That was my garden last year. In fact, it was most of my back and side yards, the places I’d grown my vegetables from my cold frame to my raspberry bushes, where my native plants had stood and called to the bees and butterflies and hummingbirds and songbirds, all in their season. I’d walked among them as if it was my own private park, and indeed it was, my backyard wildlife habitat, carefully organized over 25 years and giving me both sustenance and inspiration, flattened by my tree in 2016, and grazed to dirt by the white-tailed deer who had never bothered my yard before but suddenly found it a paradise of fresh browsing.
Space for a sustainable garden was imperative in my choice of a home in 1990, and I found this tiny house on a slightly oversized lot. I planted periwinkle and pachysandra in the front yard, made my side yard into a terraced rain garden with stone steps and rocks and hybrid and native plants, and no grass at all. I worked out my 30’ x 50’ vegetable garden with brick paths and raised beds and the rest of the yard in herbs and native plants, blooming and fruit-bearing and berrying shrubs, and a small area for grass managed as a meadow and filled with forget-me-nots and buttercups in spring, tiny recumbent flowering native plants in summer and fall with a fair sprinkling of herbs just for fun. When I told people my yard was a registered backyard wildlife habitat and that I had no grass but for a small patch in the back yard they imagined my home surrounded by weeds and brambles, overgrown and shabby. But my neighbors and visitors were always drawn in by following the stone, brick and wood chip paths among the growing things to see what was here, and often remarked it was so much like a park they wanted to visit it regularly, and some people did.
That vegetable garden produced most of the food I ate for nearly two decades, eating it fresh and processing the rest into soups and sauces and cooked and also as frozen and canned ingredients. I started my own plants and a few years into it purchased heritage seeds and began saving my seeds as well, letting them adapt themselves into the nutrients in my soil and the light and humidity in my little ecosystem. I composted all plant waste along with my paper waste from my studio of natural fiber mat board and drawing paper and anything else appropriate. I quit using a tiller very early on, turning the soil by hand, so easy to do with all the organic matter. And with so many birds and insects all was kept in balance, I never had need for chemicals to kill off an overpopulation of insects or even to frighten off animals who would invade to eat. They didn’t invade, they lived here, and I left violets and plantain to grow along my garden paths so rabbits only nibbled the lettuce, and allowed the groundhogs to eat some bean plants and the raccoons some tomatoes if they would just stop before they had a full feast. There was enough to share for all of us. A wire fence grown over with grapevines and Virginia creeper and layered with brush piles pretty much kept the deer at bay as they nibbled on the leaves of the vines and occasionally found a way inside, simply looking beautiful against the backdrop.
And I started each day out there, in any season, always something to do, getting my exercise and fresh air, and then awakening my creative senses with my camera and sketch pad before getting to work as a commercial artist at my computer and easel. It was the best way to start any day, in the quiet of my habitat, and finding beauty in every little detail so that I could share it in what I created.
Over three years recently everything changed. One of my trees laid down under the weight of snow and ice one winter, flattening a section of fence, a neighbor’s tree fell in a storm the next year onto another section of fence and about 30 feet into the corner of my yard, then in 2016 my own beloved 70-foot wild black cherry tree simply shed all its huge branches one hot, sunny July day, covering all of my garden and back yard to my deck and beyond, and the front yard nearly to the street. The main trunk, still standing in the midst of my and my neighbors’ houses, could not be climbed to cut in sections nor could a lift be brought close and was instead cut so that it would drop at an angle across my back yard, safely avoiding all homes, structures and people. The fall smashed my cold frame, and cleanup took many species of plants with it, dislodged my raised beds in the garden, and left me with a portion of the main trunk across the yard because it was too big to be carried off, cut up or chipped up at the time. After years of praise for how beautiful my yard was I was cited for the mess that was left of what I’d had. I found a friend who could cut up the largest portion of the tree trunk by hand and haul off the seasoning cherry wood for his family’s fireplaces, cleaned up what else I could before winter. How quickly things change.
The tree fall began a series of events that included my brother’s sudden and unexpected death the day after the tree fall, and, immediately following, the final negotiation with a mortgage company that helped mitigate the extortion another mortgage company had perpetrated over a decade, cleaning out my savings, retirement, life insurance and any other assets and extra income I’d had.
So, it was a time to start over again.
The following year, 2017, I was working hard to rebuild those assets, finalize my mother’s and brother’s “estates”, and work on repairs in my home that I couldn’t afford in the decade of the mortgage issue. I had decided to focus on these things to hasten both my finances and the finalizations, and be free to focus on running my business again.
