March in the Garden

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A daffodil in the writer’s garden.

Whether it roars in like a lion, or tiptoes like a lamb, in the Mid-Atlantic, March brings Spring with it. Slowly, the earth softens, and things get green. Clumps of bulbs – snowdrops, crocus, daffodils – push up through the mulch. Evergreens relax, their leaves uncurling. Buds broaden with potential. Early bloomers burst like fireworks, presaging the months of color to come.

Who doesn’t love Spring, with all of its promise, each day a bit longer and milder than the one before it? It is a time for new beginnings. And also a time for old rituals to start again. Opening day is around the corner, for baseball, and for the garden. After months of life indoors, March is time to get outdoors and back to work.

This year, thanks to an oddly warm winter, the gardening at our house started a few weeks early. On a recent Saturday, my husband and I walked our property, assessing where to begin to prepare the yard for the months ahead. On that first day, I felt a bit overwhelmed.

In the fall, our mulcher – bought used on a roadside fifteen years ago – had broken down and so a season’s worth of leaves and twigs lay in piles around the yard. The garden shed looked like a disaster zone that its occupants had suddenly fled, the rakes and clippers and tarps all scattered about carelessly. Shrubs needed trimming and perennials, leggy and dry, were a tangled mess. Invasive creepers – Virginia, and ivy, and clematis – apparently hadn’t taken the winter off.

The garden was a big mess. “I’m not sure I’m up for this,” I told my husband, thinking of the good novel I could be finishing; the long walk I’d like to take; the museum exhibit on my wish list.

But we dug in. For the seventeenth March in this particular spot, we put on our gloves and got to work. “Why?” I wondered to myself, as I knelt in the dirt. But soon enough, I remembered.

The largest part of our garden sits at the bottom of a set of stone stairs, nestled and hidden behind the yards of other neighborhood homes. It is a secret garden that has been shaped and reshaped over its hundred-year history. In the time I’ve been working here, I’ve unearthed pottery; glassware; a deep brick cistern; and a matchbook from an old downtown hotel among other treasures. I’ve been told by one neighbor that years ago there was a Japanese water garden and I like to think about its trajectory as I weed around the boulders on the slope below the garage.

One day, an older woman who lived here as a child, stopped by to visit. She told me that once, as a tiny girl, she had climbed on the roof of the house with an umbrella, planning to jump and land in the garden, like Mary Poppins. Thankfully, her father talked her out of it. I look up at the house sometimes and think of her. And my own children, when they were little and believed in magic.

The garden has a history, and we are a part of it. We are leaving our own artifacts, and memories, for someone to discover.

This garden has been my outdoor classroom for nearly two decades, and I’ve acquired some knowledge about plants. Primarily about what might survive in the odd little micro-environment in my parcel. But I also realize with each discovery, the vastness of what I do not know. For all the beauty I find in it, and all the hours I devote to it, I have a middling garden. There are delicate plants that pre-date me, that come and go in their own lovely rhythms, gifts. There are specimens that I proudly take credit for, that return reliable and strong, year after year. There are others – too many to name – that are on every gardener’s hit list. 

The garden keeps me humble, and busy. There is always more to learn and do.

Last year at about this time, I started to keep a journal. Partly for whoever takes over when we leave. Mostly as a way to track my lessons, to remember what blooms when, what has thrived, and what hasn’t, and to prepare myself: “Oh look, it’s March. Lots of clean up! The yellow weed will be back. Don’t try to pull it; it will only spread.”

The garden can be a frustrating place.

That weed. I remember first noticing it along the banks of the Jones Falls. From the car, it looked pretty with its yellow flowers. Since it has spread relentlessly, and now in my neighborhood, it will take over for several weeks every spring. Then slowly it will fade away. It is ephemeral.

Ephemeral. One of my favorite gardening terms. But it can apply to more than just plants.

In any case, with the help of YouTube and an obscure hardware shop, my husband fixed the mulcher. We trimmed and shredded and raked and cleaned. For a few days, February felt like April, and there was progress. Then March roared back, scattering sticks and leaves everywhere, and the temperature dropped. I retreated to my novel, fretted over the tender things that had been fooled, like us, into thinking it was spring.

“What can we do?” a neighbor lamented about saving our plants.

“I’m not sure,” I replied. “Hope for the best.”

In the garden, and especially in the earthy newness of Spring, I always seem to find hope. That’s what I remember as I dig and clip. No matter what goes awry, planting something, nurturing it, is an inherently optimistic gesture. The birds flicker about. The sun will come out. And even if it is not in the way we expect or exactly want, something beautiful will prevail and bloom.

Christine Kouwenhoven

Christine Kouwenhoven is a local freelance writer.She writes the column "Now We Are 50" every second Tuesday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.

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