East of Elmgrove

A Budding Love Affair With Backyard Gardening

Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love my garden

East Side Monthly Magazine ·

I had a great summer. I spent a lot of time watching my sons play baseball, which is something I never tire of, win or lose. I visited relatives in our nation’s capital, nearly fainting in the stifling heat at the Lincoln Memorial. I ate a lot of salmon, fresh from Whole Foods, the one on Pitman, not the uncomfortably cavernous one on North Main. I went to my favorite Rhode Island beach, Goosewing in Little Compton, although not as much as I wanted to. Baseball beckoned.

And I gardened. Full sad-sack disclosure: We don’t have much of a yard. Our house is tall but sits on a small lot, so every patch of earth is appreciated. When we moved to the family homestead 15 years ago, gardening was low on the priority list. Our front yard hosted a stunning kouza tree, but, beyond that, we had nothing but spindly yews. They were old and ugly. Two spready maples dominated the backyard – mostly a patio. Dirty white pebbles smothered what little land was left.

Boys grew up, and I started to experiment with Mother Nature. Up until my marriage, I had lived in apartments. Now and then, I’d minister to a houseplant, but I really had no knowledge of the bounty that springs from the earth. I could identify the tempestuous tulip and reckless rose – thank you Eleanor Lavish in Room with a View – but that was about it.

Over the years, I taught myself about gardening. Truth be told, I learned how to dig a hole and plant a shrub or flower that impressed me at the nursery. Light and soil content were of little concern. No wonder my plants died. The maples not only blocked the sun, they sucked up all the nutrients in the soil. I forged ahead – buying expensive pots of this and that. Still, I didn’t have much luck. The sweet woodruff died. So did the hydrangea and the lilies, which I thought were impossible to kill.

This summer, I decided to do things differently. I abandoned my helicopter gardening for a style that can only be described as benign neglect. “Survival of the fittest,’’ said my son. One rule: pull up the crabgrass, only because it’s unattractive. I let the weeds go, and then discovered that a weed was not a weed. It was a locust tree trying mightily to get a start in life. It was a Rose of Sharon, a shade-loving fern, a purple-hued ninebark.

Suddenly, everything was precious. I watered like crazy, and the seedlings grew. My yard was soon covered with new plants, some a mystery. Leafsnap, an app that identifies leaves, and I became BFFs. I snapped photos of my crop and showed them to friends smarter than I about gardening: What is this? At summer’s end, I started to transplant some of the seedlings to different areas of the yard. A hibiscus found a new home outside the dining room window. The ninebark went under the maple. The barberry bush moved a few feet to the yard’s edge.

I wonder what our yard looked like when the house was built a century ago. Did the owners tidy up, or let things be? I hope the latter. Back then, I assume they didn’t have mulch, at least the big-box store kind that turns the ground orange. Down the street and around the corner from me lives a homeowner whose entire front yard is a jungle, no grass, just bushes and flowers: sunny black-eyed susans; bishop’s weed; a soft plant with a lavender flower. Russian sage? But, really, do I need to know what everything is. There’s passion in that wildness. Let’s hope it’s a trend.

I can’t wait to see what pops up in my yard next spring. Thinking about the possibilities will make it easier to get through a harsh New England winter. Hurry up Old Man. I am a constant gardener, but not a patient one.

Elizabeth Rau can be reached at erau1@verizon.net.

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