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The Simplest Garden Can Be a Joy

The lilies are getting ready to pop. They don't last long, but they are glorious. (Josh Thomas)

The lilies are getting ready to pop. They don’t last long, but they are glorious. (Josh Thomas)

A few weeks ago I went to Indianapolis to see my bishop for our first official visitation, and she asked me a question I’ve been pondering ever since. “What do you do for recreation?”

I didn’t have an answer at first, but finally I said, “I garden.”

A bishop does not like to hear that her ministers have no recreations. Working all the time does not make a person healthy, but the clergy are prone to be consumed by their jobs, so they must have ways to relax and do something completely different, or they’ll probably develop burnout. Their job is demanding; people get sick, have emergencies, they die, and priests and deacons are apt to get calls at all hours of the day and night. I am only a lay minister without parish responsibilities, but dailyoffice.org is my full-time job, and I too receive pastoral demands in various forms. Bishop Cate was glad when I could tell her I go outside and do something physical, even just weeding my garden. It’s remarkably therapeutic.

So we talked for a few minutes about gardening. She doesn’t have much light where she lives, though it’s next to a forest and probably beautiful. I have good light in places and not so good in others.

I cannot say my yard is beautiful. But I can say it gives me joy.

Humble home. Annuals grow well in their sunny concrete pots, but the spaces on either side of the porch don't get enough light. (Josh Thomas)

Humble home. Annuals grow well in their sunny concrete pots, but the spaces on either side of the porch don’t get enough light. (Josh Thomas)

Of course I love planting, and enjoy the results of my labors – the rebirth in early spring of perennials (oregano, dill, chives), the progress of flowers, the blossoming of cherry trees, the first strawberries of the year. But it isn’t all about the harvest, it’s all about the process.

Some weeks it’s all about the weeds! And mowing the grass, which I do not enjoy. I’ve developed plant allergies in the past few years and have to remember to take a pill a half hour before I go out. I got all my planting done on time this year, then in mid-May I took off for eight days to visit friends in Kentucky, Texas and Louisiana. We didn’t get any rain here the entire trip, and I was a little worried for my plants. When I got home, most things had survived, the all-important impatiens on my covered side porch and the tomatoes back by the alley. I lost a few marigolds and petunias, but I felt relieved when I got home.

Since then (a little over two weeks) I’ve been out every day but yesterday, when we finally got an inch of rain. Today it was time to start mowing again. I only have a quarter of an acre, but I have to take two days to finish cutting the grass because my nose takes off for the races and I sneeze a lot. The weeds are mostly under control now; I’ve finally gotten around to working in the front yard with its problematic northern exposure. Much of what I planted there years ago needs more sunshine, and maybe I will do some transplanting after the peonies are done. Thus I doubt my front yard will ever be picture-perfect – but oh, I do enjoy the back. That’s where I live in the summertime, on my covered side porch and in the back.

My favorite place in this house. I have hanging baskets of impatiens all around, the same every year since I bought this place. I found what I wanted the first time out, so I stick with them. (Josh Thomas)

My favorite place in this house. I have hanging baskets of impatiens all around, the same every year since I bought this place. I found what I wanted the first time out, so I stick with them. (Josh Thomas)

It’s late but I will plant some gladiolus bulbs again this year. I cut back my lone surviving rosebush; it has a couple dozen blooms on it right now. I will trim it some more and make my first attempt at starting new bushes from cuttings. I’ve seen online that you can stick a fresh cutting in a potato and start it that way, or use growth hormone, which sounds creepy to me – or even dip the cut end in honey and plant that. So I will try the latter, and see if it fills in the dead space where I wasted $40 on rosebushes that didn’t survive. It will be exciting if the honey trick works; I will be proud of myself.

Today I took a notion to saw off the lower limbs on a pine tree planted on the west side; it’s probably too close to the house and I worry that the roots will crack my foundation, which already seeps water every time there’s a heavy rain. But I didn’t chop the whole thing down today, I started with eight or nine lower limbs that are in the way when I mow. Then I was shocked by how fast that tree has grown in the ten years I have lived here; it’s taller than my two-story house now, as is the blue spruce in the front yard, which I have never trimmed.

My little pruning made me realize I have cut back every tree I own except that blue spruce. There are only eight trees, but I am nobody’s idea of a lumberjack. And I don’t really know what I’m doing; I bought this house with no idea of how to take care of the greenery or how much work it would be. A decade later I am still learning. But surprisingly, I enjoy the work.

There is no one to tell me which limbs to cut, which bushes to try where or how to arrange things. It’s all learning by doing, trial and error. But oh, how delicious homegrown tomatoes are! And oh, what I’ve learned to bake with sour cherries.

Cherry cheese danish, before applying the top crust, 2012. (Josh Thomas)

Cherry cheese danish, before applying the top crust, 2012. My cherries start ripening about the 4th of July. (Josh Thomas)

So you will never see my place in House Beautiful. It’s just one more old home in smalltown Indiana. But it is mine, I’m not trying to impress anyone with it, and I probably get more enjoyment from it than a CEO with a $50 million mansion and a crew of landscapers. My failures are mine, and so are my successes. The chives on that baked potato I grew myself, and Lord, they taste good. I grew the basil in this pesto; that’s my dill in the chicken salad.

Those are my peonies, sickly though they are, planted in memory of my brother Dick; my lilies-of-the-valley in remembrance of my Grandma. My mother grew strawberries; my other brother loved azaleas. I bought that little foot-high concrete angel perched under my beloved maple, guarding another patch of impatiens. These are my onions, radishes, carrots and broccoli – my chrysanthemum that’s actually coming back.

Our Lady of the Maple Tree. (Josh Thomas)

Our Lady of the Maple Tree, with her $2 plastic border. The tree’s canopy is so full, grass can’t grow under it, but impatiens and groundcovers are happy. (Josh Thomas)

Grandma had lilies-of-the-valley. They need shade, so I planted mine under the maple tree. Martha Washington used to wear those hats, you know.

Grandma had lilies-of-the-valley. They need shade, so I planted mine under the maple tree. Martha Washington used to wear those hats, you know.

I hate yardwork, but I love gardening. That, God and friends are all I need. Oh – plus my dog!++

Luke loves summer in the backyard. (Josh Thomas)

Luke loves lounging in the summer; we like being outside together. (Josh Thomas)

2 Responses

  1. i love your ¨notions¨…yes, I do. Thanks for the House and Garden tour, I feel at home in your home. Un gran abrazo, Len/Leonardo (it’s raining in Guatemala, lots).

  2. I really enjoyed your post Josh. I hope you have a wonderful summer.

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