My Big Garden Failure

We Set Down Roots Here, but Let the Natural Ones Wither

I am sitting at my dining room table and looking out the window. Just outside the window are my steroidal hydrangeas, easily seven feet tall. Their July blossoms will measure�the size of a human head. There are two plants and nothing else planted in front of the house comes close to their size. No gradual, textured, layered gardening. It’s like grass, then boom! Giants.

I bought the hydrangeas with a garden center gift certificate given to me by my parents for my 42nd birthday. I am 48 now, and the hydrangeas are three. The certificate had no expiration date, and I had been in no hurry to spend it. One would think my parents knew me well enough to give me an appropriate present, but as sometimes happens it was more a reflection of the giver than the receiver.

My childhood home was magnificent and beautifully tended. Blueberry bushes pruned and abundant with fruit, lilacs lining the quarter-mile driveway, swings carpenter crafted and hung among the pines. Tractor blades were sharpened on schedule and boiling water was poured bi-weekly on the slate patio to make the pulling of any errant grass easier. There was no staff, just my mother and father and six kids with chores.

My father enjoyed yard work and my mother enjoyed meticulousness. Purchasing anything that required either of those two things was a burden for me. I needed to choose something living, plant it, nurture it to the best of my ability, and keep it alive at least until their next visit. Another pregnancy would have been easier.

When my husband and I purchased our home 16 years ago, a little Cape on five acres, the grounds were beautiful. There were rhubarb and strawberry patches, the front lawn was deep green and pristine, and scattered among the perennials in front of the house were spots of perfectly placed accenting annuals. Our volunteer movers, all siblings of my husband and mine, were giddy at the impromptu garden tour.

“Look at the bee balm — I have never seen that exact shade.”

“I have been dying to get some astilbe but I always miss it in the fall. You have three plants!”

“Oh my God — peonies!”

They took “cuttings” and suggested transplants and were excited to see what else would bloom come fall.

I was proud of the home we purchased. My husband and I had lived the first five years of our marriage in Washington, D.C., in rentals well situated to good bars and the Metro. We spent money betting on steeplechase races at parties in Virginia horse country and hit up 22 of the top 25 restaurants listed in Washingtonian Magazine each year. We were not savers. We wondered at our peers who purchased Capitol Hill townhouses and rented rooms to friends, and the young families in our condo complex who actually owned their units. That we had adjusted our lifestyle to dinners at Burger King and beer and football at home, found a house with wood floors and a screened porch in the perfect location, and negotiated and bought it ourselves was a big life moment. I liked that our house had something special our families, each owners of far more square footage than us, were taken with. I cut bouquets and photographed them, sending pictures to my suburban garden club friend in Maryland. Rhubarb Cobbler became my go-to dessert for potlucks. I bought a hand spade and dug out anything that marred our putting green lawn. I sought the advice of my sisters come fall, and cut down and divided and pruned as directed. We found wooden A-frames behind the house, and covered the bushes in anticipation of heavy snow. For 12 months our yard was bountiful, vibrant, and well cared for. I had grounds, and I liked it.

But then spring arrived and I was confused by the growth in the front beds. Everything was sprouting at once, and green. There were no flowers yet to help me differentiate between plants. There were spots of minimal growth that appeared to be just some sort of grass. Was I supposed to be doing something? My husband eviscerated the rhubarb plants with the push mower because mowing around them took several extra minutes. The holly bush branches were dark and hard. Everyone seemed to be mulching: neighbors brought home loads in their pick-up trucks, and every local bank seemed to have a lawn care crew spreading, so we bought mulch. It was the wrong kind, but most plants did manage to push through the chippy orange layer. Seemingly untouched by winter and coming on strong were what I labeled “the dreaded bearded Iris,” tall, burgundy, grocery store arrangement flowers. The next time I weeded I ripped them out and threw them over the embankment. The peonies also came through, but with only one flower and lots of tiny ants. The autumn sedum was sturdy, but not tall enough to shine through the weeds that I quickly grew sick of pulling.

On that year’s Fourth of July we hosted a family party, and at least three sisters asked and were granted permission to dig up and take home plants of which I had grown weary. The women hovered together and whispered over the orphans they would rescue, and my lack of maternal instincts. “Take them,” I cried. “Take more!” In the fall I was happy to burn brush, and I weed whacked the beds with giddy relief. I loved that the growing season was over. I bought pumpkins and potted mums for the front steps, and was finally relaxed coming home and walking into the house.

As the summers passed, eventually nearly everything died, or was ripped out and tossed over the stone wall. I tied a chain to my car and yanked out the bird nesting evergreen shrubs flanking the front door. I allowed a friend to plant all lilies in an English Garden kind of arrangement that is OK looking messy. Each summer I now hire a high school student to weed; at $100 the benefit far surpassed a therapy session. The mint lived, and is well used in Mojitos. When I mow the lawn, I have Zen moments on my father’s tractor which my mother gave me when he passed away. I smile at the flowers blooming in surprising spots, surviving and thriving where they landed.

I did go to the garden center, and took lots of pictures of plants and sent them to my sister asking for her help. “Nothing that needs trimming or fertilizing, or could die” I insisted. We settled on hydrangeas, but there are a million different kinds and I bought the wrong ones. I planted them and they have survived me for six years now. They are too big and block the view, and they are top heavy and bend and break. Their blossoms get wet lying on the ground, and some turn moldy and brown. I karate kick their huge heads sometimes if I need to let off steam. They don’t go with the English Garden lilies at all; the colors are all wrong. No one comments on their beauty, or lushness, or shade. But they come back year after year, and ask nothing of me. And I am keeping them — because they make me laugh.

The writer lives in White River Junction.