...is the name of a great landscaping place nearby, run by a friendly young guy named Mark. He and his staff of slightly spaced out UGA students sell gardeners' solid dreams. It looks like a whole lot of rubble from the road, but up close it's a treasure of granite, marble, sandstone, and gravel, everything neatly shoveled and stacked into piles. If you want to fill rock gardens, build stone walls or gravel paths, need tons of flagstones or yards of topsoil, Mark's the guy to see around here. He's got this big funky old truck he can manoever into the tightest, most wooded spaces.
This is the first year of hardscaping in my own backyard. Last week, I got down to building a formal herb bed. We tilled, amended, lay down landscape fabric, and then dumped about half a ton of gravel on a roughly 7X8 foot bed. In the center, we placed a verdigris birdbath we brought from Atlanta, and then lined out a path with half a ton of flagstones Mark had hauled here. I pushed the gravel aside, cut open the fabric with my indispensible Swiss knife, dug out holes, plopped in about a dozen delicious herbs, filled in with soil conditioner, and voila. One of the easiest beds I've ever planted and there's even hope it will be weed-free. Along the side I've planted some mints and a bunch of freshly divided liriope: my diabolical intent is to let those two invasive species battle it out as they naturalize the slope they're sitting on.
Gardening, I realize, is about all about planning. It's perfect for a control freak. It requires endless, intricate organization. Not unlike writing, the thinking and planning can sometimes take more energy than the actual doing. Gardening is physical, hard work, but it's relaxing work, meditative work. After years of gardening, you have a relationship with plants that make them as pleasant and alternately challenging to handle as dogs. Every type of plant has slightly different needs. You may study all you like from gardening books and magazines, but until you live with the plant through a season, you can't enter its gestalt. At least the more interesting plants are like that. Some plants are happy-go-lucky morons, and will mindlessly thrive anyplace you stick them; others are delicate geniuses who collapse at the least stress. Over the years, I've developed a very warm and fuzzy place in my heart for the morons--the hostas and liriope and periwinkle and mints that are slowly spreading throughout my yard ask for very little.
Garden planning is not nearly as relaxing or meditative. It requires an ambitious imagination to conceive of a garden and a monomaniacal devotion to execute the plans. Often, it's about solving problems. If they can't be solved, then you need to find a creative way either to hide flaws, compensate for poor conditions, or turn the negatives into positives by thinking outside the box. It's about constantly developing new strategies and techniques to reduce your own workload while achieving better results. And you're doing everything on deadlines. You can't buck nature. You have to change with its cycles. It cycles frequently, sometimes unpredictably.
Gardening is an instructional obsession for a dominant. It teaches you to control the things you can control and to let go of the things you cannot. It forces you to question yourself and to consistently hone your skills. Mistakes have consequences; big mistakes can be fatal. Irresponsibility leads to disaster. You are proud of a garden that's perfect and complete. You are even prouder, in a strange way, of a garden that is still in progress--one where you can see the progress and imagine the future, even if visitors cannot. But a garden quickly shows neglect, and exposes the clumsiness and ignorance of the gardener. It is so much like SM.
You can even amuse yourself by planting for your fetishes. I grow Obedient Plants (an easy-to-grow perenniel flower whose stems and stalks can be arranged as if they were made of wire). You plant the garden you are. One summer, I was so sad that I planted a row of Love-Lies-Bleeding.
For the past week I've been tromping around the yard hours a day. There is always so much to be done and dusk always arrives too soon. Morning is soft and silent. Afternoons vibrate and throb. Twilight gardening is magical and serene. Tools vanish! Fireflies appear!
Today it rained. Though I made a few half-hearted efforts, it was just too cold and damp to work outside. Trapped indoors, I stood at the living room window and visually manipulated the landscape, giving myself a whole new list of projects to work on. I cracked open gardening books in search of unfamiliar species worth adding. I went to eBay and scoured the plant auctions, trying to remain calm as thousands of bargains scrolled by. Someone was offering 25 ordinarily expensive flowering shrubs for $150. Osmanthus fragrans. Sweet Olive. Viburnum. Could I? Should I?....Finally I picked something I needed instead of the thousands things I wanted. I ordered two dozen Stella D'Oro liles. They are yellow, fragrant and vigorous rebloomers. I will plant them in front of some of our hoursegirl's blueberry trees.
If I were to sit down and describe a day in my life, I don't think I would have time to live it. Gardening is a piece of it right now but each day is so different. Everything is always in motion. We live so intensely. Even the stillness here is intense. The air drifting in through the window is so sweet you want to eat it. Frogs and nightbirds sing us to sleep.
Speaking of woodland creatures, I was at Lowe's the other day, and spotted a neat-looking thistle-seed feeder. I had one like it in Atlanta but have yet to unearth it from the last stacks of boxes still standing in the garage. I bought a brand of thistle seed whose bag boasted "goldfinches love it!" Since we'd spotted a couple of them hopping around the sunflower seed feeder, I thought they'd appreciate their own restaurant. Got home, set it up, hung it on the dogwood on a branch opposite the old feeder. The dogwood is just outside our living room window, which Will calls an "Air Aquarium" because of our surrealistic view into nature. The dogwood's cruciform blossoms spray across our window like mottled snow.
I went inside for a cup of coffee, answered email, phonecalls, and got lost in time before finally returning, an hour later, to see how the feeder looked from the window. The dogwood was aflutter. In addition to our usual assortment of chickadees and titmice, goldfinches were poised on each of the new feeder's perches, with more goldfinches waiting their turns on a branch above them. I called Will and we counted eight goldfinches in all: four rutting males, bright yellow with black skullcaps; and four drab yellow females. Four mating pairs. I hope they bring all their chicks for us to see!
I would never want to be a wild bird. It's a rough and uncertain life. When people use the expression "free as a bird," I think about how hard it is for a wild bird to survive and how trapped they are by circumstances, vulnerable at every turn. It is a kind of freedom I've never wanted.
Which reminds me of a recent birdie event that was mildly disturbing. I was working on the laptop when a tufted tit banged into the window. This happens a couple of times a day as birds fly off the dogwood in the wrong direction. The distance is too short for them to build up any speed so there are no injuries. But this one particular tit was not satisfied when he slid into the window. He attempted to climb it. Then he vanished. I assumed he'd flown away but seconds later, he threw himself at the window, this time climbing up it a good 20 inches. I was so close I saw every detail of his agonized little birdie face. Still he fought to get in. He made a couple more attempts, flapping his wings, before finally going away. The next day, he (or someone who looked an awful lot like him) repeated this strange assault on my window.
Was he trying to break in? Was he a senile tit who thought he was a canary who lived indoors? Did he think this is where I hide the really good seed? Was he a secret courier of the gods, come to deliver some portentous message about the future of humanity?
I keep seeing that little birdie head, beak agape, eyes wide and unblinking. What did that tit want from me?