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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

How joyfully does your garden grow?


While it’s often my tendency to look into the nooks and crannies of experiences and psyches that are more intriguing than the bland, surface niceties, I finished my last column determined to write a column about some of the joys ever present around me. It’s harder than you might think to write about the bright and lovely, for avoiding the pitfalls of vapid clichés takes unceasing vigilance, and the dangers are everywhere. Brilliantly spinning words of appreciation, suddenly you can find yourself on a slippery slope of “nice” and “fine”, “unique” and “terrific”, then hit the bottom of the pit with “awesome” echoing off the walls. My thought that I might write about my gardens was immediately pounced on by the self-deprecating mental comment, “The country’s falling apart and you’re going to write about flowers? Who’s going to want to read about how your pretty little gardens grow?”

Serendipitously, I came across the following bit in a book titled “After You’ve Gone” by Jeffrey Lent. Set in Holland in the 1920’s, a Dutch woman who always has flowers in her house, summer and winter, is explaining to her male American friend that in the summer the flowers are cut fresh every morning, but in the winter they have huge hothouses for growing them all around the edges of the city and gas blowers to keep them from freezing in the marketplace. He comments, “It seems a great deal of work to have flowers in winter.” She replies, “Having flowers in the winter is not a luxury. I see them as being both ephemeral and a mark of civility, which perhaps are the same thing.” He said, “Perhaps you’re right. I’d always mostly thought of flowers as decorative.” “They are not,” she said.

With one paragraph, my passion for indulging in beautiful flowers was affirmed. I love growing vegetables, too, although I’m not very good at it, for what could be more fascinating and satisfying than planting a seed or a small plant that produces real, organic food? But the spring flowers call to me in the garden store with voices as compelling as the songs of sirens, and I can’t drive by a nursery without stopping unless I’m running very late for somewhere else. Every spring I spend more money than I think I should, choosing bountiful annuals in purples and peach, yellows, pinks and fuschia, that will soon overflow their pots in luxurious abandon, attracting hummingbirds and bees. Surrounded by blooms on my small, enclosed deck, I feel steeped in luxury and immersed in more beauty than I deserve. I have particularly fallen in love with hanging begonias in scrumptious tones of peach and yellow, ever changing with the light. Asking only to have enough water and sunshine, they explode into a profusion of blooms from June until frost. Hanging or sitting where they can catch the light, especially that gentle, early evening light, they seem to be lit from within, on fire, making my heart ache just a bit.

When I lived in Minneapolis, I was right in the heart of the city with two narrow strips of yard. What was there didn’t get much sun because my duplex was 2-1/2 stories high, and the buildings on either side blocked the sun, too. I knew very little about perennials, but when I ventured out to a nursery to learn more, I was shocked that one little plant cost $5 or $8 or more, with no guarantee that it would survive the soil, the lack of sun, the severe winter, or my ignorance. I mostly stuck to houseplants, trying and failing to keep tropical plants like bougainvillea alive in my sunroom. So, when I moved, my yard looked as barren as when I’d bought it 20 years earlier, and I regretted not having done a little bit each year to improve it. When I moved to Ely, I bought a house that already had quite a few perennials established, and I was determined to learn about perennials and add some every year, which I’ve done. I have only two rules: they can’t be fussy and they can’t have thorns. They don’t all make it, and I don’t remember all their names, but what a delight when the plants pop up through the soil, having somehow made it through a bitter cold winter. Daily, I check to see who has returned, who is unfurling leaves, who is rudely spreading its progeny into other plants’ territory. My gardens are more jungle-like than neat. Some people like to have isolated plants, surrounded by landscaping rocks, but I want mine to be bumping elbows, like a large family of boisterous siblings, filling the space with leaves of all types, variegated, lacy, spotted or plain, hugging the ground or reaching for the sky, showing off their blooms.

I’ve widened the original beds, making room for more perennials, and dug some new beds, but I had to abandon some as I realized I just didn’t have the time to tend to all of them. This year, unless I dug out more sod, I only had room for a couple Icelandic poppies, the kind whose leaves are more tucked in than those of their Oriental poppy cousins, and they joined the astilbe, balloon flower, bee balm, bleeding heart, clematis, columbine, cornflower, daylily, delphinium, echinacea, hardy geranium, hens and chicks, hosta, illium, iris, lady’s mantle, lamium, lily of the valley, loosestrife, lupine, mallow, oriental lilies, oriental poppy, phlox, sedum, tansy, thyme, and yarrow. In tracking down some of those names, I found others I must try: turtlehead for its quirky shape; obedient plant, just to see if it is; meadow rue for it delicate profusion; and hollyhocks that I always forget and always wish I’d remembered. I guess I’ll be digging up more sod.

In addition, there is the bounty of wildflowers that come without any effort on my part, making me wonder sometimes why I’m working so hard at cultivating. If I did nothing, tansy, yarrow, butter and eggs, forget-me-nots, daisies, hawkweed, oregano and mint would quickly claim my garden beds and yard, a bounty of color and scent.

While human nature often perplexes, I can sit on my deck and feel a wave of peace easing my breath, surrounded by quaking aspen, cedar and maple trees, hummingbirds darting in to enjoy my flowers, loons calling overhead, and ravens complaining about something.

So, yes, flowers offer civility and so much more, giving us oxygen for the lungs and the soul. My jungle gardens and overflowing deck pots afford me the opportunity to share the abundance, giving bouquets of summer to friends, and offering momentary enjoyment to neighbors passing by who might stop for a chat to catch up after the seclusion of winter, simple pleasures that make my life abundant.


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