My Ceaseless Collaborator

GARDEN FENCE, oil on canvas, 20×16

UNLIKE PAINTING, GARDENING is a collaborative art.

My silent partner is difficult to predict and constantly changing, by:

Season. The flowering crocuses, narcissus, tulips, and bleeding heart will have disappeared by July after their foliage has died off. Flowering bulbs, spectacular now, will be one just one of several overlapping gardens between spring and fall: irises, daylilies, coneflower and coreopsis, bluebeard and aster, on the same broad canvas.

Soil. The canvas of my yard is huge and sprawling, even by sculptural standards — I can never see it all from one place. It slopes and dips, has wet spots and dry, variable nutrients, a mix of sun and shade.

Weather. How my gardens grow depends on the amount of rain, and when; how hot or cold it gets; high winds, hail, thunderstorms — or worse. I must be prepared for anything.

Predators. Bugs too numerous to count and bacteria too small to be seen change from month to month, year to year, feasting plant to plant, bed by bed. I must observe and stay vigilant, learn when to fight and when to take my losses.

Competition. My natural collaborator is imaginative, prolific, sometimes reckless; unwilling to stay within the lines. I must relax my borders.

CONTINUALLY FEEDING and aerating my soil makes every plant crave it: species I cultivate, and those I don’t. Weeding means getting down and digging in the dirt, which some find onerous. But I appreciate the intensity of blossoms, the feeling of foliage, smells of stirred earth and bruised leaves, and yoga-like stretches, gentle on my knees.

The vast majority of garden plants could be called “invasive.” They propagate prolifically by seed or bulb or root wherever they can, whenever they can, irrespective of my designs or borders. To think I can create fertile soils and keep unwanted plants from invading is futile.

The question, then, is not whether to permit invasives — probably impossible, and without which I would have a blander yard — but to choose species I like well enough to manage. 

For a month in spring, the reddish-green foliage and delicate lilac-colored blossoms of beardtongue make an impressive showing en masse, even where they sprout up through the grass. They lose luster after bloom, though, their woody, spent stalks sprawling every which way. I yank dozens out to keep them from hogging space.

I take aggressive action to prevent butterfly bush from overwhelming low-growing veronica, and to prevent self-sown amaranth and morning glories (generously called “volunteers”) from sprouting in every inch of exposed soil. Yet orange monarchs fluttering in honey-like fragrance from a sea of purple blossoms is stunning in August, and symbiotic morning glories trail gorgeously around the thick, maroon stalks of amaranth along the road for weeks, until frost.

I sculpt and adorn my landscape with arch and stone, tree and shrub, to frame a months-long succession of flowering plants of shifting heights, colors, and textures, aiming to design a yard beautiful at every stage, from every angle. 

My ceaseless collaborator forces me to continually revise and negotiate, yet every year I accept the challenge of harmonizing with its whims and mysterious ways.

Amaranth and Morning Glory (Russell Steven Powell)

6 Replies to “My Ceaseless Collaborator”

  1. Haha.. Lovely article!! I can so relate… Our collaborators are the gophers and skunks who like to ravage anything that grows. They are relentless.. but so are we!!

    1. Thank you, Diane! Part of the challenge: always moving parts–and some creatures that admire our flowers for different reasons. Happy digging!

    1. Thank you, Leslie! It’s hard to know how the detail of a painting like this one comes across shrunken and behind a computer screen. Glad to know that it was evident this time–and appreciated!!

    1. I thought of you as I wrote this, my gardening friend! I hope things are beginning to bloom where you are; peak daffodils still about a week away here. Enjoy!!

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