Birthing My Garden
By Pamela Levac
When we first bought our house,
the front yard was a relatively healthy mix of grass and dandelions, with a
small border of perennials and shrubs along the house. There was a little
patch in a sunny spot in the back yard for some vegetables, and not much
else. For the first few years, I tried my hand at growing tomatoes and
beans. I tucked in colorful annuals at the edge of the lawn, pulled some
weeds and mowed the grass. I knew nothing about gardening.
Then the city dug up our street
and replaced my lawn with sod that never took. A city-wide grub infestation
further sealed the fate of our patch of grass. My front lawn went through a
cycle of promising green grass in the spring, beautiful yellow dandelions,
less-attractive stems of dandelions gone to seed, and brown, ugly dead grass
in July and August. I didn’t want to use chemicals, and I just could not
bring myself to water grass. Neighbors were starting to peek out at my weeds
from behind their curtains. I even heard someone speculate that weed seeds
from my lawn were infesting their fields of green. It was time to think of
As luck would have it, my good
friend Jenny was finishing up her studies in landscape design and was
looking for a blank lawn canvas to transform into a garden for her
portfolio. If I was willing to offer up my lawn, she promised to create a
beautiful city oasis that would change with the seasons and grow in depth
and interest over the years.
Jenny and I had nurtured our
friendship during the childbearing years, and now we were about to embark on
another project together that would, in many ways, reflect that time. We
spent a lovely day walking around the space together, considering soil
conditions, discussing different possibilities. Jenny inquired about my
favorite colors, plants I liked and didn’t like, and what I wanted to
achieve with the new garden. I knew I wanted pink, soft, and edible when
possible. I felt like I was imagining how I would decorate the nursery in
preparation for the advent of a newborn.
I anxiously awaited the delivery
of Jenny’s design. When the blueprints arrived, my husband and I pored over
them with wonderment, almost as we had examined the sonograms of our unborn
children. Our yard would be magnificent. It all looked so simple there, on
paper. Little did we know that transforming grass into garden, like
parenting, involves a lot of sweaty, dirty, back-breaking work and a good
measure of patience. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to deepen a
friendship and connect with your community.
Little did we know that
transforming grass into garden, like parenting, involves a lot of
sweaty, dirty, backbreaking work, and a good measure of patience.
It’s also a wonderful opportunity to deepen a friendship and connect
with your community.
Preparing the Soil
Our first task was to prepare the
soil. Jenny suggested that we use a technique called solarization to remove
the remaining grass and weeds. This entailed turning the ground to expose
roots and seeds, and then covering the whole area with black plastic or
tarps that were pegged down tightly. Everything was left to sit and bake in
the sun for six weeks.
It was at this point, as soon as
we had begun something visible, that curiosity got the best of our neighbors
and other passers-by. I answered their inquiries patiently, and was met with
everything from skepticism to fascination. Many of these people followed our
project from beginning to end. Just like that new baby in a stroller that
everyone stops to peer at and comment on, our garden attracted all sorts of
Solarizing was my first
introduction to the idea that gardens require patience. Six weeks is a long
time to wait here in Canada, where summers last a mere three months. Jenny
and I joked about gestating the soil. I now know that gardening, like
parenting, requires patience on many fronts. Patience to dig out every last
root of the Obedient Plant you put in on a whim, and which was terribly
disobedient. Patience to gather every last seed head of the Sweet Cicely, so
it doesn’t keep turning up in surprising places. Lots of patience to cut the
persistent Wild Strawberry runners, so that they don’t migrate onto the
path. And gentle patience to wait for the Snakehead to grow tall enough to
send up a magnificent flower spire.
A few days of rain towards the end
of the process set back our date for removing the tarps. It reminded me of
those two weeks of Braxton-Hicks contractions before I finally went into
At last, the big day arrived.
