Summer Musings  1.1

“Bombs away!”

 It was the battle cry in the War on Weeds.  I lobbed a purslane out of the vegetable garden smack into the bucket.  My mom taught us how to play weed wars that she had played to make weeding more fun as she grew up during World War II.  I didn’t really understand what bombs were or World War II was.  Nor did I comprehend the Viet Nam was, which was building during my childhood in the 60s.  But I did get that it made my weekly chore of weeding for an hour a lot more fun!  Weeding was hot, and boring, and dirty.  And my dad insisted that we pull out the whole root, not just the plant above the dirt.  That was so hard, and seemed downright pointless to me.

I grew up gardening.  My father dedicated great swaths of our property to a large vegetable garden, a long row of raspberry canes and at least a dozen flower gardens scattered all over the 2/3rd of an acre of grass and apple trees.  He grew up on a farm in Oregon and some of his first jobs were weeding, picking black caps and feeding the chickens, and at 10 years old, burying the old horse that died near the spring.

Pansy garden

At four years old, my first job in the garden was to pick the pansies and nasturtiums throughout their blooming season.  It was fun the first few times.  I didn’t realize that picking the flowers would  encourage those plants to flower even more.  We were so inundated with blossoms, we used all the vases in the house, bouquets in every room of the house.  Next, we started giving bouquets to neighbors and friends, there were so many!  Imagine my  dismay when those darned pansies bloomed in the first snow in the late fall!  I feared that I’d be picking flowers and making dozens of bouquets throughout the winter!

My gardening  responsibilities then graduated to being the “lucky” daughter who was still small enough to crawl through the 20 foot long tomato trellis, two trellises leaning up against each other, leaving a triangular passageway underneath for purslane to flourish.  That seemed kind of fun, till I encountered my first tomato worm.  And I discovered what happens when it is squished!  It gave me the heebie-jeebies and this chore became dreaded.  The next year, my dad put down an old carpet from the back hall, blocking weed growth, and years following, he’d layer newspapers.

Weeding was a constant.  Digging dandelions  with a special tool earned us some money, something like 5 cents for each bucket of dandelions with roots attached.  We kept a chart of our weeding schedule and each week went off to whatever garden mom decided was most in need.  I disliked sweating in the summer sun and NJ humidity (why do people pay good money to sit in a sauna or steam room anyway?).  I wanted to play with my friends, climb the apple trees we pretended were horses we rode to explore the wild west, or ride bikes to the Tenakill Swim Club, where we were family members, number 123, I believe.  Or playing badminton or croquet, roller-skating on the drive way or  playing Step Monsters, a game of reverse hide and seek my older sisters’ concocted.  Or Hop Scotch, or Freeze Tag, or you name it! Anything was more fun than weeding.
What saved my soul for gardening was dad giving each of us kids our own garden.  We were allowed to plant anything we wanted in it, and it was our own responsibility to water and weed it.  I remember putting irises in my garden, and when time to divide the clumps came, I traded my purple irises with a church friend, Peggy Stroop.  She had the most lovely dark blue flag irises.  Peggy was older than my parents, but I always felt comfortable with adults.  At church, by the time I was in middle school, adults encouraged me to call them by their first name, making me feel so grown up.

I don’t remember what else was in that first garden, but I was hooked.  I had to make do with temporary quarters for 18 years of transient living after I left home after high school.  At college one summer, I rented a plot of dirt in a community garden, and watched Italian immigrants growing the longest, narrowest cucumbers I ever saw.  At various rental houses and apartments, I planted nasturtium seeds which grew and bloomed.  Daffodils and tulips, and even a vegetable garden here or there, depending on the particular living situation that year.  Landlords didn’t appreciate the blooms, and one even charged me the security deposit for having dug up the vegetable garden in the back yard and then moving out in April, just as purslane and other weeds started taking over.

We moved to Berkley to an empty canvass of grass and just a few bushes around the house and some hostas hugging the walls.  I wasn’t sure if I could manage this yard, it was so much bigger than anything else I’d gardened.  I also wasn’t sure how it would unfold over time, as I’d never lived in one location more than 6 years, and that was in Waterford.

At that first house and yard I managed to garden on $150/summer.  That included the weed and feed I put on the grass back in those unenlightened days, as well as any annuals or perennials I purchased.  I became very handy with a shovel, taking day lilies and irises and hostas from neighbors who were dividing.  The wild roses I nurtured and transplanted around the yard.  A vegetable garden started from seed, but never flourished due to the heavy shade in that yard and a hickory tree dropping  toxic (to plants)  nuts and pods in amongst the beans and lettuce.   Slugs, frogs and mosquitos feasted on all of us.

I discovered catnip, chocolate mint and comfrey grew lushly from seeds or cuttings.  At one point, our patio had a catnip “hedge” because so many seeds were washed to the edge (and grew enthusiastically) after I stripped the dried flowers and leaves from the stalks I had cut and dried in the garage the year before.  The cats have always had a steady supply of the best organic catnip and I confess that I am a catnip dealer for all my friends who are cat people!


        My trophy dandelion root

Flag irises

Spring portrait with tulip garden and Spotty, the cat.

Catnip Hedge

Stripping dried leaves and flowers off catnip stems

With Mitch supervising, Sierra getting high on the

Stems, and Mitch and JazzPurr mellowing out with

Their stash.

With the move to Berkley came one truck load of furniture and a second truck load of perennials I divided earlier in the spring.  We dug gardens, discovering rich soil in the back yard.  I had no plans for the garden, planting what I brought with me, but slowly purchasing more perennials and divided the one’s I brought with me as they multiplied.  Soon, my gardens were mostly black eyed Susans, orange day lilies, yellow Irises, Irish daisies, and a small sweet autumn clematis vine a friend gave me.

Sweet Autumn Clematis and black eyed Susans

Each season brings new plants, new bushes and trees and new gardens to our property.  I keep moving things around.  Some need to be divided.  Some need to be in more sun, or less puddling water (there’s often a lake in the back third of the back yard after heavy rains), and sometimes I just decide something needs a new home!  There’s no master plan.  Each year the gardens evolve according to what is pleasing to my eye and my nose!  Most free time I spend weeding, pruning and tying up leggy bee balm and overgrown phlox.  Weeding is still a time for my imagination to run, though I have left the war games of childhood behind.  This spring,  I rip out scores of tiny maple trees out of every patch of dirt, be that garden or hanging pot or the gutters on the house and garage that was bedecked with maple whirly gigs just like mung bean sprouts.  With each fistful of maple forests, I imagine myself to be big and powerful like Paul Bunyon, towering over these woods that I can clear in moments, roots and all.   I admire the silver maples’ overwhelming seed production after two terribly bitter cold winters.

By the way, did you know the Royal Oak Farmers’ Market sells purslane? To eat!?  No thank you!

Irish dasies

and irises


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