Jul 19 2017

A Good Start

Given the constraints in my current life—namely, time and energy—I had assumed that this year’s garden had the potential to become an added source of stress or, at the very least, an activity that added work and not joy.

Instead, Justin often proudly remarks that it’s the most productive and healthy garden I’ve (we’ve) ever grown. I nod and agree, with a sense of incredulity. When I look out from our front porch, frequently with Hugh bouncing on my lap, I see our largest raised bed flush with potato plants. These plants set their purple flowers a few weeks ago and I have plans to dig up some for new potatoes and leave the rest in the ground until the plants die back, dreaming of a root cellar (basement) full of storage potatoes this autumn. In front of that raised bed grows our lush, slightly wild, very colorful perennial shrub and flower garden.

These perennials, including a red twigged dogwood, yarrow, salvia, sage, lupine, abelia (and more), were mostly planted in our first summer at this house. They looked rather silly at first—tiny plants spaced several feet apart according to their future needs. I remember feeling tempted to plant them closer to make the yard look more cohesive, but recognized the need for patience, as the plants set roots and adapted to their new environment. Three summers later, most of the original plants remain and they’re beginning to grow into each other, an intermingling of yellows, reds, purples, soft leaves and stalks. In fact, some have grown so vigorously that we’ll have to move a few things around this fall.

On the right side of the yard (when looking from the porch steps) grows our ornamental grass garden. Several years ago, I fell headfirst for ornamental grasses and the concept of planting in layers, mingling native plants in a cohesive way that mimics something that might naturally happen in nature. With Piet Oudolf’s wonderful book Planting: A New Perspective as my guide, as well as several books on ornamental grasses, I did my best to put this newfound knowledge into effect, buying and staggering grasses such as Giant Feather Grass, Miscanthus Morning Light, and Karl Foerster, while mixing more diminutive sedges, and pops of color from tulips, daffodils, and most recently, liatris. The goal was a swaying, light catching, movement inspiring palette, where the eye sees different textures when the grasses move yet remain grounded by the purples from the liatris and other pollinator friendly flowers planted close to the sidewalk.

These grasses were all planted in the shadow of a massive holly tree, formerly known as the bane of my gardening existence. We finally had the invasive, ridiculous tree removed last fall. Never one to cheer a tree being chopped down, I made an exception when the holly finally fell. Goodbye and good riddance. I underestimated the effect the tree’s removal would have on all of the front yard plants. For example, the grasses really didn’t thrive last year—they grew a bit, but none sent up their gorgeous stalks and plumes, and the giant feather grass was a big “meh”: it was neither giant nor feathery. This year, the grasses have asserted themselves, the feathery fronds 6 feet tall in many cases and all growing closer and closer to each other, once again meaning that we’ll have to spend some time spacing things out this fall. Everything is thriving, and in the case of these perennial beds, I attribute their vigor to the consistent drip irrigation system we have in place and to the removal of the holly.

The backyard raised beds are, with rare exception, as healthy and lush as possible. I’ve enjoyed my best pea harvest, a non-stop chard harvest, delicious lettuces, and broccoli and cauliflower that were as tasty as there was beautiful. What is going on? Is the secret to productive gardening simply removing barriers (like the holly) and spending less time obsessing?

It’s not quite that simple. But in both cases, for perennials and vegetables, I keep thinking of the concept of “a good start”, a concept that also easily applies to the stage of parenthood I’m in. The front yard perennials were planted in beds that were amended with copious amounts of compost. They were watered with drip irrigation from the beginning. They were spaced appropriately. And their biggest deterrent, the holly tree, was removed.

The difference in my vegetable plants this year comes from another year of learning how to deter pests and how to time seed starting and transplanting, a good selection of seeds, appropriate spacing, and in certain cases, luck with weather conditions.

However, naming the biggest difference is surprisingly easy: the strength of the plant starts I grew. As I’ve touched on before, in previous seasons I had grown all my plants under grow lights; this April, I switched to nurturing them in a small portable greenhouse. The $90 purchase has translated into vegetables with more uniform root structures, stronger stems, healthier leaves, and a fuller appearance. And when starts of this caliber are planted in a garden, they experience less transplant shock, their roots are able to take up nutrients more quickly, they’re more attractive to soil based bacteria and less attractive to the pests that like to prey on them, be it slugs, pill bugs, cabbage fly, or aphids. Strong starts survive. Weak starts may survive, but not without an incredible amount of intervention on my part, and a concurrent reduction in flavor and production and even attractiveness.

The only “crop” I didn’t grow in the greenhouse this year were my spring beets. They did very poorly once transplanted, attacked by leaf miners and slugs, stunted and sickly appearing. Part of this was their location—the bed I’ve since turned into a perennial flower bed—but I’d attribute at least 80% of their demise to the quality of the start. Everything else, from melons to broccoli to tomatoes, were transplanted out at peak health, and so far, the results speak for themselves. I gave these vegetables a “good start” and have thus been rewarded with an excellent harvest, and a feeling of contentment.

Seven months into parenting and I’m still very firmly at the start of motherhood and of Hugh’s childhood. Each action, each response, each decision are my attempt to nurture a baby into a healthy, content, strong, and aware toddler, little boy, young adult, and eventually, man. My goal is to give my relationship with Hugh, and Hugh’s life, the same “good start” that an inexpensive greenhouse can give my vegetable plants.

Unlike with gardening, where the reward is in the future harvest, the reward to being an aware and deliberate parent is in the “now” and the future. I don’t know what Hugh will be like when he’s three. I only know today. And so each day I try to enjoy my interactions with my son, I try to respond with patience and positivity, I try to create a happy house that will be able to dynamically respond as Hugh ages, and unexpected blessings and challenges come our way. If Hugh has a healthy attachment to his parents, and we to him, then we can enjoy the good times and weather the bad, growing together, thanks to our good start.