Ways of Seeing, Alice Leeds: Home garden teaches life lessons

When we moved to Bristol 24 years ago, I had never lived in a small town. The 19th century homes on our block are close set, divided by driveways leading to former horse barns, but the land behind them stretches back spaciously.
I felt overwhelmed by the huge spruce hovering so close to our back porch. It obscured this view. I suggested cutting it down.
“You don’t move into a neighborhood and start cutting down trees,” my husband warned.
That was the first of many lessons learned in our garden. We resolved the issue by trimming the lower limbs of the spruce to reveal a framed view of our yard. Landscaping involves problem solving and compromise.
I began a love affair with trees and our huge spruce in particular. The previous owner told me it was blessed by Native healers who sensed its wisdom. This spruce watches over our home and provides me with solace in times of challenge. When I need healing, I stand beneath its limbs and listen to its ancient silence.
That first spring, we surveyed the existing beds and plants and got to work transforming our half-acre plot. We extended the vegetable garden, relocated the peonies to a sunnier location and removed several box elders crowding a hidden oak and elm. It was now apparent this backyard project would take time. When I expressed frustration with such a lengthy process, my gardener friend responded diplomatically. “I don’t mind waiting,” she said.
One June afternoon, after a decade of planting, replanting and rearranging a variety of perennials, shrubs, trees and beds, I surveyed the results. Strolling through our long, narrow plot, I quietly celebrated all of it — the billowing willow and nine-bark shrubs masking our driveway from the back porch, the shady grove beside our new greenhouse, the lush peonies lining our vegetable garden, the well-mulched cutting bed of flowers in a sunny open area. The street view of our house was framed by a Japanese maple off the front porch balanced by a hearty old hydrangea. All the elements harmonized. I breathed a sigh of satisfaction.
I was primed for another life lesson from the garden, the hardest one yet. That winter, an ice storm took down our lofty willow shrub, exposing our gravel drive and parked cars. The illusion of Eden was gone. It would take another five years to grow a new willow back to the former level of bounty. A year later, our delicate Japanese maple did not survive a rough winter, soon followed by the old hydrangea’s slow death. I had to face it: nothing living lasts forever, and we have no choice but to adapt to unwelcome change.
There were also fortuitous changes. The miniature hollyhock we potted at the top of our drive dropped seeds each year, creating a growing swath of pink-flowered stalks in front of our barn without any effort on our part. The oak and elm flourished when competition with the box elders was eliminated, offering us their elegant postures. The old beauty bush blossomed in pink wonder once the hydrangea no longer hid it from full view. Life offers unexpected gifts.
My husband, an avid and skilled gardener, learned these lessons long ago. He tells me there is always surprise and mystery in the growing process. And to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the work ahead, he follows the example of Scott Nearing, who took twenty years to dig a pond on his property, one bucketload of rocks and dirt at a time. My husband likewise sets small daily goals. Today he will replant the garlic bed and thin the carrots. I do my best to avoid fixating on the perfect garden. Sometimes we need to just focus on harvesting the tomatoes.
There is much more to learn here, and none of it can be rushed. Along the way, I will continue digging, weeding, planting and pondering in our garden and finding earthy pleasure there.
Alice Leeds of Bristol was a public school teacher for 25 years and is currently a writing instructor at the Community College of Vermont in Winooski.

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