The Garden Here in the Time of COVID-19

Today, spring rain falls on the tiny patio outside the window where I sat so much during recovery – my spot for early morning tea. Last month I watched the rosemary bloom sky blue and eager hummingbirds visit. Beneath it, pink blossoms of thyme crowded the pavers. Planted three years ago, the clematis finally produced white flowers against the trellis. The old rose is huge and full of budded promise.

A pot of Apricot Beauty tulips, one bulb planted years ago on the bluff, produced three welcome flowers. I can see lily spears emerging from another pot, and the hollyhock from last year looks strong. A bundle of forget-me-nots – tagalongs from Alaska – fills a pot. Bags of potting soil and compost clutter the space now – spring cleanup and planting underway.

Theoretically. But this year, like everything else gardening is different. An old and dear friend, wrote that “it’s hard to match the exuberance of my outside spaces with the interior obsession with pandemic news.” That’s true.

At the garden center, with limited opening and strict rules, I bought compost and soil and pumpkin seeds – and sweet pea seeds (quickly, as we are one person at a time inside the building). You can wander the plants outdoors, staying apart from other masked people, but I came home feeling a little sad, the springtime enthusiasm seems muted, wary, gardeners stopping to chat a thing of the past. Employees looked windblown and exhausted. Plants limited. Something grim tinges everything with so much sad and awful news circling the planet.

So far, my sweet peas seeds and cannellini beans haven’t germinated. I’ve attempted to prepare the pumpkin patch from last year (it’s still lumpy with unbuilt planting mounds). Eager for their color, I bought a couple of tiny calibrachoa, destined for containers, at the grocery store on my weekly shop.

But exuberance? Thanks only to perennials (my friend has a perennial garden I bet). The sturdy, old and beautiful trees and shrubs left by the gardener of 30 years ago – the crab apple, rhododendron, and lilac – all burst forth undiminished. I greet the newer perennials with gratitude – the scraggly rose bushes, gift from a gardener on my morning walk, now fill their space, a California poppy rescued from the garden center (the one blossom such an unusual pink) has become a sizeable clump. Lavender, nepeta, and geranium, return and push aside the yellowing leaves of daffodils and tulips.

And on a self-seeded foxglove, gift from a bird, six sturdy stems head skyward. Out back, a grocery-store-purchased compact delphinium I never managed to repot, neglected all winter, reappeared with new healthy foliage – a rebirth I don’t deserve.

And in a cheerful quarantine garden activity, Sweet B and I are beginning a project. Each week we plan to send each other a little painting on a watercolor postcard of a flower from our gardens – adding words about the flower on the back of the card. We’re in early stages, but it’s a thrill to get mail from her. (On FaceTime recently, she advised me that I might want to add some figures to my paintings and they wouldn’t be so plain.)

It inspires to make a record of garden bloom – maybe specially in this pandemic year.

 

 

Gardening in the Time of COVID-19

The other morning I read an inspiring and joyful article by Charlotte Mendelson titled, “It’s Time To Grow Your Own Beans.” Right away I forwarded it to the California gardener, and put a handful of heirloom cannellini beans (from a sealed bag I seem to have saved for the apocalypse and can now use to make soup) in the mail to California.

I kept thinking that the author’s name sounded familiar, and, to my chagrin, realized Mendelson’s gardening memoir, “Rhapsody in Green: A novelist, an obsession, a laughably small excuse for a vegetable garden,” has sat unopened on our coffee table since last year (it does have a wonderful cover, but still).

For this whole strange time when thinking about reading, I have assumed I would concentrate better on a page turner, some junker that could transport me to a different catastrophe, one with an ending. I would never have predicted a memoir about a “comically small town garden, a mere 6 square meters of urban soil and a few pots,” would be my escapist dream.

Mendelson’s writing really appeals – and her delicious sense of humor about gardening, gardening experts, and gardening desires – also slugs, failures, and small triumphs. In her prologue, she welcomes the reader, “Come into my garden. Try to keep a straight face.”

Gardening season begins now in Washington, but we are weeks behind California. Over these last years, Sweet B’s dad (with her help recently) transformed a barren urban plot into a green haven. Larger than Mendelson’s garden behind her terraced London house, the California garden has a tiny square of lawn (just big enough for a small bike rider to make circles), and a brick patio (just big enough to hold a large deep wading pool). A pergola, covered in grape vine and shade-cloth, provides shelter from the sun for an outdoor couch, chairs, and table.

A podocarpus hedge grown tall shields the garden from close next-door neighbors. A variety of fruit trees in garden beds surround the lawn: banana, pomegranate, lime, papaya, orange, plum, and an olive. Bougainvillea climbs the painted bright-blue cement wall at the end of the garden, and throughout the beds California drought-tolerant perennials crowd huge lavender and rosemary shrubs and smaller herbs. Seasonal color flashes from early sweet peas, California poppies, red hot pokers, and more.

In the past, family summer traveling limited vegetable growing, but this year, by using a graveled-with-pots, previously ignored space at the corner of the house in full sun, a vegetable plot took shape. The chief gardener and his assistant cleared out the gravel, constructed an L-shaped raised bed, and erected a sturdy trellis.

By ordering soil and starts online, the gardeners planted food – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, strawberries, snap beans, carrots, chard, kale, lettuce, green onions, radish, and zucchini. Behind the garage by the compost (beside a volunteer pumpkin), corn, melons, and cucumbers found space. (I had to ask for this list. It ended with, “and a few things I may have forgotten about – we’ll see if they grow.”)

And now there’s a chance for Jack-in-the-beanstalk moments!

Blue bird, butterflies, and bees visit flowers in her garden, by Sweet B.

 

Olive tree with climbing ladder, spirit house on stilts, and gardeners watering, by Sweet B.

Spring Survey Two Years On

Last Christmas our young friend and her parents gave us a tall prayer candle refitted with a photo of Robert Mueller looking thoughtful, surrounded by tiny, glittery stones. We’ve burned it most evenings all winter. Now the wick is hard to reach to light, the sides smudged with smoke, and that beacon extinguished.

Today I’ll just post a spring image from a more hopeful year – this spring doesn’t care, never held out hope for answers anyway. Flowers still bloom in our gloom – for now.