The cherry tree had been massive and shaded the rain garden and portions of my vegetable garden. Now without it plants held in check by the deep shade suddenly sprouted, not my natives but grapevines and bindweed and poison ivy and wild yam creating a tangled mess that seemed to spread each day. I bought vegetable plants and planted a small garden in a space I’d cleared in the back, but the deer ate everything, including some of my geraniums in hanging baskets that I’d been keeping and rejuvenating each spring for more than a decade. My old electric mower rusted off its wheels, and I decided just to let it all go and focus on getting life and finances back together.
I love jewelweed. It’s one of my favorite wildflowers and I’d always photograph it whenever I found it in the woods. Never before that year, considering all the native plants I’d let sprout and grow in the wilder sections of my yard, had I seen a single jewelweed plant, even though I have always had plenty of poison ivy and sap in jewelweed leaves and stem are the natural antidote to poison ivy’s urishiol oil, and, as nature would have it, they often grow together. I would have celebrated its presence because, for some reason, I find it quietly magical and beautiful.
Just a week or two after I’d walked away from my precious habitat the jewelweed was already a foot or two tall, all over the garden and back yard. It usually grows in shaded areas in the woods so once it gets started it doesn’t waste time setting in good roots first but grows up and up to have enough leaves to photosynthesize its nutrition and then begins to bloom.
I was enchanted as it grew, taller than me, and dense. A few other things had grown too, pokeberries and burdock, but they were only ornaments on the edge of things. Even though it meant I would see only the rising forest of jewelweed and nothing else when I looked out my doors and windows on that side, it held its quiet fascination for me in its meditative vertical stems, the efflorescence of yellow flowers, and then the steady hum of many busy bees in the canopy in constant movement pollinating each flower.
In September they began to dry out and fall, crumpling onto each other in waves. At the end of last year that’s where I left things.
Considering the change brought upon me by the events the previous year, over the winter I finally had the chance to think about the previous years and plan the next, and look at what should be a part of my life and what should not.
I desperately missed my garden. Not just the food, but being part of life in that way, a part of my little patch of soil, of exercising myself and my mind without intention, just as part of my daily work. A friend with an alternative wellness practice told me I did not feel grounded, and she was right. I felt as if I was floating through what was happening, not really attached. I wasn’t even sure what foods I liked to eat anymore. That grounding for me had always come from literal contact with the ground, walking around outdoors on the dirt and the grass and the paths I built. It built my immunity both physical and emotional.
I knew I had to keep the deer in check with the fence I’d had, and I had neither the time nor the money for it. When spring came I’d contracted for frequent vendor events and knew I wouldn’t be able to do anything until after they were done since they’d represent a good part of my income in the first half of the year. I watched my yard come back to life in the way I’ve always loved it, but I also saw my front sidewalk covered over with eroded soil and opportunistic thistles, burdock and poison ivy, bindweed growing up my gutters and what was left of my lilac being smothered by wild yam. And the jewelweed was back, beginning its ascent in all places it found suit to sprout. Thinking of the deer and the fence and the mess and the time it would all take, I decided I’d probably pass again this year.
In my sedentary previous year I’d begun to feel some pain in my right hip and leg and as it grew it was diagnosed as sciatica, a condition caused by being sedentary, by sitting or standing in one place without moving. My family has a history of spinal issues and I have a bit of scoliosis; in everything else that had happened I had stopped my daily yoga practice for lack of floor space for a mat, and my old exercise bicycle was binding for some reason and I couldn’t afford to get it fixed. The first step in healing sciatica is to be mobile, work out those muscles and tendons that haven’t been stretched. Even with my vendor events I hadn’t been able to ease the pain of it because a good bit of that was standing in your booth.
I had always spent about an hour a day outside in the yard, nearly every day. I knew this was what had kept things like sciatica at bay, and the gentle walking, bending and carrying movements of gardening had kept me flexible. And a little bit a day had kept the yard a showplace for decades. I knew that my garden and yard were things that needed to be a part of my life, now and probably always. So one June morning, just a few weeks ago, I decided to just start it all up again. Down came the jewelweed, I cleared the native and perennial beds of invasives, dug up the burdock and pokeberries, and planned to get whatever vegetable plants I could find at a local greenhouse, too late to start seeds and better late than never.
In the meantime the jewelweed stems dried in the sun atop the soil, and when I planted I cut rows through them and left them in place as a mulch to protect and nurture my nascent garden of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage and squash, beans and carrots and turnips and beets. I left a few standing at the corner of my garden with the phlox for pollinators. I thank the jewelweed for arriving at my time of need and giving me a place to meditate on these decisions.
In the weeks I’ve been at this I’ve lost weight, gained strength, had pain-free days from sciatica, and am definitely looking forward to fresh foods again. I haven’t seen the deer in a while, nor have I seen signs of them. I think they understand. And I start my days outdoors for just long enough to energize myself and to awaken those creative senses that are essential to my business and my life.
And after this I hope to also have the energy and find the time to write as often as I once did.
Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat. I’ve been sharing it for years on The Creative Cat:
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