“We both know, you and I, that if all men were gardeners, the world at last would be at peace.” — Beverley Nichols
On an internet surf earlier today, I came across this article on Yahoo called “Back to the Wild: How ‘Ungardening’ Took Root in America.”
The article itself was fine, its content uncontroversial. It profiled a couple of local (DC/Takoma Park) gardeners (ungardeners?) who plant natives, shun pesticides, and let their yards grow a little wilder. It also touched on the “rewilding” of vacant urban spaces and its benefits for wildlife.
It even gave a shout-out to Sara Stein’s fascinating book Noah’s Garden, which it called a “Bible for the [rewilding] movement.”
My displeasure arose not from the content of the article but from this hideous new term “ungardening.” Did the writers of the article invent it? Is it a term that’s trending with Millennials that I’m only now encountering? Whatever the case, I hope it doesn’t “take root” because it’s simply a terrible word choice for what it purports to describe.
People who strive for a more natural, “wild” look in their yards are still gardeners, and their actions still qualify as gardening. Selecting plants from a nursery for your garden counts as gardening, even if you’re selecting natives. Digging a hole for a plant and watering the plant in counts as gardening — doesn’t matter if the plant came from China or if you’re transplanting it from 10 feet away. Planting flowers for bees instead of just for aesthetics is still gardening. Making a conscious decision to mow your grass at 4 inches and to mow only once a month is more an act of gardening than hiring Mow ‘n’ Blow to scalp your lawn every week. Choosing to leave seedheads up in the winter? Chopping up fall leaves to compost in your planting beds? Also acts of gardening!
I get it, “ungardening” is supposed to be a cute buzzword to draw attention to more ecologically-friendly gardening practices. I suppose what irks me is that it suggests that the word “garden” — whether as a noun or a verb — has become tainted, when in fact that word, for so many of us, represents our greatest pleasure and passion.
It reminds me of the use of the term “Unschooling”, which became popular awhile back as a “hippie” version of homeschooling. Presumably, an unschooled child would take no tests, could spend his day doing whatever interested him, and wouldn’t have to study yucky stuff like math until he was good and ready!
Horrifying, right? The only thing worse than an ungardened yard would be an unschooled child!
Except I’m pretty sure that’s not how it actually works (at least I hope not). I am sure that most “unschooling” parents don’t sit around and go, “hey honey, Billy is six now. What would you think about keeping him home from school and literally not educating him in any way? Just to see what happens.”
I suspect that most practitioners of “Unschooling” are just like these practitioners of so-called “Ungardening” — people who see serious flaws in the traditions and institutions of education/horticulture and who are ready to try something different. Not — as the prefix implies — choosing to do nothing at all.
The “Un-” suggests passivity, whereas these folks are anything but. There may be some on the fringe who are willing to sit back and watch their house become swallowed in saplings and vines and go, “this is called nature, people. It’s called ungardening and I think it’s really problematic that you don’t need a machete to get to your front door.”
But creating a Certified Wildlife Habitat is not the opposite of gardening. No, these people are not “ungardeners.” Indeed, they are taking responsibility for something very precious, they are actively involved, making choices, and doing it all out of love. Gardeners.
When I started gardening, my son was 12 months old. I took the baby monitor outside with me while he napped and laid it in the grass while I worked. I vividly remember that first summer clearing bishop weed from one of our backyard beds, digging down into the soil to find every bit of fleshy, white root, all the while keeping an ear out for those little noises he made when he woke up from his nap. I can still recall those sounds, through the static of the receiver, little whimpering noises that meant my gardening session was over.
A few years later, I bought him some plastic gardening tools. He wanted to do everything mommy did. I have a picture of him at two years old, very seriously wielding an orange plastic trowel over a pot of herbs. Oh, there’s my little gardener, I remember thinking at the time.
Age five, six, seven, etc., he still wanted to come outside whenever I did. Often he would make gardening quite difficult! I bought a plastic sandbox shaped like a turtle in hopes of keeping him occupied while I gardened. Sometimes it worked but often it didn’t. He would roll in the mulch or bother the dog. Sometimes he would pick up stones and toss them into the flowerbeds. Cut it out! I remember snapping at him and telling him to go inside if he couldn’t behave himself. If only I could garden in peace, I thought.
Now he is 12. Occasionally he wanders out to see what I am doing, but more often he stays inside and pursues his own interests. I am free to garden in peace. No baby monitor, no interruptions. Sometimes I stop and look up at his bedroom window and wonder what he is doing.