Jenny declared solarizing complete. My garden was about to be born. Jenny,
truly proving the depth of our friendship, did the bone-jarring labor of
rototilling while I dug and broke up clumps of dirt. She taught me to
recognize when it was time to stop and “breastfeed the shovel” – her
expression for “time to take a break.” Our shovels were thirsty on that hot
Many times, over the years, we had
discussed the importance of looking after ourselves so that we could better
look after our children. I could only imagine my frustration if I threw my
back out and was not able to continue working on the garden for a few of
those precious summer days.
Working the Plan
When the soil was prepared, it was
time to sketch out the rough outline of the garden. A long hose came to our
aid when we needed a way to define the path and center island. It snaked its
way across the lawn in gentle curves, almost as if it knew just what should
be watered and what should be walked upon.
Our next step, according to
Jenny’s master plan, was to lay the path. I suppose, metaphorically, that
you really do need to see where you’re going before you can get there, but I
was much more interested in putting in plants instead of doing the
back-breaking work that the path entailed. Our original plan had called for
flagstone, but I made a last-minute decision to put down a mulch path. Just
as I regret those few times when I broke down and bought the kids the candy
they were screaming for, leading to more screaming on future trips to the
store, I also regret not having taken the time to lay a more durable path.
Our mulched path is visually appealing, but it requires more weeding and
maintenance over the long term.
|As I sit here on
my porch, looking at all that has unfolded, I consider
how much this
garden has added to my life.
As we discussed ideas, layout and
plant preferences, I realized that gardening, like parenting, is a question
of compromise. Everybody has an opinion, and you have to pick your battles.
My husband bought red mulch for the path. Not my favorite. I chose many pink
flowers. He was hoping for more yellow. Even the plants themselves impose
certain conditions. I have tried for years to get Lupines to grow in my
garden. I’ve been through different varieties and different locations.
Finally, I hit upon the one spot where a non-hybrid Lupine returns to
delight me year after year. Although it is not where I imagined the Lupines
would be, I do have Lupines that flower yearly and that have begun to
spread. It’s like remaining open to the choices our children make for
themselves, instead of forcing them to conform to our vision of how they
should lead their lives.
As our garden grew, so did my
friendship with Jenny. She was a frequent contributor to our garden during
the first year. She’d drop by regularly to help me prune, dig, or plant,
generally bearing a seedling or two that she had nurtured. We followed up
our gardening sessions with falafel sandwiches from the nearby Lebanese
bakery. We shared garden tips, tools, and lore as we had handed down toys,
books, and clothing for our children.
As I sit here on my porch, looking
at all that has unfolded, I consider what this garden has added to my life.
I share seeds and cuttings with neighbors and passers-by, who frequently
stop to chat as I sit and weed. I anxiously wait for spring, for my new
friends to emerge from under ground. They will be here, year after year,
even when my children have moved out to pursue lives of their own. Purple
Hellebores, Violets, Wild Strawberries for breakfast. Sweet Cicely nibbled
as I pass by. Mock Orange blossoms that remind me of my first kiss.
Saskatoon Berries that the birds spot the moment they ripen. And beautiful
shades of pink and purple that bloom and fade throughout the rest of the
My friendship with Jenny is
planted in that garden. My children grow there as well. I walk the path and
remember heartfelt discussions under the tree, snail hunts in the Highbush
Cranberry, barefoot chases on hot summer days. Neighbors comment on how my
children have grown. They also comment on how my garden has filled in and
matured, marking the passage of time in a different way. So many things, far
more interesting than grass, now grow in my front garden, and the memories
continue to blossom.
Pamela Levac has a Master’s degree
in Linguistics from Georgetown University and has been translating in to
French and English for over twenty years. Her work includes websites,
product packaging, press releases, numerous other publications, and two
books. Her English translation of Léandre Bergeron’s book For the Sake of
Our Children was published in 2009 by Natural Life’s publisher Life Media.
Pamela is also a writer and has been published in several Canadian and
American magazines and academic journals. She is the mother of two children
who learned at home for eight happy years.