The Violent Life of the Garden
By Julie Carpenter
This is a picture taken from my front porch. My roses are in full bloom. I have a lot of them. Thirty-one rose bushes I think. I have a vegetable garden and chickens and two dogs and three cats. I have lilies and lemon balm and bee balm and cat mint and lavender and rosemary and peach trees. There are birds in the trees and a ground hog that may be living under our storage shed. There are rabbits that run like madmen across our driveway every time we drive the car up or down it. (I don't know exactly why they have a rule about waiting to cross the road until they see a car. They should rethink it.) I have squirrels quarreling in the trees that hang off my deck. I like living things. I like to be surrounded by things that grow and run and make noise and bother me. (Thus the family. Just kidding family!).
I live here on these eight acres because when we moved out of a subdivision I thought it might be nice to live somewhere green and private and idyllic where I could indulge my passion for growing flowering plants. You know...have somewhere to put all the five dollar roses I find at the end of the season that look at me with their sad little leaves and smile shyly and BEG me to take them home. They do. I am very kind-hearted. So when we found this place, totally ringed by trees, sitting on the side of the hill with its barn and woodshop, with wood smoke puffing gently from the chimney on a bitter cold day in January, it seemed like a haven from chaos (and neighbors if I'm being totally honest) and good place to accommodate a lot of five dollar roses. We bought it.
And I do love it, but...I have to say that living in the country ringed by trees and roses doesn't always have the totally idyllic quality that one might hope. In fact, living things display an immense and assertive tendency towards anarchy. There are always weeds in the garden and they are evergreen. (When I write my gardening book it's going to be titled All My Weeds Are Evergreen.) The strawberries have already been swallowed by weeds. They came before I expected them and I had to put them out before the bed was quite ready. Sorry strawberries! The raspberries might have been swallowed if they were of a gentler nature but the raspberries are the Northmen of the Vegetable Garden and I have to take my clippers and beat them back to prevent them from extracting tribute from the beans. I pity the weeds that are contending with them now. An old potato appeared seemingly overnight and is now preventing me from using the compost heap. (Okay...I don't turn the compost heap often enough. I have a life! I'll turn it again after I get the potatoes out.) The rose that I first planted next to the birdbath pictured above turned out to be about eight feet tall after two seasons. I moved it and replaced it and it is now consuming the porch in a manner reminiscent of the briar in Sleeping Beauty. Locust trees, the thorny little brutes, are coming up all over the place and I can't pull them without heavy gloves. They are tough as goblins and they multiply like rabbits.
I sometimes feel like having a garden is simply a protracted and losing battle against nature. It's me against the ravenous and rapidly advancing jungle. Okay me and the deer and the ground hogs. I would be happier for the help if they would eat jungle first, flowers, vegetables and fruit second. (Except for the mighty raspberries. They can hold their own.)
But the vegetation wars don't have the emotional impact of the crazed and vicious animal kingdom that surrounds me. Right now, lying dead in the drive is an eight inch rat snake, probably a victim to my cat. He is covered in flies. A pair of birds has built a nest in the summer wreath that my Aunt Susie made for the porch. This is fine for them and the babies until the babies decide to fly. They will have to make it past the occasional cat, and the, thankfully, more occasional snake. (There was a rather large one waiting for me at the front door last year.) There are, of course, foxes. One of them stole a hen in broad daylight a couple of weeks ago. (Lunch is acquired by the bold I guess.) We have a pair of red tailed hawks that nest in a tree that overlooks the chicken yard. Good luck baby birds! You're going to need it.
Raising hens has been quite a lesson in who is at the bottom of the food chain. It's the hens. They might as well wander around with signs on their necks that say "Eat Me." Free range does not come without a price let me tell you. In fact, I feel that I should get some sort of commendation from some wildlife federation for feeding the native fauna. We have very healthy and well-fed wildlife around this place.
So what is the point of all of this? I guess that life here does not exactly match the storybook illustration of it that I had in my head. But as I note this, the life and death struggle that takes place in my green and violent garden, I also note that being surrounded by death and struggle does not diminish my love for this place or my life in it. In some weird way, the thorns and the snakes, (remember one of my fears is grabbing a copperhead with a handful of weeds) actually enhance the garden and enchant it. This is not a pciture-post card or some overly self-satisfied social media post proposing a preposterously static understanding of human happiness. This is an adventure story with villains and heroes, treasures and dragons. Sometimes somebody gets eaten by the dragon or the story gets a little dull, I guess.
But the possibility of failure makes the success even sweeter. When I see that baby bird fly awkwardly to the branch of the redbud across the yard, I let out my breath and feel a sense of satisfaction. There's one. When I get a tomato, firm on the outside, sweet and juicy on the inside, from the poor twisted tomato bush, the one that got trampled by the deer on their way to the beans, I love it even more. (And I will love it even more when I can put up a fence and eat some of the beans too. Outsmarting them will make the beans taste of victory!) When I sit on the porch drinking my morning coffee and looking at the roses that have somehow miraculously made it through this year without being chewed up by insects, I give them a loud "Hurrah!. (When no one else is around, of course). When I hold my fluffy heathen of a cat on my lap and try to prevent him from drinking my coffee (he must never be caffeinated...that would be a horror story not an adventure story), I acknowledge that while he may eat an occasional bird or rat snake, he also eats the voles before they can topple my roses. Being a warrior is not always good for one's ethics I suppose. Will this adventure story have a happy ending? If it has a happy ending just for today I will be satisfied. I guess the thing about an adventure is you don't know how it will turn out until it's done and it's got it's ups and downs in the meantime.
As George MacDonald says (I think he might have stolen this from Julian of Norwich?) "All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well." Sometimes I can believe that in the garden. We'll see.