The trees are leafless sticks but the mottled grass grows greener every morning. Birdsong pierces the gray light of 4 am. By 7 am robins and starlings bob and poke on the grass. Chipping sparrows, song sparrows, and common finches swoop across the hypotenuse from the porch eaves to living room gables. High in the bare branches cardinals chortle and tilt their heads as if to hear better.
I’ve packed away my 10,000 lux light therapy device, my shield and buckler against winter depression. Bulbs have straggled up, never as bountiful as the Dutch promise. No matter; I’m on to Burpee’s now. Gardening season has finally come.
Time to peek under the crumbling corners of the Styrofoam cones that cover the backyard roses and see if any tiny green leaves have sprouted on the canes. I will scrape back the remaining straw that covers two raised beds and learn how the strawberries have fared.
Then comes serious inventory, clinical assessment. I will troop the yard and inspect, imaginary clipboard in hand---the gardener’s triage. I will note the dead, the reviving, the remotely hopeful. Treading the damp grass my feet sink unevenly when I cross a mole runway beneath. Summer struggles with scalopus aquaticus ahead. A non-protected mammal and formidable opponent.
Gardening knits my Mott Park neighborhood together. April is the month our master gardener, Ginny Braun, buys seed geraniums that volunteers will plant in May in the four neighborhood flower beds.
The neighborhood honors gardeners and gardening. Every summer Mott Park applauds the prettiest garden and the most improved garden each with a $100 award. We have so many new neighbors---renters, leaseholders, land contract residents. I want to tell them put a geranium in a pot and we love you. You could win for most improved garden.
Meantime, we old-timers garden to please ourselves. We revive our spirits with gardening, nourish our bodies with something fresh out of our own ground, even if the carrots are oddly shaped, the lettuce bears teeth marks, or the abundant kale proved bitter. Gardening connects us with life.
And with history. I read once that Louis XIV worked on building and garden projects for Versailles to the day he died at age seventy-seven. Warfare, diplomacy, and domination of Europe for la gloire of seventeenth-century France? A mere sidebar to his real passion---building and landscaping. Gardens were outdoor rooms, integral to architecture. The tarnished panes of silvered glass in the Hall of Mirrors look shabby today, but the regiments of trees and shrubs and splotches of color within the hedged gardens are still breathtaking.
In eighteenth-century America, gentlemen farmers envisioned a republic where endless land promised a self-sufficient agrarian future. In Founding Gardeners, author Andrea Wulf documents the life-long interest of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison in crops and gardening. Founding a successful republic entailed laying out its boundaries and planting it to advance public and personal goals. Not by accident were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson land surveyors. Their daily concerns included species and crops for the new land they were settling (having wrested it from native peoples who merely foraged it). They warded off invasion and drafted a constitution while they wrote home to their estate managers about what to have planted. Their agrarian idyll rested on slave labor, the contradiction that would undo it.
In the 1890s American magnates built edifices to wealth attained otherwise---in transportation, industry, and finance. They erected enormous homes imitating European styles and crammed their rooms with furnishings ordered from abroad. The Vanderbilt brothers, Cornelius II and George W. , hired landscape architects to plan the gardens of their estates. But Gilded Age ostentation sank with the Titanic. You can visit the Newport mansions and Biltmore House if you can manage hours of viewing imitative styles. The real value? The rare trees and shrubs imported for The Breakers in Newport and the thousands of native azaleas gathered for the Biltmore gardens.
And here we are---ordinary folk with our yards and gardens. My next door neighbor is Italian. Gardening seems to come naturally to Carmie. She tears ivy off the brick walls and tosses the vines onto an old bedsheet spread out on the ground. Then she tips the sheet into the big paper bags for garden trash. Grass cuttings and fall leaves get the same treatment.
In the late afternoon we water our back yards and talk through the chain link fence. Carmie’s father was a gardener who grew tomatoes. He built things too. One year she had a garage sale to clear out stuff from her parents; I eyed a low table, painted white, and two small push brooms. All looked homemade. One of her sons carried the table over to my garage---though small, it was heavy in the way of handmade things. Too many braces for the legs, too many nails, but indestructible. I stack my garden tools on the handiwork of an Italian gardener.
Carmie takes a walk in the afternoon, when it’s not too cold---the village pattern of generations. On summer Sundays the family gathers at her place, offspring and their offspring, and sometimes a dog. If there’s a birthday, there are more cars and it’s noisier. I love it. Laughter and some of the talk drifts my way as I fertilize the roses in my back yard. When the men sit outside on the deck, they sometimes call out in my direction. “Hey, don’t worry about our shouting---we’re just having a good time.” I shout back that they are a joy to hear. Swear your socks off. Have another beer. It’s beautiful.
And it’s all just beginning in April.