Re-imagining the garden

During most of Homo sapiens’ time on earth, things didn’t change that fast. Thomas Jefferson, a quintessential man of the Enlightenment, rode to his 1802 presidential inaugural on a horse—the same transportation technology in use for the previous 2,500 years.

Outstanding in his field: The author rearranged his thinking when he returned to his former digs.

Similarly, ancient indigenous gardeners around the world used the same technologies for dozens of generations. When the soil wore out, they simply moved to new locations, taking their crops and methods with them.

But maintaining the old regime isn’t necessary today. Three gardening seasons ago, I left Jardin Fou in the hands of the people who rented our house. It had about 800 square feet of raised beds arranged with anal-retentive, military precision: perennial flowers and herbs at the ends, and veggies in the middle. Narrow pathways, to maximize the use of space. The soil was fertile, and the garden and greenhouse were filled with crops.

When I left, everything looked neat as a pin. But I guess it was foolish of me to think the average person would be able to deal with the workload required to maintain a garden of that size and complexity.

Now I am back at Jardin Fou. I spent the winter gazing at the space, filled to overflowing with three years’ worth of dried pigweed stems and assorted self-seeded, feral herbs.

What’s interesting to me is seeing what thrived despite neglect and what just disappeared. The hardy survivors were tansy, comfrey, lovage, monkshood, various irises (all in need of dividing), two types of mint, sorrel (praise Zeus!), bronze fennel and echinacea. I was surprised to see that I’d lost yarrow, Saint Johnswort, asparagus, thyme, catnip, sage and probably more that I can’t recall. I was also surprised to find that native yarrow had invaded, along with a couple of locust trees and a maple.

Staring out the dining-room window last winter, I spent much time contemplating the work it would take to bring the garden back to its former self: cutting back the feral herbs, replacing the sides of the raised beds, clearing the pathways, launching a serious composting effort, starting veggie seedlings and reactivating the greenhouse. But just thinking about it, I felt a numbing sensation take hold of me, a spreading sense of lethargy at the prospect of so much work.

And then, early one Sunday in February, I had an epiphany brought on by introspection and excess coffee. What if? I wondered. What if I didn’t do the garden the same way I always have? What if Jardin Fou began reflecting a lifestyle that no longer allows for a massive rejuvenation campaign followed by 12 hours of work in the garden each week?

What if I were satisfied buying my zucchini at the Co-op rather than growing so much that friends won’t open the door when I show up with a bag of surplus? What if the things that naturally wanted to grow were allowed to do so, and the food I wanted to grow went into whatever spaces were available?

So that’s what I did. Removing the sides of the raised beds and the rebar stakes securing them, I took a can of spray paint and drew out oddly shaped beds, leaving big pathways for the riding lawnmower while maintaining the large stands of herbs that clearly want to be there. I paid my daughter Laurel and three of her Asheville High pals to spend four hours helping me reshape the beds. At the end of it, the garden was unrecognizable.

I laid out big areas of cardboard to suppress weeds and herbs where I didn’t want them. Housemate Mary nurtured the irises, planted flowers for the house and catnip for the cats. I showed unusual restraint by planting only two of the San Marzanos from the six-pack I’d bought, figuring that would give me all the sun-dried tomatoes I would actually need. We began succession-planting lettuce, which we eat a lot of. All the new plantings go through holes in the cardboard, so the mulch can be left in place to continue suppressing weeds.

It’s now June, and I’m spending two or three hours in the garden each week—most of it just puttering or simply mesmerized by the sight of water coming out of the hose to soak new plantings. The large, healthy stands of tansy, mint, wild yarrow and comfrey are robust enough to smother any competition. Beneficial insects are abundant. The cardboard is keeping certain areas in a holding pattern till one of us gets around to planting something. The pathways are beginning to fill in with grass, which gets mowed as needed. What weeds do come up are easy to pull.

In short, Jardin Fou has become what I need in my life right now—a place of exuberant growth and vitality that doesn’t require the kind of time I can no longer afford to lavish on it.

So what are the lessons here?

Maybe the plants running rampant in the garden are merely the Great Spirit’s way of telling us what we should be growing. Maybe, when circumstances change, we don’t need to be straitjacketed by old habit patterns. And maybe, in times of change, our gardens can reflect who we are today—not who we’ve been in the past.

[The extra time Jeff Ashton previously spent tending his Reems Creek garden is now allocated to fly-fishing on WNC streams.]

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