I'm an ambivalent gardener. This stems from my upbringing: As the only child of parents who have Miracle Gro running through their veins, I grew up observing the obvious pleasure that gardening bought my parents, along with the beautiful results. Weekends at our house were often spent in the backyard, where my parents' tireless weeding, mulching, planting, and cutting turned our suburban acre into a verdant paradise.
On the other hand, I spent a lot of time playing alone in that backyard, breathing in the fertilizer fumes, and I may have resented -- just a tiny bit -- the time that my parents spent focusing on the flowerbeds when they could have been driving me to the mall.
It wasn't until my husband and I moved to Berkeley, California, for his graduate school, that gardening began to interest me. Peer pressure played a role: I worked for a nonprofit organization that developed environmental education programs. I was surrounded by professional naturalists all day in the office. These were the sort of people who showed up in the morning with some seeds wrapped in cloth -- cloth that they'd woven by hand -- and by lunchtime they'd have grown their own lunch right on top of their desks. After a month of this, I decided to try planting something.
The thing about Berkeley, California, is that everything grows there. Jasmine and poppies fill the vacant lots. We lived in three different locations during our five years in Berkeley, and I never had a problem sustaining vegetation. Not in our basement apartment, where I grew shade-loving plants in pots on the concrete porch. Certainly not in our sunny bungalow, where most of my gardening involved fighting back an overly enthusiastic trumpet vine. Not even in our final house, which had no yard and was in a sketchy part of town. When I got tired of looking out this house's front window at the rock-hard patch of dirt bordering the busy street -- a patch of dirt that had been sown with only broken glass and cigarette butts and spit for years -- I tossed out a wildflower seed "bomb" that we'd been given at a fair. And guess what? Those wildflowers grew!
Then, we moved to Vermont. Our new house has an impressive gardening infrastructure. The prior owner was an active member of the local gardening club; not only did she create flower beds all around the house, she built a potting shed onto the back of it. There was no question of not gardening once we'd moved in, having inherited pre-planted flower beds and a potting shed stocked with gardening implements.
After one summer in Vermont, the prior occupant's garden club membership began to seem a bit like serving in the Coast Guard when you live in Kansas. How did she do it? I've asked myself many times.
The science of gardening is pretty simple: To thrive, plants need appropriate soil, water, and sunlight. Here in Vermont, water isn't a problem; the climate provides ample precipitation. What our yard lacks are the other two variables: soil and sunlight.
Our house sits within the administrative boundaries of Green Mountain National Forest; the trees are doing just fine, because they're hogging the sunlight from everything on the ground. When I buy plants for my garden, I know now that those labeled "Part Shade" won't make it. What I really need is a category one notch above "Full Shade" -- something like, "Cross-bred With Vampire."
Then there's the soil. One of the things that drew us to this house were the huge rocks around the yard. We could just picture our daughters climbing them, sliding down them, bloodying their knees on them -- all of which has come to pass. The thing is: Those rocks came from the ground, and there are still lots of them in the ground. Our yard is where shovels go to die.
Four summers later, here's what remains of the prior occupant's valiant efforts: an enormous rhododendron, assorted hydrangea bushes, some hardy peonies, and lots of hosta. Things are growing in the flower beds -- and they do flower, which I use as an excuse to avoid calling them what they really are: weeds. For two years, we tried seeding the "lawn" for grass, before giving up and admitting that unless we truck in new dirt, we're stuck with moss and crabgrass.
Vegetables are out of the question. I try not to covet my neighbors' gardens throughout the summer, as friends stand up in church every week to announce: "We have five boxes of cucumbers from our garden sitting outside. Please take some!" or, "We have so much lettuce we just don't know what to do with it. Let us know if you're interested!"
But this summer, lacking the excuses of "We just moved here," or "I just had a baby," I decided it was time to take action. I noticed that we have a spot -- about 40 square feet on the front deck -- which gets some hours of sunlight at midday. I started seeds in pots out on this deck, and when they looked tough enough to withstand our chipmunks -- which are so bold that they uprooted my daughter's preschool marigold seedling right in front of us -- I put the plants in the ground.
I haven't lost a plant yet this summer. And there's even one tomato plant, a giveaway from the Memorial Day parade, that's yielded three whole tomatoes! So I'm taking pride in my front garden. If you saw it, you might just think I know what I'm doing -- until you went around back.
Ah, well, there's always next summer!
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.