by Mimi Hedl
Rain continues to pass us by. We’ve had a few brief showers that tease more than give comfort. All the plants, trees and shrubs slough off leaves. Everything is a miasma of tiredness. This year we decided not to water anything except the eggplants in pots along with flowers and herbs on the deck. This cycle of drought will become the way of the future. We need to know what varieties do well in dry conditions, fortify themselves and survive. The head gardener looked in her notes and found our last big rain in mid-July, during blackberry season. That was over two months ago.
The underground river the native plants and deep-diving weeds have created lets these gardens thrive without rain. I can’t describe in technical terms what takes place deep in the earth, science was my worst subject, but I have a poet’s license and I pull it out at times like this. All the roots from thousands of plants surrounding and near the vegetable gardens go deep, deep down. The roots cross over and around each other and send feeder roots in every possible direction. They create a bed, a liner, a receptacle for storing water. When water in the upper layers becomes tough to come by, the roots of the flowers, herbs and vegetables dip into this underground lake, put their straws down and suck up water by osmosis to sustain their lives. This image belongs in a children’s book. (Hmm, maybe it was math…)
In addition to no rain, for weeks and weeks, the temperature hovered near 100° with humidity over 80%. We worked from 7am until noon. Then dripping with sweat and bordering on exhaustion, we’d hose off and retreat to the coolness of the house. This meant many tasks remained undone. Like not picking the pole beans. When we did remember to pick them, they were well on their way to becoming dried beans. If you leave too many beans on the vines through neglect or because you want to save the seed, the vines will stop producing flowers, hence no more fresh beans. And in high temps the flowers would appear and then fall off.
We don’t need seed of the Blue Lake pole beans so we pick the over-sized beans, shell them, and have shelly beans, a favorite in these rural parts. They taste delicious, kinda like fresh limas, though they take longer to cook than fresh green beans. I’m still hoping, the last resort of the desperate, for beans and go out every few days and pick whatever the vines offer.
Only one cucumber vine survives, looking sadder than sad. I felt tempted to water the cucumbers even though I needed to see if they’d hang on. The zucchini and white scallop squash have, much to our amazement. No fruits, but vines still alive. How did the squash bugs not devastate them with the extreme stress they endure? I wouldn’t brag about the way things look, but the gardens continue to soldier on. With temperatures next week in the mid-70’s maybe, just maybe, rain will follow.
Reduced garden chores meant I could take the opportunity to build a cradle for the bench in the Meditation Garden, a task on my list for several years. The large slab of wood sat close to the earth and visitors have complained about the difficulty in rising from such a low position. And it was wobbly too and might throw you off balance when you tried to get up. So I lugged old oak 2 x 8’s over to my saw horses and set to work making 2 x 4’s for this cradle. I will spare you the grueling details of my trials and tribulations, the different hardware I tried before carriage bolts did the job. It took me a lot longer to put this together than I’d thought, but what doesn’t? And I had to take it apart two times before I finally got it right. When I carted it out to the garden in the wheel barrow and put the slab on and saw how nicely it fit, how comfortable and solid it felt, I shouted Yahoo!! for all the neighbors to hear. To sit on this bench and watch the gold finches feasting on the sunflowers, hear their happy chirping, and to watch them come right to the bird bath, ahhhh…
On one of my trips to the Park, I stopped in my tracks when I glimpsed the unmistakable leaves of poison ivy on the edge of the Butterfly Garden. (Sort of silly to have a butterfly garden when the entire homestead is one, but I designed that back when I was young and naive.) Red flags go up when I see poison ivy. Just like I can visualize what goes on under the earth in our underground river, I can see poison ivy taking the farm. I’ve known people who had to sell their farms because they got sick or had to take care of a loved one and then poison ivy took over, literally. So I told myself to come back with a hoe and gloves. And I did.