Today he wandered the garden with me and we picked herbs. I challenged him to name each herb just by smelling it. He got about half of them right. I told him that the smell of herbs warmed by the sun was one of my favorite things about summer. He told his dad and me about his excellent sense of smell after differentiating chocolate mint and spearmint. We agreed that this was exceptional.
Some of the changes that occur in the garden make me ecstatic and some make me weep. I am glad there are a few things, like the stones, that never change.
A glorious, sunny, breezy day today and I spent it toiling around the perimeters of my property at war with ivy and Virginia creeper.
Each year I make a little more progress on the unkempt regions of my backyard, and this summer I am doubling down on the vines that grow along the fences. When I am feeling defeated by these vines, I convince myself it’s okay to let them crawl all over the stockade and chain link and slither under my shrubs. It’s a wild garden, I say to myself. These vines are just “rambling” and “scampering” among the other plantings and they “soften” the look of my ugly fencing. It’s a William Robinson look.
Ha-ha. Except that’s mostly delusional because in truth the ivy twines between the fence boards, grows, and wedges the boards apart. The little sticky pads on the Virginia creeper cling to the sides of my cute little shed, ready to tear off the yellow paint when I try to remove it. The wild grape sends out its wiry tendrils, like antennas on some alien life form, searching for a delicate little garden plant — like my thalictrum! — to smother to death.
There is something very satisfying about grasping a vine that runs along the ground and pulling on it with just right amount of force so that the roots come up without the vine breaking. I always try to see how many feet of vine I can get up just by pulling, before the vine breaks or gets caught on something and I have to come in with my clippers. Sometimes I can get like eight or ten feet of vine in one tug. Oh, yeahhhhh….
I have a serious problem with Virginia creeper and wild grape along my chain link fence. After years of ignoring them, they’ve developed massive, inch-thick roots that run right underneath the metal of the fence. My little forked weeder is useless in this situation — like putting out a fire with a Waterpik — so I haul out my shovel and try to wedge the tip of it under the root. Try to pry it up, though, and the damn metal fence gets in the way. Blast! Except every once in a while I get the shovel under there at a sweet angle and when I push down on the shovel handle pop! a giant section of vine comes up. Pull hard on it and — if I’m lucky — pop, pop, pop! — I’ll get a couple of feet of that mother extricated from the soil.
I pulled on so many vines today that even now, sitting like a lump in this chair, I see and feel myself pulling vines. I feel my fingers closing over a piece of ivy and pulling. Chunks of cool, dry dirt fly onto my bare arms as I rip it out. I cram the piece into my yard waste can and crouch down to search for more. Did I get it all? No, there’s some more encircling the trunk of that euonymus. Crouch, grab, pull, repeat. Pretty sure I will dream about pulling vines tonight. In my dream, the vines will be endless, the world will smell of dirt, and William Robinson will be laughing at me, laughing so hard.
Today I went outside early in the morning while others slept. I swept the ash from last night’s fireworks from the concrete pool deck into the garden beds. Is fireworks ash good for the soil? I’ll pretend it is so that I don’t have to go inside and get a dustpan. I toss the cardboard remnants of “Fat Cat”, “World’s Tallest Fountain!”, and “Peacock Junior” into a black trash bag. Even at 8 a.m. the air is thick and hot. As I carry the trash bag out front to the waste bin I stop in my tracks. A platter-sized pink bloom hovers at about knee-level. Yesterday, it had been a tight, racquetball-sized bud encased by pale green bracts, but overnight, BAM! it exploded into this ludicrously gigantic cotton-candy pink blossom. My hardy hibiscus! Last fall I transplanted it from a too-shady, too-remote spot to this sunnier bed and now, on July 5 2018, I am reaping my reward. The flower is bigger than my face, bubble-gum pink, ready for a party. The best part: at least twelve more walnut sized buds adorn the plant, ready to swell and lend cheer through the remainder of July. Yes, July will be sweltering and oppressive, but there will be giant pink hibiscus!
It takes considerable willpower to stop myself from waking up the household to announce their arrival.
The weather forecast this week is sobering: high of 34 today, 32 tomorrow…high of 23 next Tuesday!
These are the hardest weeks for me as a gardener and human being. I planted my bulbs (‘Cynthia’ tulips and ‘Ruby Giant’ crocus) in mid November under a smiling fall sun. As recently as last week, I was still picking up fall leaves and dumping them in the compost and around some tender plants. Just a few days ago I was pulling out some ivy from the cool but not-yet-frozen soil. On Christmas day I peeked down into my hellebore patch. Little baby hellebores were emerging! I really enjoy working in my winter garden when the jet stream stays up by the Great Lakes where it’s supposed to be.
