Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How I Spent My Summer By Julia Spencer-Fleming, Age 53

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: It's important to state, to begin with, that I am not a gardener. Some of the Reds are real gardeners; I know Lucy and Deb do...things...with their plants that I find hard to follow. Red emerita Rosemary Harris is a Connecticut Master Gardener, for heaven's sake. In contrast, I require extensive briefing from Ross to delineate between weeds and flowers, and my whole family was amazed when I was able to keep a pair of geraniums alive over the winter.

I also have no landscaping ability. You know how some people can look at a bare yard and imagine trees, ornamentals, borders, flower beds and hardscaping? Yeah, not me. I could maybe follow one of those detailed plans you see in BETTER HOMES AND GARDENS - the ones with the dots and the numbers and the pictures of the appropriate plants on the sidebar. But if I had to figure out something on my own? Let's say I'd spend a lot of time convincing the neighbors “the natural look” was in.

Which is why it's odd that I'm spending my mornings this summer undoing a decade of neglect in our back forty. When Ross and I bought our (now) 200-year-old farmhouse, we were 20 years younger, held one job between us (I was a stay-at-home-mom) and had tiny tots who took long naps. We were able to spend hours every week keeping up the apple trees, blackberry canes, grape arbors, asparagus, high-bush blueberries, lilacs, forsythia, quarter-acre vegetable plot, compost pile and, of course, the mowing. Did I mention we have almost four acres? 

What happened? We got older. The children got older, and wanted to do something on Saturdays besides watch mom and dad labor outdoors. I distinctly remember the moment I gave up on the vegetables: I was sitting on a milk crate beneath a blazing July sun, about fifteen months pregnant with Youngest, trying to weed the lettuce row while the kids whined about going to the beach. I thought to myself, Wait a minute. I live in Maine. It's summertime. Why aren't we at the beach? When I realized I could buy the entire output of my garden from the local farm stand for fifty bucks, I got off that milk crate and never went back. I think it's still there, buried in weeds and mint gone mad.

As our weekends and evenings grew busier, we ceded one part of the back garden after another to nature. We concentrated on the front of the house, and the space where the kids played, and the spot where we grill. Everything else grew and spread and ran wild. Until this spring, when I took a long stroll around our property and realized Ross and I were just a couple cats away from becoming the Beales in Grey Gardens. “Ross,” I said, “We have to Do Something.”

Thus, my morning routine. I get up, have my tea and toast, slather on sunscreen (at least a shot glass worth!) and head outside with my pruning hook. I've been taking down forsythia that's grown so dense around one side of the barn that it looks like a mangrove swamp under the leaves. 

Ross and the Boy have been cutting down saplings and overhanging branches. We're pruning grape vines and slashing Japanese knotweed (to be followed by rooting up as many rhizomes as possible and then tarping it next spring.) We're yanking out berry brambles that have surrounded the old play house as if it was Sleeping Beauty's castle.

I figure that by the fall (unless Ross and I succumb to heat stroke/a heart attack/back strain) we'll have beaten our property into a rough sort of shape. Next summer will be more pruning, more uprooting, maintenance and some planting. We've estimated we have about three years of Maximum Useful Offspring, with 2-3 healthy kids in their teens and early twenties home for the summer and happy (ok, begrudgingly willing) to help. After that? Hey, there's always “the natural look.”


  1. Oh, Julia, I'm trying not to envy you that forsythia . . . ours just seems to struggle along. We’re sort of apologetic, haphazard gardeners around here, definitely into the natural look . . . .
    Surrounded by towering oaks and pines, we keep trying to get any grass that dares to invade the yard to beat a hasty retreat . . . the pink flower garden does its thing while I baby the lilacs along, especially the one lone bush that’s grown from a cutting of the bush at the house where I grew up.
    We do have lots of daffodils that, sad to say, bloom for about fifteen and one-half seconds [blink and you've missed daffodil season] . . . the rest just does its thing, but at the rate any of it makes an attempt to take over the place, it’s going to be the next millennium before anyone has to actually do anything about it.

    Two pots of white petunias are struggling to hold their own on the front porch where the herb garden has taken over. The basil and cilantro have teamed up, threatening to wrap themselves around the feet of anyone who has the temerity to think they ought to be able to actually come in or out of the front door . . . I'm seeing a very large pot of homemade spaghetti sauce in our immediate future . . . .

  2. When I lived in the country in Pennsylvania, with two little boys, (fifteen months pregnant--LOL) we had a big garden. It was fantastic--fun times out doors, yummy vegetables, talks about the cycle of growing. We grew pumpkins and gave them names. It was worth the time and effort. Now, I am totally with you on buying someone else's crop at the farmer's market.

    I love being outdoors and puttering with flowers and flowering shrubs, but growing food is more than I (and my delicate wrists) can handle.

    But the corn we grew ourselves, and green beans freshly picked and still warmed by the sun? Can't beat it.

  3. Marianne in MaineJuly 9, 2014 at 6:52 AM

    I can so relate! I watch "Desperate Landscape" and think 'that could be me.' However, our new home came pre-landscaped. I have undying gratitude for the previous owner who planted the hosta and roses and azaleas and lilacs and those pretty flowers that might be peonies and...well, everything. There's always something in flower. But I think one is supposed to pluck out the weeds once in a while, right? We used to live in the woods surrounded by pine trees and now we have 2 acres of previous pastureland - read grass. And that new John Deere lawn tractor was a necessary first purchase.

    I forgot about the blackberries. Tons of bushes. Maybe I'll become very domestic and make something with the berries. Blackberry wine, anyone?

    You are an inspiration, Julia.

  4. I loved my garden. And then I didn't.

    I stopped planting carrots when I realized I could buy better ones, more cheaply, at the store.

    The raspberries marched across the yard from east to west and north to south and then disappeared.

    I loved the fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, but then the cucumber beetles appeared and killed those vines, and the chipmunks moved in (where are the foxes and coyotes when you need them?) and ate ALL the tomatoes. Every last one of them.

    And then we had The Summer of Dreadful Heat (when I picked what few raspberries there were, they had turned to jam on the vine!) and now we are having The Summer of Dreadful Cold (it didn't get warm enough to put anything in until about a week ago, so I haven't).

    Our village now has a farmers' market on Saturday mornings. If I spend $10 per week there, it about equals the $200 I spent every summer on initial garden sets and supplies. And I get fewer mosquito bites and am less likely to get heat stroke.

    I am happy for the perennials. As for annuals, this year someone gave me a bunch of pansies, and I put them in pots on the patio, but the rabbits stood up and ate every one.

    I surrender.

  5. WOnderful! ANd you both look so fabulous doing all that hard work!

  6. Sounds like you're retrieving a treasure, Julia.

    I was an actual farmer twenty years ago with two little boys, and now I get to write about that world without doing all the work. But I love my manageable little vegetable garden, small enough so if I see a weed, I just pick it (I'm big into mulch for weed control, too). Three baby blueberry bushes are thriving, and I have plans to plant a fruit tree or two. I can't conceive of ever living in a place where I couldn't grow something.

  7. Julia, you are a brave, brave woman! For two years after buying our house, we struggled to figure out what to do with our small (sloping) front yard and a back yard laid muddy wasteland by the former owner's large dog and lack of adequate sunshine. Then we hired a landscaper. Next to David and deciding to finally give mystery writing a try, the best decision I ever made. Now we have plants that bloom in each season (yes, heather blooms in the winter); are relatively low maintenance; and are drought tolerant. It still takes steady work, but it's beautiful work. (And yeah, I don't always tell folks who admire it that I didn't design it)

  8. I love harvesting the most in our garden! though it's a lot of fun to go out every summer day and look for changes. Right now we are having a snow pea avalanche. Recipes anyone?

  9. Oh, how I can relate to this.

    If I had tons of money, the first thing I'd do is hire landscapers and have the most beautiful gardens in the whole wide world.


    What pretty flowers and shrubs we do have come from Donald's hard work, and I love those pretty spots so much.

    We have one hollyhock bloom right now that I'm so enormously pleased with I take a picture every time I walk by it. For weeks we've debated about whether those tall "things" were weeds or "something else." When one bloom finally justified not pulling the whole mess of them up I was tickled beyond words.

  10. I love this, Julia!

    My garden but it's TINY compared to yours, and it's full of shade-loving low-maintenance plants that should never need to be watered, and usually don't. But this year I've lined up some yard maintenance workers to prune in my viburnums and forsythia and Japanese quince... I hope they come soon.

    One year I hired my daughter to weed out maple and oak seedling. I paid her a penny apiece and within twenty minutes she'd racked up $3. Best bargain ever.

  11. Julia, you are too funny. We have ceded our front flower beds to the hostas and boxwoods. Hostas are difficult, nay impossible, to kill. And you know what? The varieagted leaves are lovely. We put annuals in the front planters, although this year one of the petunias from last year miraculously grew again (!) and my dad sent a couple pink geraniums. Saved a trip to the store.

    We cut back on the vegetables this year. But hurrary - I have peppers finally! And Ramona is right - green beans freshly picked from the plant are delicious.

    I used to have azaleas until I lost them to the need for a new sewer line. But I adore my rhodies. Almost lost my rosebushes to winter burn, but we hacked them back and they have regrown with vigor.

  12. We bought our Cape Cod house from my husband's aunt and uncle, and we still enjoy some of the wonderful shrubs and perennials (lilacs and tiger lilies are my favorites).
    At first the yard was overgrown with bittersweet -- I tackled it and, after maybe three summers, it was gone.
    Now -- in my mid (soon to be late) 60s I am very good at watching people weed and mow. I still add to the scene -- lavender in front of the house -- but I do very little of the work myself anymore.

  13. Good luck with that. I'm like you in the plant department, mostly because I forget to water, an important thing in So Cal.

  14. Lucy, IMHOP snow peas are best eaten standing in the garden, fresh snapped off the vine.

  15. Goats. The city of Pittsburgh has hired a herd of goats and pastures them on various hillsides and neighborhoods where the foliage has gotten out of control. The goats eat back all the weeds, and the city moves them the next day. This strikes me as BRILLIANT! Although my husband and I really enjoy gardening, and we have a very small garden, I would hire those goats in a heartbeat if I needed them. Weed on, Julia!

