Ivy’s no friend of my house.
Today is my birthday, and I’m going to spend the afternoon gardening. Then I’ll get cleaned up and give myself a good meal, salmon ponzu with citrus-soy reduction, a baked potato with sour cream and fresh chives.
I’m behind schedule in the garden thanks to several days of rain. I got three new perennials last week but have only one of them in the ground. Here it’s only mid-May and I’ve been consistently active for a month, but several of the flowerbeds have already been overrun by vines. I’ve found myself in a remake of Christ’s Parable of the Seeds (Matthew 13): “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up… Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.”
The last two days I put in some very physical labor. A previous owner planted four yuccas, which have to be cleaned and trimmed every spring, like the palm trees that are bankrupting Los Angeles and San Diego. First I finished my herb garden on the south side with one tomato plant, next to which was a yucca. So I stopped planting to clean it out, then did the other three while I was at it. Two big garbage bags later, I was pretty tired. The yuccas have lots of babies, and for the first time in the five years I’ve lived here, I was able to remove some of the dying parents. I now know more about the sex lives of yuccas than I ever wanted to know.
The east side of my house is done; the side porch looks better than ever with its hanging baskets and planters. Peter from Amsterdam is visiting in two weeks and we’ll hang out there a lot. So I moved on to the north side and found that the English ivy Previous Owner planted had overrun my hostas and irises. I ought to have a dozen irises but only four puny ones have come up! I liked the ivy’s groundcover aspect, but not its aggressiveness—it climbs the walls, eats the mortar from the bricks, curls around the old wood pillars and wants to take over the porch—so it was time to yank it all out. I really had to put my back into the effort, pull with both hands, crawl under bushes, and three hours later I was exhausted.
I got one of the new plants in (I’ve already forgotten the name of it, a gift from my spiritual director’s yard) and that was it. The one good thing was that the azaleas are finally in bloom, ones I planted in memory of my brother Steve, whose birthday was yesterday. I learned that azalea blossoms are much bigger than I thought, about two inches across, not the little bitty things I used to see. So the azaleas are in bloom for Steve, right on time.
On the west side of the house is a different vine, a kudzu type that no one planted, and I’m going to have to do more yanking. That will make space for the other two plants I bought at the daylily farm. And none of this work gets my vegetable garden going or the gladiolus in. The deck isn’t finished, the house needs cleaning and Peter’s started his countdown to America!
(He just called and sang Happy Birthday to my voicemail, his Marilyn Monroe act.)
In Jesus’s parable, the seeds are the word of God, from which great miracles of beauty and food develop. The rocky soil some seeds find (like where my vegetable garden’s supposed to be) is the superficial approach we often take to the gift of God’s seed; the plants pop up but the roots stay shallow. Invasive vines, Jesus says, are our worries and the seductions of this world, which crowd into our lives and choke out all other ideas. We have to uproot those vines if our seeds are to produce anything—and yes, uprooting is work; get sober and turn off the TV, ’cause addictions are killers.
But some fraction of the seeds find their way to good soil, where they invariably thrive. But even then we’ve got to wait; there are few instant rewards in this world.
A wise gardener learns to be patient and enjoy the growth, because one day, sooner than we realize but longer than we hope, the feast will come.
Meanwhile put in your day’s work, and look forward to that salmon ponzu. Fresh chives!++
Now the work is done; the kudzu is gone, though I know it will come back. What’s so frustrating about it is that the roots break off so easily; there’s never a point at which you can find the taproot and dig it out. But it has no leaves above ground now to nurture its rapid growth; if I keep after it all summer I can prevent it from taking over.
What feels best is that now I have only two projects left, three days’ worth of weeding and a lot of shoveling, then my vegetable garden can go in. There may be a bit of rain this week, but temps will rise into the 70s and 80s, and with luck I can get this done before Peter gets on the jet for Chicago. He’s to spend a week there meeting friends and seeing the sights, before getting on a train and coming to my neck of the woods.
The other lesson today relates to those flowering plants I bought at the daylily farm. It’s 15 miles north and 15 miles east of here, but the soil is completely different, much sandier. Here we have rich black loam from ancient river flooding. It might sound hard to believe, but being 15 miles further away means that we don’t get sand from Lake Michigan blowing south. Those same winds created the world-famous Indiana Dunes, and similar ones in Michigan east of the lake. They’re pretty to look at, a great place to swim and picnic and vacation, but you can’t grow flowers or vegetables in sand, as any tour of the Miller section of Gary reveals. The houses don’t have yards there, they’ve got sand and rocks and potted plants; in the winter, the lake-effect snows are horrendous, like Buffalo, New York. The people in Miller have their lake, while I’ve got a little plot of the richest soil on the planet. They wouldn’t trade, but neither would I, so happy birthday to me—Mister President, happy birthday to me.++