Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Botanical Ark

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm all twitterpated in regards to my garden. We close on the new house on Dec. 14 and I'm assuming we'll actually take possession of it that day, as opposed to some catastrophic event that allows the seller to back out of the deal and we spend the next couple of months mourning our loss. If all goes according to plan (knock on wood), we'll move into the new house after the holidays and then put our current house on the market in late winter. The crux of my problem is this: I want to take a large number of plants with me to the new house, but February is a really lousy time to transplant. Montgomery County clay is hard enough to work with when it isn't frozen, and I don't particularly relish gardening when it's only 30 degrees and the wind is blowing hard. I've been potting up as many plants as I can this past week, taking advantage of the milder temperatures and workable soil. Thankfully I hadn't cleaned up the garden too thoroughly so I can tell where my perennials are from their dead foliage even though they've died back to the soil. Potting up plants isn't nearly as time-consuming as putting them out in the ground as I don't have to think much about proper sun exposure and soil moisture. I dig up the chosen plant, plop it down in a suitable pot, tamp the soil around it, and then move off to find the next plant.

However, I do need to bury those pots so the roots don't freeze when the temperatures dip down and stay down later on. For this I use the two raised beds my husband built for me years ago. They're perfect for overwintering pots, stashing new plants until I find the right spot for them in the garden, or raising vegetables in the summer. I've been amending the soil in these beds yearly until now it's a nice, dark loam that's a pleasure to turn over with a spade. I spent the greater part of yesterday afternoon doing just that, chopping up the remaining vegetation from the summer, incorporating some leaves from this fall, and digging holes for the plants I've already potted up so far. I feel much better knowing that I'll be able to take these pots out of the raised bed with little difficulty when the time comes to move into the new house.

That thought led me to think of these raised beds as a kind of botanical ark for my favorite plants. As I shoveled the soil around in the beds I wondered how the pilgrims, and later the pioneers, felt about taking plants with them to new lands and homesteads. While survival must have been foremost in their minds, I'm sure some of those people must have felt the need to bring some of their past with them in the form of a plant. Space would have been at a premium, so they probably carried more seeds than live plant material and most of it would have been for crops. Yet I wonder how many women might have collected seeds from a favorite flower or herb to take with them? Something to remind them of home, or perhaps someone special who they were leaving behind?

I was suddenly struck by how many of the plants I've chosen to take with me to the new house remind me of someone else and other places. There are the peonies and rhubarb that remind me of my grandmothers, the columbine from my favorite aunt in Alaska, and the beautiful peach shrub rose my husband gave me last year to celebrate our first date ten years ago. The lavender, coreopsis, and yarrow are all from the original bed I created while deep in the midst of working on my dissertation. They were watered with bitter tears of frustration and anger, but they thrived and gently reminded me of the importance of setting goals and the exhilaration of achieving them. The rose-of-Sharon, day lilies, hostas, and rose campion remind me of Poquoson because that's what my mother grows in her garden there. Then there are the irises. Mom gave me mine and she received hers many years ago from Mr. Snead. The Sneads were an elderly couple who lived across the street from us in Newport News. Mr. Snead had a passion for irises and grew some of the most gorgeous flowers. He shared some with Mom, who also inherited many others upon his death. I cannot think of irises without remembering Mr. Snead, and his memory brings forth all the others associated with our little Cape Cod house in that neighborhood. Suddenly I'm eight years old again, riding my bike all over the neighborhood all day long, stopping by the Sorenses' house for a cookie, hearing Mr. Epps' old-fashioned lawn mower whirring in the early summer morning, and throwing a wet slobbery tennis ball for a beautiful Irish setter named Heather, who lived in a yard with a white picket fence. I played freeze tag and Mother May I with the neighbors' kids on the long front lawns, spent many hours on the beach down by the James River a block or so behind our house, and caught fire flies at dusk. My childhood may not have been idyllic, but it was darn close to it at times, and it only takes an iris to bring all that back to me in a rush.

Sunset comes early in the winter, so I had to stop gardening sooner than I would have liked yesterday. As I put up my shovel and gloves to come inside and make dinner, I realized that not only are my raised beds a botanical ark for my favorite plants to rest in before we move, but my favorite plants also serve as a living memory book, connecting me to other people, places, and times.

1 comment:

forensachic said...

Wow...thanks for the walk down memory lane! I'm sure I could find photos of us with Tu, Lee, and Kate. Almost seems like yesterday...