“…Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow…All it takes is a rake and a hoe and a piece of fertile ground…”
And then disaster did strike. Almost a year to the day, I was terminated from the job that had moved me out here. The billings were decreasing and the owner panicked. Over and out. All I remember saying to one of the former partners was, “Why did you let me buy that house?”, as if she had known this would happen – and maybe she did, but it’s not important. What in the hell was I going to do now?
I rode home on the boat that day absolutely numb. I never saw the water, was never aware we were even moving. How much did I have in reserve? How was I going to keep myself – and the house! – afloat? I’d been laid off before, but now I had much more on the line. And I surely had no one to bail me out this time. What if…what if….it went round and round my head until I couldn’t see straight. So I did the only thing a person in my situation could do under the circumstances. I started gardening.
My house was vacant for over a year before I bought it, probably not because of any feature in particular, but simply economic forces; in 2013, the real estate market was just beginning to wake up again and for once in my life, I got ahead of the curve. The inside was clean – a fresh coat of paint was all it needed to refresh it back to its former glory. The outside was another story.
One of the biggest nemeses to gardeners on Bainbridge is the Himalayan blackberry, better known as one of the scourges of the (north)west. One blog I recently read pondered whether Western Washington is actually held together by a single, massive Himalayan blackberry vine that crisscrosses the state, and I think they may be on to something. Any bare patch of ground is fair game for these monsters whose purple red canes may be as thick as a broom stick, and armed with sharp thorns over an inch long. Their only saving grace is the tasty fruit they bear in late summer, but it’s really just a consolation prize for putting up with this awful plant. My house is perched on a hillside. And guess what was covering that hillside? Because no one had tamed them in so long, they were thick and riotous and beginning to storm over the edge and engulf the garden. Thus, the next order of business was to pull them all out, and that required a professional landscaper, who finished just before I lost my job.
However, what I didn’t know then that I know now, is that taking that hillside down to bare soil only invited in another scourge, which to my mind is far worse. The stinging nettle. And this is where this chapter really starts, for that’s when my blood, sweat and tears came into the picture. No longer able to afford a pro, I went after the stinging nettles myself. Only, I didn’t know that that’s what they were.
Being from the east, my ability to ID plants and animals is decidedly skewed. The ubiquitous salal, Gaultheria shallon, another component of my native garden, is shiny and leathery and I immediately thought it was poison ivy, so I didn’t grab that. On the other hand, stinging nettle looks to me just like garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, so I enthusiastically yanked. Without gloves. Oy.
Imagine being stung by a jellyfish on land. Thousands of little stinging hairs trigger, and inject themselves into your flesh. It raises a host of red welts and a burning sensation that lasts for days. And there I am, out in front of the house, howling like a lunatic and ruing the day I was born. Or more so, ruing the day I’d ever decided to move out here and buy this stupid house and…and…
I definitely learned PNW Lesson No. 4 the hard way. Buy yourself some good gardening gloves, stupid, and don’t do that again! As a biologist, I know better than to stick my hands in any holes I might see while hiking in the woods, so why I did this so blithely is anyone’s guess. Momentary lapse of reason, surely.
And then there were the deer and the moles and the aforementioned banana slugs who ate up all the hard-won progress. PNW Lesson No. 5. They come and go and eat what they like, and they don’t say thank you. Either you go broke trying to buy every repellent known to man – which is what the former owners of my house did, judging by all the half-empty bottles in the gardening shed, none of which work, I might add – or you graciously learn to live with them. I waited for days for one big, magnificent purple iris to open, only to see it lying on the ground a few hours later thanks to a hungry slug. I scurried out to rescue it, and it bloomed in my kitchen. Oh well. There is a Zen quality to the corollary to No. 5 that goes with the Japanese décor and the garden and so on: don’t try to tame me, grasshopper. You’ll end up frustrated and unhappy and the plants will still get eaten anyway. And besides, the garden saved my soul on more than one occasion when I felt like I couldn’t go on. It gave me a reason to wake up and something to do when there wasn’t a job to go to. Aren’t a few nibbled Crocosmia a small price to pay?
A year later, I’m still unemployed, still clinging to my hillside, still hopeful. Still battling the stinging nettles, and the blackberries that have come back. The Garden Song, it turns out, isn’t really about gardening. Man is made of dreams and bones, as the song says. And, apparently, daffodils.