Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Reluctant Gardener Meets Earth Day

 Diana watches over my garden
For the past 44 years, Earth Day has been celebrated annually on April 22.  During the week of Earth Day public events are held globally to remind us that the earth is finite and we need to take care of it.  Earth Day was started in the United States when I was in college.  At that time, air and water pollution were terrible threats to our environment and our health.  Since then, some environmental threats have been reduced but new threats, more worrying threats with much more complex solutions, such as climate change and ocean acidification are unfortunately part of our world.  Despite this, Earth Day has had some success in communicating to a broad population that our earth is fragile and needs our care.  Sometimes I think it is amazing that Earth Day is still celebrated; most of the time I think its original message is still screaming at us – taking care of the earth has never been more important. 

On a local scale, one of the good things Earth Day encouraged was gardening – the practice of taking care of your own patch of ground without using terrible chemicals and ideally by raising something to eat and something beautiful to sooth the soul.  Partly because of my former profession as a water resources engineer and perhaps influenced by the philosophy of Earth Day, my desire to live lightly on the earth and to take care of it is very strong.  That said, I am a bit of a reluctant gardener.

Nevertheless, this past Monday I spent the whole day out in my garden.  My garden was in desperate need of help.  An invasive weed, creeping buttercup was trying to take over!  Truth is I have a love/hate relationship with gardening.  Unlike my older sister and my friend Martha, both of whom are master gardeners, my relationship is more about theory than practice.  I love the idea of gardening and growing beautiful plants, fresh vegetables and fruits in my yard.  But then I remember I have to be outside – regardless of the weather and that I’ll probably get dirty - even muddy and have to scramble around in weeds and likely get pricked by rose thorns.  I’ll have to use tools, admittedly simple ones to manipulate but I have virtually no tool savvy – I do all right with a trowel and a shovel but beyond that I’m almost clueless.  I hate to admit this since I am a former engineer, I live in a green city and I am surrounded by numerous skilled gardeners and many beautiful gardens.  But it’s true.  While I love being outside I am not naturally inclined to gardening or gardening tools.  A full day in the garden was a bit of an anomaly for me. 

In Brazil my gardening is extremely limited…we live in an apartment and our “back forty” is confined to a small balcony.  That is most manageable.  Our Brazilian garden consists of well-behaved potted plants that need only water and an occasional bit of fertilizer.  But in Seattle, although my urban lot is less than 5000 square feet, it requires an extraordinary amount of maintenance.  When my traveling scientist husband is around he takes the biggest load – spraying the roses and the fruit trees in the dormant season, mowing the tiny lawn twice a week in spring, weeding the beds and planting the spring peas and greens and later, the tomatoes and beans and carrots and peppers.  My role is quite civilized…filling the myriad pots on the patio and front steps with perennial herbs, sedums, geraniums and continuous blooming petunias, pruning the roses and deadheading the flower beds as they bloom.  Here and there I find new interesting (ideally native) plants and dig around happily for a short time while I plant them.  But I am far from hardcore…I just I play around the edges.  I would like to be more of a real gardener.  I am constantly thinking about new plants I could add to our garden and new beds I could create. 

My Trusty Rubber Boots
Before I retired I didn’t have time to do more than the minimum.  Now however, I have the time to get more serious about taking care of my little patch of the earth.  Monday was my first big effort – I was encouraged by the garden’s needs – in the Pacific Northwest things grow like crazy in the spring and especially when it has been raining continuously.  The lawn was desperate to be mowed and some bad boy weeds needed discipline.  That was the situation Monday morning at 10 am.  I put on my trusty rubber boots, donned a baseball cap and, with a second cup of coffee in hand, I ventured forth.

Mowing our lawn is quite satisfying.  It is very small so less than 30 minutes is needed to complete the whole task.  We have a self-composting power mower with a hand pull cord.  Starting the mower reminds me of starting outboard motors in my childhood.  First you prime the engine with gas by pushing the little black squishy button three times.  Then you get a firm hold on the start cord and pull the sucker with all your strength.  Ideally the motor turns over with the first pull.  If not then, hopefully just a couple more pulls and you’re ready to go.  I like to vary my pattern of mowing, pretending that at the end it will look like a freshly mowed miniature baseball field.  Ha ha ha.  It isn’t even the same shape, let alone near the size of a baseball field but getting it all nicely mowed is still rewarding.  And with a self-composting mower I don’t have to rake up the grass clippings.  The clippings just add nutrients to the remaining grass.

At 10:30 am, with my coffee drunk, the lawn mowed and the rain holding off, I looked around.  Weeds were invading the blueberry bushes, the early pea beds, the bank overlooking the vegetable garden, the rose and flower beds and the rockeries…the only part of my yard that didn’t seem to have weeds was the herb garden.  I looked up at the sky – it was not sunny but it was not raining.  I found a bucket and trowel.  It was time to start weeding.  After about three hours with much left to do, I went inside and made an egg salad sandwich with one of the hardboiled eggs left over from Easter. 

After that quick lunch break I went back outside.  Although the weeds, especially the pernicious creeping buttercups were everywhere, I enjoyed digging up the roots and pulling them out.  I just kept digging and pulling until almost six o’clock.  This seemed like a reasonable method to get rid of weeds.  I filled my entire green recycling container.  It was a remarkably pleasant afternoon.  Here and there as I hung precariously on the steeper sections of my rockery, neighbors walked by with their dogs.  We exchanged pleasantries.  I wondered if other retirees were out in their gardens digging out buttercups.  I am looking forward to my next gardening day.  Next time I hope to be putting attractive plants into the rich damp soil – not pulling the bad guys out.  Perhaps I’ll become a better gardener now that I have a little more time.

By the end of the day I was tired but satisfied.  Good job I said to myself.  Even I can accomplish a lot in the garden – my back is strong and I pay attention to my gardening posture.  I felt as if I had contributed to the spirit of Earth Day.  I had removed many invasive weeds and protected my young spring vegetables and soon-to-bloom flowers from being chocked.  Lucky I don’t really have a back forty or I’d still be out there. 

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