But when temps max out in the 20s and dip into the single digits at night, a sense of despair settles upon me. Even trips out to the compost pile with my kitchen scraps fill me with anxiety. The euonymus and privet leaves — ordinarily so robust — look brittle and defeated. The cyclamen that was so handsome just the other day now looks like it’s trying to burrow into the ground to keep warm. And god help those camellia buds. The buds on my little Camellia ‘Scentsation’ — just planted last summer — had actually begun to open a teeny bit in the recent mild spell. Poor things. Like newborn babies opening their eyes for the first time and then ZAPPED by the polar vortex. What was supposed to be a “sweetly-fragrant, silvery pink, peony-formed” blossom will be reduced to something more like a decomposing cigar-stub. This is life in zone 7a.
I know some places have it way worse. The meteorologist on the news today projected his map of the U.S. to reveal the full horror of the “Arctic Blast” afflicting the country this week. Usually the coldest areas are represented by shades of blue, maybe light purple up in places like Duluth and the wilds of Canada. Well, the temperatures are so extreme this week they ran out of cool colors for their map and had to wrap back around to pink and red up in Fargo and beyond. Canada looks like an inferno. It’s -40 degrees up there. Can it be so cold it actually feels hot? I wouldn’t be surprised. If any Minnesotans or Canadians are reading this, leave a comment about what -40 feels like (if your internet signal doesn’t freeze immediately upon contact with the air, that is).
Compared to the northern plains and Canada, I know that Virginia winters are child’s play. Highs in the 20s is about as bad as it gets and those spells don’t last long. Soon enough, there will be a glorious reprieve of sunshine and 55 or even 60 degrees. I’ll go out there in my shirt sleeves and start pulling purple deadnettle out of the thawing soil. I will revel in the mild air and feel glad to be alive. (I will try not to think about the cigar-stub camellia buds.) I will work outside while I can and say a prayer for my comrades in Duluth.
Well, another season of open homes & gardens has come and gone. This year I spent three full days touring a variety of homes and gardens in my state, Virginia. They were all great! I loved the old stone home overlooking the Potomac with the lush shade garden of bleeding heart and ferns, the gigantic Tudor on a hilltop with the infinity pool, and the fully renovated 19th-century Georgian with the silk rugs that took 12 years to make.
I like to take pictures and mental notes. I must a get a Red Buckeye tree was this year’s big takeaway.
Here was another takeaway: I feel like a slack-jawed yokel walking through this person’s gigantic dining room.
As I shuffle along with a pack of other middle-aged-to-elderly folk so I can get a better look at the Tiffany lamps adorning some stranger’s parlor, well, sometimes I feel a bit like a salivating voyeur. A starry-eyed member of the teeming masses who swarm upon these forbidden domains once per year.
I don’t know how difficult it is to get these affluent homeowners to open up their homes and gardens to the public each year, but I wouldn’t blame them for being hesitant. I know I wouldn’t want to. Some properties can get hundreds or even thousands of people in one day tramping through their private living spaces.
And it’s not just dirty shoes and curious stares that we bring to these homes.
On a recent trip to a large property in central Virginia, the homeowner was nice enough to take fifty of us on a personal walk-through of her magnificent gardens. When she asked if there were any questions, one of my fellow travelers waved her hand around.
“Where do you get the money to pay for all this?” was her question.
Ugh. I wanted to crawl behind the homeowner’s imported French tuteur and hide. C’mon lady! I thought. Don’t make us look like a bunch of mouth-breathing hoi polloi!
But we kind of are, really. On many of these tours, the chatter among the visitors (myself included) focuses on how much things cost, how much help would be required to clean and maintain everything, with a great deal of speculation about how the wealth was acquired.
Sure, we are all generous with the compliments, but they are often followed up with vague suggestions that perhaps the amount spent by the homeowner was a tad grotesque.
“Sally, check out the field stone wall along the drive. It’s absolutely gorgeous! I bet this wall would pay for three years of long-term care at Mom’s assisted-living place.”
Another homeowner was nice enough to let my tour group use the bathroom in her pool house if we needed to. I did, so I got in line behind a gentleman shaped like a large butternut squash, who occupied the bathroom for a full fifteen minutes. After he finished, I went in and the room was absolutely toxic. It felt so wrong that this bathroom, with its beautiful limestone tile floor and high-end fixtures, should have been defiled by the gastric system of this man. Such bad form!
I now envision the wealthy homeowners bringing in a team of cleaners at the close of open garden day, swooping in and disinfecting everything we’ve touched.
And me, driving my ordinary car back to my rather ordinary home and garden, wondering if crowds of people would ever want to come tour it.
Being mostly relieved that the answer is no.