift. I push them to their intended site, where they land with a thump. I stand back and analyze, adjusting their angle or tipping them to a new spot. No doubt I will continue to tweak things, but already the garden looks much improved.

I improvise a second, table-like sculpture in the space I opened up in the lawn. Inspired, I disassemble a second woodpile comprising smaller, hollow stumps. I stack some head-height not far from the buddleia, and arrange the rest around a smaller flowerbed.

I suffer one small contusion beneath my elbow from being whacked by an awkwardly rolling log. But I remember to wear gloves, so my hands are only nominally sore.

I use care lifting, but the sheer volume is enough to fatigue my back and shoulders. The ibuprofen I take when I am done will be supplemented by a glass of chardonnay this evening, when the light softens and I inspect my work.

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