Poison ivy turns me into a mad woman. I go after those vines, carefully, but with determined energy. The hoe searches for the source of those running vines and then slays with bold strikes. (The vines grew around the button bush, the lone shrub in the back-middle of the photograph below, a butterfly magnet.) By the time I’d finished flay-ling about, the earth looked like a pig had rooted in the area. Let no root go unturned became my motto.
Suddenly this garden caught my imagination. I had neglected the interior for years and years, not finding time to tame it. But now, I felt inspired, and the drought gave me the gift of time.
The next day I went out with pruners, garden pruner, (a gift from Jeremy, a mini chain saw), garden fork and rake. I cut or dug out every tree or shrub seedling, all the blackberry canes, the buck brush and other seedlings that move into neglected spaces and decide to call it home. Inside this quiet garden, a clean canvas appeared.
The lilacs on the south side of the garden and the summer lilacs, or vitex on the north side of the garden shelter the garden for its new life as a protected meadow. A beautiful, graceful meadow that could only come about after years of waiting for a transformation. There’s something magical about making a new garden out of an old one. When we began, we made gardens out of pasture land where nothing but grass grew. Now, 40 years later that Butterfly Garden became old and neglected only to find a new life. For a gardener to witness those changes and be an active partner feels like completing a cycle of birth and death. One couldn’t have come without the other.
Once I had the floor of the garden clean I raked everything to the sides. I could see the job wasn’t over. Branches hung in my eyes, caught me underfoot. The fun part began, pruning the lilacs and vitex. Whenever any of the young artists would come for ‘therapy’ in the gardens, the task they loved the best was pruning. If you’ve never had the pleasure, I encourage you. Learn pruning basics, then away you go. Most of these acolytes did a good job, but a few of the daydreamers would get carried away and there wouldn’t be much left of the shrub when they woke up. (I’d have to laugh as I remembered helping a handsome young man prune a fruit tree and while we talked away and I was smitten with him, more of the tree disappeared than I’d planned.) Everything grows back, I told the young women, so it wasn’t a big deal, only amusing to see what undirected direction looked like and the shock on their faces when they realized what they’d done.
The lilacs had years and years of dead limbs running in and out of the live branches. It didn’t take much thought to get rid of the dead wood. With the vitex it became a work of art. I wanted them to flow just so and give the gardeners or visitors easy access without branches hitting them in the face or impeding their walk. To look at the shrub and decide what should go, what should stay, and where you should cut it, well, it’s indescribably peaceful. Have you ever watched a gardener prune in a Japanese garden? It feels like that looks. You can’t see what the pruned vitex looks like in this photograph, but ‘lovely’ sums it up. Once the wildflowers take over in a few years this garden will become a secret garden of sorts, shrouded by fragrant shrubs. I am excited. Without the drought I would not have taken on this task.
I’ve also watched the monarch caterpillars growing from little specks to big enough to go into chrysalis. You’ll see a sprouted monarch on one of the sad zinnias. Water in the bird baths has been number one on my list of chores. Everything from tiny bees to butterflies to birds of every sort have used these baths during the drought. The deer come at night. To watch a bird taking a bath is truly one of the seven wonders of the world. These small tasks take on a more significant hue in a drought. I have time to linger, to enjoy, and not scurry about trying to conquer the world on all fronts.
One early spring day years ago, out preparing the garden, I found this toad. Frozen and then dried. When my sweetheart, Ron, saw it, he laughed and said I’d found the Buddha incarnate. This toad has been my inspiration for 25 years. When you look at the face, how can you not burst out laughing? Rain or no rain, life seems good, and this wise, funny toad helps me face it all.
Addendum: Halleluiah! On the 21st of September, the night before the fall equinox, rain began to fall at 12:40am. It fell hard enough I went inside to close the window by the computer, my desk, and to unplug the phone since the lightning came so close. And now, in the morning, I see a new world, the rain barrels filled, the temperature cooler and the tired world taking on a new hue.