I’ve always wondered why so many old farm wives surrounded their houses with hostas. Why, with all that lawn available, with all those spaces around a farm house to tuck in bleeding hearts or sunflowers, or to trail petunias over the porch ledge, or to hang fuscias, would they leave their porches bare, and then just surround the house with giant-leaved plants with unspectacular flowers? Laziness? Lack of imagination?
I’ll never do that, I vowed to myself as I criticized the lackluster landscaping characteristic of Upstate New York farmsteads. What is the sense of having a house surrounded by fresh air, soil, and sunlight if not to paint it with glorious color?
I’ve kept cutting gardens with rows of sunflowers, snapdragons, bachelor buttons and cosmos to decorate my kitchen table. I’ve surrounded my kitchen door with potted herbs, filled giant planters with every blooming color imaginable. Nothing gave me more pride than to welcome a guest to my home and invite them to sit under an umbrella beside the flowers. Walking around on a June evening with the hose, visiting each plant, nourishing them with drinks of water, held its own quiet pleasure for me.
For a while.
By July, the joys of nightly care would wane. By August, I would beg the kids to do it. By Labor day, the flowers and house would be immersed in a jungle of weeds.
And every year, by April, my optimism returns. The cycle begins again. I broadfork the cut flower garden. In May, I beg Bob to bring me a load of compost from the farm, and we shovel it out over the cut flower bed in the front field, and wheel barrow it up to the perennials around the house, then use it to fill the giant containers and the herb pots. By Memorial Day, the cutting garden will be seeded and mulched with golden straw, and the house surrounded with seedlings bearing their first blooms.
Silly old farmwives. Didn’t they know just how beautiful they could make a place? Didn’t they care?
But this past week, something snapped. Maybe it was the four surgeries I went through with Mom and Dad in the past two years, each time chewing on my lip, fearful of losing time with them. Maybe it’s the payroll, or the feed bills, and the processing bills spilling out of my inbox. Maybe its the fact that I don’t get anywhere’s near as much time alone with Bob as I’d like. Maybe it’s the (still) unfinished manuscript on my desk. Maybe it’s the fact that I feel like my little girls are growing up, and I haven’t had enough hours cuddling them. Maybe its the stew I need to make for the cafe, or the croissant dough that I need to stir up. Maybe it’s the stack of books I’m longing to read, or those back seasons of the Gilmore Girls that the girls are begging Bob and me to watch with them.
But I’m suddenly aware of something. There are things I like to do: I like to stand in my cafe kitchen, chopping garlic, searing meat. I like the challenge of seeing how to make the farm more profitable. I like feeding my customers, I like to see their smiles, to hear their stories.
But at the end of the day, I want to walk down the dirt road with my dogs, my husband and my kids, watching the sunlight play on the pastures and mountainsides. I want to sit on the screen porch and listen to the thrushes call up from the woods.
And I don’t want to pinch back flowers. And I don’t want to walk around with a hose. And I don’t want to mix up fertilizer concoctions. And in the wake of taking care of people and business all day, I don’t want to take care of one more damn thing.
But the last weekend of May approaches, and I am not yet able to admit this to myself. I’m frantically scanning my calendar and scanning the weather. When will I have a free moment to get the compost? Get to the nursery? Turn over the flower beds?
On Sunday evening, we are supposed to go to a friend’s party in Middleburgh. After spending the morning and afternoon working at the cafe, we drive down. We’re too tired to go in. Instead, Bob, Saoirse and I decide to take a walk around the village, exploring every house up-close.
And down a side street, we see a house with an assortment of cars in various states of repair. Fussier people might claim house could use a little upkeep,too. But off to the side is one of the most beautiful perennial gardens I’ve ever seen. For someone, this is a love above all other loves. This tiny lawn has become a canvas of self expression.
My first reactions? Self-recrimination. Why can’t I do that?
I’m a part of this do-it-yourself-homesteading movement. We homeschool our children, can our tomatoes, hand-knit our babies’ diapers, split our own firewood, slaughter our own hogs. It all has great economic, spiritual and ecological value.
To a point.
And then, after a point, it becomes an aspirational race just like the climb to the top of the career ladder, the chase after the better car, the pursuit of the ideal pair of shoes, the Facebook post to chronicle the dream vacation, the bragging rights to see our children landed in select schools and prestigious universities. It’s the same devil, only in a different costume: the one that tells us that, no matter what, we are not enough.
There is still one more afternoon cleared on my calendar for spring gardening. On that day, I have a leisurely lunch with Bob and the girls. The skies open up with a down pour. I go upstairs, pull the covers over my head and take a long nap. When I wake up, I go out to one of my perennial beds where a cluster of hostas have taken over. I grab a transplanting shovel from the shed and begin hacking it apart. Bob pops out, on his way to town.
“Are you okay?”
“Can’t this wait ’til another day?”
My hair is plastered across my face. I manage a smile at him. “It’s better for the plants if I do it in the rain,” I explain.
“You could also just wait until a sunny day and water them…” I don’t want to water anymore. He sees a certain wild-eyed look on my face. He knows better than to pursue the point.
I want the rain on me. I want it washing over me as I slam my shovel into the ground, dividing up what has suddenly become the most beautiful plant I’ve ever seen: the Hosta. She spreads her leaves wide, overpowering any weed that dares encroach. She tolerates the lawn mower clipping close, and makes the weed whacker unnecessary. She’s graceful and cool, puts up with the sun, the shade, the rain, or the lack of it. She makes things tidy, so if you take a cup of coffee out on your patio in the morning, you enjoy the coffee. You don’t think about what needs weeding, what needs dead-heading, what needs fertilizing.
In thirty minutes’ time, I pull off six small plants, walk them around to the front of the house and slam them into ground. I toss my shovel into the shed and walk back into the house. I leave the planters and the hanging baskets in a heap. I let the cut flower garden return to weeds. And the next time I go to Middleburgh, I’m going to take another walk. I want to go look at that other family’s garden. Because really, I love to see flowers. That doesn’t mean I have to grow them around my house. And while I gaze, instead of beating myself up, I’ll reflect on what seems to be my great learning challenge this year: to break the addictive cycle of taking on more, and figure out how to take on less. And still love myself. Then I’ll go home and sit on my porch and appreciate the hostas and the forest.
Clever old farm wives. I get it now