Planting a garden of hope in Alaska
Befriending The Garden
As the days begin to warm up, it’s hard to stay out of the garden. Even on busy days, I find myself sneaking out for a quick putter, putting off even important tasks for a lovely few minutes of plant primping. It’s been surprisingly dry and windy for April so I’m also deep-watering the beds and troughs as well as pots and flats of plants ready for transplanting. Several passersby expressed surprise to see me watering in April but the soil is already as dry as it usually would be in mid May, which is to say, very dry. By watering well now and spreading a comforting mulch of compost and cow manure, I’m hoping to encourage deep rooting and help the soil retain as much moisture as possible. Though snowpack along the West Coast is ample in the North and near normal in Oregon, California and Eastern parts of Cascadia look to be in for another hot, dry summer. Even if it turns out to be another cold, dry summer along the coast, it’s wise to start things off as well as possible.
The prospect of hot and dry is a bit difficult to imagine right now, as yet another frosty April morning has spangled rooftops and cars with icy frosting. Though the night temperature was nominally in the mid 30s, temperature gauges are set at various heights above the ground, and even a few feet of elevation can mean the difference of several degrees, since cold air sinks. I’m keeping my eye on night temperatures, as they affect soil temps as much or more than daytime temps. The frosty mornings have set my planting plans back a bit but so far, my peas and sweet-peas are flourishing in large pots and seem undaunted by chilly nights. I really can’t complain (although I seem to be): my friend Les is still dealing with snow and all he can plant is hope.
Though we live a thousand miles apart, Les and I have been garden friends for decades. We have quite a few interest in common, but we mostly correspond about our gardens, swapping pictures and stories about new beds and benches or fences as well as plants. Years ago, he wintered over anything that might not withstand the bitter Alaskan temperatures in an insulated pit, which he later abandoned after finding his plants nibbled and the pit full of a squirrel’s food trove, including psychedelic mushrooms. Alaska, it’s different. By this time of year, Les has covered all surfaces in the kitchen with seed trays and plant starts, including the oven racks. It takes an enormous amount of preparation, but his garden is truly incredibly beautiful in its short season, a miracle of loveliness from June through August. Then, it snows. Boom.
Over time, I realized that although Les is indeed a horthead who adores plants, he has a much deeper relationship with his garden. In fact, he befriends it. All those handsome gates and fences and benches are not just ornaments but are loving gifts to the garden, given as one might present an irresistibly ideal gift to a beloved friend. I’ve thought about that often as I tend my soil, which is as precious to me as my own dear plants. I want the best for both the soil and the plants, and for the garden itself, for any well loved garden becomes an entity and has a distinctive self.
Intimacy And Trust
I recently read a fascinating reflection that called out the huge social shifts that have redefined friendship in modern times. The ancients valued friendship highly, naming ‘intimacy, trust, commitment and loyalty’ as key attributes. Many contemporary relationships are what our ancestors might have termed mere or even warm acquaintance, perfectly suitable for co-workers or associates of various kinds, but not deep enough to merit the term ‘true friendship’. It made me smile to recognize that I count my cat and my garden among my ‘true friends’, as well as some actual people. All of them have shared vertiginous rollercoaster life events, mine and their own, over the years. That definitely makes for trust. Sharing painful and heartbreaking situations makes for strong bonds of intimacy as well; friends who understand and empathize without judgment are priceless.
Over the years, I’ve easily felt as much loyalty and commitment to and from my garden as from any of my friends, dear as they are. Various studies show that cats and other pets develop more character and personality when treated as family members, and I would venture to say that our gardens do as well. Certainly the ambiance of a garden reflects the way it is perceived and cared for. Strolling through a manicured landscape rarely offers the kind of experience found in visiting gardens that are loved and cherished. Gardens that are loved have a decidedly positive, pleasant atmosphere, differing in kind but not in quality. One may feel cheerful, another peaceful, but all beloved gardens have a strong character, and not necessarily that of the current gardener, as old gardens can outlast their makers, sometimes by centuries, developing character as key plants develop.
Peace And Comfort And Hope
The lure of the garden is especially strong these days, when the world is still reeling from the ongoing shocks of Covid19 and endlessly exposed inequities, racism, corporate greed and filthy politics. It’s a privilege and a blessing to be able to turn away from dire news reports to spread compost and plant peas. Even a little while spent sowing seeds feels peaceful. Potting up runaway strawberries lacing through a bed and setting free their crowded companions feels comforting. Seeing cuttings struck last fall springing into new life feels hopeful. Puttering among my plants, watching them awaken and stretch and put on new growth feels like time spent with good friends; refreshing, relaxing, and quietly joyful. As I nurture my garden, it nurtures me in turn, over and over, without fail. Surely there’s no better definition of a true friendship.
ah, well said dear Ann.
plants, gardens, and the holy in nature, are indeed many of the very closest friends i have, and, my joy at visiting with them is always enormous. spring brings a kind of excitement that is exquisite, electric. with each year on this earth i feel an even deeper sense of relief when i register that indeed, truly, we are about to turn the corner toward spring.
blessings, as the green growing ones show us their precious faces once more.
Dear Lauren, Thank you for such beautiful comments! It’s almost impossible to stay out of the garden right now, even to the neglect of less enticing tasks, but nothing else offers such delicious rewards. Let’s breathe it in with great gratitude!