Gardening is a joy, like parenting. But transforming grass into garden, like parenting, involves a lot of sweaty, dirty, backbreaking work and patience, (a bit like childbirth), while deepening relationships and developing community.
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 when I tried my hand at gardening, I grew 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 other options.
Help from a Friend
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. We discovered that such a gardening project is also a wonderful opportunity to deepen a friendship and connect with your community.
Preparing the Soil
Our first gardening 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 attention.
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 labor.
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 May afternoon.
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 Gardening 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.
Learning to Compromise
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 season.
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 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. This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine.