Better Home and Garden

Instead of a lion, March came in with lamblike timidity. Approaching the one-year anniversary of COVID lockdown, my husband and I were unsure of our access to vaccinations. We doubted that we could undertake our big project for this summer–a backyard patio–anytime soon. I was skeptical that I would receive all the garden seeds and plants ordered amid constant shutdowns on my favorite seed company websites. And I remained wary of letting my guard down as the country begins to reopen.

After an early tipoff by a neighbor, I managed to schedule appointments for both of us in the first week of the month so that we could complete our second shots by the end of March. Even better, we could walk the three blocks to receive our vaccines (although uphill) without any complications other than sore arms and fatigue. Fortunately, we live in a county that will continue the mask mandate and social distancing with an eye to what has befallen other countries and the rise of variants in our own region post spring break.

Fearing an endless gauntlet of pandemic-created obstacles when we began the bidding process on a patio and other landscape issues, we found a neighborhood contractor who was able to begin at once on our challenging location by creatively working around a gas meter, buried electric line and a downhill slope. Our patio would be made from leftover slabs and offcuts from a nearby limestone quarry and built on three different levels. Almost daily for three weeks our new outdoor room took shape as the site was dug by hand and paved with stone sawed to fit. A white film of limestone covered my garden and seeped under our backdoor, but when the dust cleared the inconveniences were all worth it. We can enjoy our new living space just in time for warm April breezes.

We were determined to hire a small local company that employed several families, allowing them artistic and creative freedom to add and revise as the project evolved. We were surprised by a special touch when the contractor’s teenage daughter decorated four center stones with beautiful flowers, insects and calligraphy. She chose the words “faith,” “love” and “believe” as well as our family name for this unique space unlike any other.

As a bonus, tons of topsoil removed while building the patio have been redistributed for flower and vegetable beds while my vision for the garden slowly emerges. We also have many leftover limestone pieces to play with as we turn our blank-slate of a lawn into a welcoming sanctuary for nature and humans alike. We found that loosening our control over the process and outcome provided plenty of opportunities we would never have considered before. The letting go can be scary but worth it.

While I write, hesitant and uncertain March is going out like a purring kitten with sunny skies, piles of seed packets, emerging spring bulbs and a handsome red cardinal splashing in the birdbath. When I look out my kitchen window, my brand-new patio tile reminds me that anything can be manifested when you believe in possibilities.

The Downsizing Dozen: Tiny Tending

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As suburbanites everywhere march along to the beating blades inside their lawnmowers and collect the stray mulch that spring downpours washed out of obsessively sculpted landscapes, I fill my two little railing planters with carefully chosen herbs I will use in my cooking, at three stories up on a tiny balcony. From this great height, my old life of lawn maintenance and yard work seems very far away, indeed.

As I’ve mentioned many times, I spent my childhood in the country on several farms and remember spring as a frantically busy season at my grandparents’ family nursery, where thousands of annuals were sold in the merry month of May alone. Fields were tilled and planted, and the family garden begun but often neglected for farming’s other pressing demands.

I’ll never forget the first garden of my very own. My daughter had been born early that spring after a difficult pregnancy on bedrest. I was finally recovered, full of energy and new life, so I dug and laid out a little plot for square-foot gardening at the corner of our rental property. I bought garden tools and poured over seed catalogs, amended the soil and put up trellises for the vine crops. By June everything I planted was up and thriving.

And then my husband landed the job of his dreams halfway across the country. By July, I had to leave my little garden behind, and start over. But I never stopped gardening. Every year at the first misstep of winter, when the soil begins to wake and earthworms stir under the robins’ watchful eyes, I feel the call. It’s in my blood, a part of my genetic duty.

And this year wasn’t any different. I’ve worked all sizes of gardens, from half an acre to containers on a patio, but this has to be my smallest space, yet. Our diet these days restricts eating large amounts of nightshades like tomatoes and peppers, which is mainly what I planted in years past. Nowadays, we use plenty of fresh herbs, and instead of ornamental flowers, I’m trying out a couple of everbearing strawberry plants with pretty pink blooms as an added garnish.

I’ve no doubt that given the chance, I will tend to a larger garden in the future. The tools I bought for that first little square-foot plot are safely stored in our garage, waiting to cultivate bigger dreams. But until then, this is enough.

Once a month for the next twelve, I’ll feature another step in the downsizing journey that didn’t just begin when we sold our suburban house and moved to a small walk-up apartment in June of 2014. This shift to a simpler life has been years in the making, and I hope you’ll join me in my family’s quest to get down to basics. My inaugural post entitled Giving It All Away was featured in July, Make It Stick in August, Following Your Feet in September, Case of the Missing Mac in October, Diminished Drumsticks in November, Dwindling Decorations in December, Finding Focus in January, Forgotten Food in February, Travel Time in March, and Shifting Into Single Gear in April.

A New Kind of Reveille

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Several mornings a week now, I meet a friend to walk the loop around my new neighborhood, an early stroll through pristine morning potential lined with the ambitious brick homes of another age. I could never afford to live in these tidy Colonial Revival dwellings that once housed the military commanders of an army fort, but I can certainly enjoy their orderly charm from afar, and smell the trimmed rose bushes lined up in professionally landscaped gardens around the parade grounds.

Even though what remains of the historic site is privately owned, you can’t help but pick up on the efficiency of design and careful planning, the straight lines and perfect alignment of buildings. I was never attracted to a life in the military, but I’ve always admired a soldier’s ability to carry his or her entire world in a duffel bag while traversing the globe. I’m developing a new artistic appreciation of the rows of barracks and service buildings where many managed to work, sleep and eat while possessing very little of their own. Ironically, in many cases these structures are being refurbished to store the excesses of modern civilian life.

Back along the promenade, those fancy officers quarters were often connected into early versions of duplexes, attached but facing away from each other for a little privacy inside their broad porches, the spirit of cooperation and teamwork never far from their personal living rooms. During my foray into apartment living, I’d like to think I’m honoring the military’s lessons of efficiency by residing in close quarters for a change, and sharing common ground with my fellow residents.

As long as I don’t have to rise at the crack of dawn and run laps.

The Dirt Bag is Back!

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And so bright you can see them from the street. That’s right, there’s a fiesta going on in my backyard this year. Poppy and periwinkle and pretty darn precocious. After my initial purchase of a lettuce grow bag two years ago, I was very pleased with the output and convenience of these funky cloth containers that fold away neatly for winter storage.

But the outrageous color is what sold me. It wasn’t long before other bright hues started popping up in a lime green planter, azure watering can and cobalt blue coil hose. Forget those dull mousy browns and clays, my roving eye rests only on containers straight off the rainbow these days.

Yep, they’ve created a color-wheel monster dancing to her own party on the patio.

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