I was cleaning beets last week when an old friend who lives on the other side of the country called and, for no apparent reason, started talking about compost.
“I built the compost pile to — you know — compost, and soon I was making soil,” he said. “I had so much of it, I started piling it around the yard in what seemed to me to be an artistic way. Then weeds popped up in the piles and some of them were really beautiful. So I left them, and started adding some other plants and eventually it seemed I had made gardens.”
I told him about our gardens, about how my husband builds soil from compost and manure, and how our vegetables seem to glow with light and life because they are grown in such rich, living, fertile ground.
“Ah,” my friend said. “So you actually know what I’m talking about.”
He lives in the Pacific Northwest, where any abandoned square foot of land soon becomes a garden. I remember when I lived out there the vacant lot behind my apartment was overrun with morning glories and raspberries. My neighbors grew tomatoes in the swales between the sidewalks and the road, and if no one grew them, tomatoes popped up anyway from the seeds of dropped tomatoes from the year before.
This is the time of year when gardeners — even accidental gardeners — reap the benefits of all the work they’ve put into the soil. Our spring was long and cool, but it’s very suddenly summer here, and instead of just greens from the garden we have zucchini and summer squash, beets and peas by the basket. The beans and cukes aren’t far behind.
My friend said his yard is dry and shady, so over the years his fruit trees have died. But moisture stays and flowers grow in the soil he’s created, and even dead trees provide structure for his gardens. There’s a climbing rose in a dead plum tree, and a few years ago he planted a snow queen clematis to climb up, too, so that when the rose blooms slow down the white clematis flowers will take over.
“This is the third year,” he said. “This year it’s going to be beautiful.”
Gardeners are hopers and dreamers. My friend made me miss the place where spring begins in February, where roses bloom from March till fall, where plums grow in the parks and front yards have cherry trees. We do our best with our short season up here.
A couple of weeks ago I visited another friend who grows vegetables and flowers on a small farm in Connecticut he shares with his wife and their two farm partners. I always envied their season, which begins more than a month before ours.
But driving out to visit, I remembered what I disliked about that part of the country, another place I once lived: the traffic. Connecticut hides its population density behind its hills and trees, but getting from here to there is a nightmare. I worried that my friend’s farm would be pushed out by all the new developments I saw popping up between curves in the hilly road to his home. Luckily the family that once owned his farm decided to sell the surrounding property to a local land trust to keep it wild.
Luckily, that is, for my farm friend and his family, including their 3-year-old growing up among the fields and greenhouses. And lucky for all the locals who depend on their produce to nourish them and their flowers to bring them happiness.
My buddy in the Pacific Northwest retired two years ago and is finding happiness sharing his gardens with his granddaughter. There are paths between the mounds of earth that have turned themselves into flower beds, perfect for an exploring 2-year-old.
And perfect for her grandparents, who like to sit in the yard in the evenings and look at the flowers and birds.
I know just how they feel. A few minutes, a few hours of peace and beauty is rejuvenating.
One evening last week we sat in the yard watching nuthatches and woodpeckers at the birdfeeders, relaxing after a long day. My husband the gardener summed it up. “This is my vacation,” he said.
Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on July 21. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.