  16. I moved from SoCal to Central Texas and have been frustrated to tears at the drought and the bugs. I had a few aphids and Caterpillar worms, but here, I battle squash bugs and tons of other insects that devour my plants.

    Keep trying. Some years are better than others. After 4 years, I've found more natives that work well in the climate and with the bugs!

    BTW LOVE your pictures! It was what attracted me to your site! How fun!

  17. Currently I live in an apartment, but twice in the past I've owned houses. I never liked the routine of gardening, but I did like occasionally getting in there to clean up the weeds and plant some pretty new things. I do think if I ever own a house again, I'll plant some vegetables this time.

  18. How about some before and after pix?
    I envy folks with gardens. I have land but it's on a steep California hillside with deer, and rabbits who eat everything apart from oleander, lavender and citrus. So that's what we have.
    (but we do have a great view)

  19. NancyM,

    The Smithie has suggested we get three fainting goats to keep the back garden in trim. Her plan: let them eat until we're satisfied with the area, then leap out and shout at them. Apparently fainting goats will, well, faint when startled. Then we just pick them up and return them to the barn.

    I didn't even mention the Yew Bushes of Doom around the front and kitchen doors. Those are going out next year with the help of a neighbor with a chain and a tractor. Ugh.

  20. Rhys, good idea! I can take some "during" pics right now and then catch you up with the after in September. (If we last that long...)

  21. It's terrifying how quickly stuff grows when you don't tend to it for a year or six. Mystery writers, take note. The Body in the (overgrown) Arbor? Murder By Bamboo?

    My beloved is a dedicated gardener who works her tail off to make our place look nice. This year I have been the digger-outer of shrubs that expired in last winter's tundral temps (several rhodys on the north side of the house) and designated excavator of holes for new shrubs (which we will burlap in the fall.)

    I am most comfortable in the vegetable garden, where we had a fantastic run of spinach and bok choy, which just bolted. We have a ton of lettuce, a gaggle of chard and a boodle of tomatoes on the way. Oh, and our cukes have never looked so good.

    Julia, I'll happily share the tomato bounty come August (for free!)

  22. 40 acres? Sheesh, talk about taming a monster. I'm much happier without a large yard and, since we live on a golf course, I get to see the nicely landscaped grounds all the time without having to do the work!


  23. I leave the heavy farming to my friends at Terripin Farms CSA, and the yard work to the lovely guys hired by my HOA, and maintain a few "pet plants" on the deck.
    I admire your efforts and will share Peggy Parish's gardening method. She said she began very early when the garden (west side of house?) was still in shade, and worked from the farthest part, staying in the shade as the sun rose. When there was no more shade, she was finished for the day.

  24. Julia, hats off to you and Ross and offspring! (I say take advantage of them while you have them! My son-in-law, along with daughter temporarily in residence, has promised to lay a new flagstone walk for me!)

    Our garden is beautiful, but I don't do much. We have a lawn service (beyond rubies!) and every few months I'll hire a landscape crew to come in and clean up a bit. NOT doing it myself. It's a big lot, and after about the first of June it's just too bloody hot.

    We had a landscape designer twenty years ago, and since then we've pulled some things out and put others in, but have kept the basic blueprint. We have almost entirely native perennials, so there is always something blooming. Now, however, we are on every two week watering restriction, so even the natives are going to be stressed if we don't put in some soaker hoses.

  25. I never so much loved gardening as much as I loved having gardener. then there years ago I got the knee infection from hell and my dear partner took over the gardening. Now she adores it, and I love watching the flowers grow. It's a perfect relationship. Ann in Rochester

  26. Julia, you are doing some hard work there. I'm so impressed. And, Rhys had a great idea for before and after pics.

    There are two things that I have come to terms with not liking to do as a woman. I put it in those terms because for a good part of my life I watched many of my female friends garden and/or sew, and I felt terribly inadequate because I didn't enjoy those two activities. I do realize that men sew and garden, too. I decided a few years back to give myself a pass on feeling guilty over gardening and sewing. I love to see beautiful yards and greatly admire those who put in such hard work to make them beautiful, but all I would think of were I to make myself garden is how much reading time I had missed. Of course, if I managed my time better, I'm sure it's possible to do both.

    So, like Debs, I have a yard service that mows and trims, and I am having them do something out front for better curb appeal in the fall. I am helpful in my family by editing writing, and that's a skill I enjoy. My daughter has taken after her grandmother and has beautiful flowers and bushes throughout her yard, creating her own landscaping areas. And, as I said, I love to see the beauty that others have created. As for a vegetable garden, I am a farmer's market customer.

  27. Oh we can relate. Our six acres are feeling the neglect too. But hubby is promising that next year when he is retired it will start to turn around. I'm thinking he's thinking I'm going to help. Hmmm. . . maybe . . . but begrudgingly so. The inside of the house (my chosen domain) is not so sparkling as it used to be either.