Winter has been surprisingly warm this year; the end of February is a balmy 60 degrees. In my neighborhood college students are wandering around in shorts, kids are out on scooters, and Canada Goose winter jackets with coyote fur trim have been temporarily put away. Some of us dream of gardening.
Planting my annuals starts on Memorial Day weekend when I traditionally put about 150 Impatiens in the garden immediately outside the windows of my little house near the sea. Because a fungus has attacked that species in recent years, last year it was Phlox of Sheep, an oddly named but quite attractive substitute. This planting is a long and arduous task, requiring much digging and bending which, at age seventy-three, is not as easy as it once was. I do it on Memorial Day weekend because, when I was still working, the three-day weekend provided sufficient expanse to interweave planting sessions with rest or social activities such as a movie or tea with a friend. It still does. And at our latitude, wise gardeners do not put tender plants in until late May, for fear of a cold night.
My gardening journal tells me that Memorial Day weekend has offered different conditions for this planting ritual in different years – sometimes cloudy and in the sixties, sometimes sunny and humid, in the eighties. Last year Memorial Day weekend was miserable for all the usual pastimes – cookouts, baseball games, walks among the lilacs. We had cold rain, drizzle, and fog for two days. Memorial Day, itself, felt like cloud-draped November, though the rain had stopped. The temperature was in the forties and it was quite windy. It would have been a labor of love to get out there that day. When I complained to my gardening guru he strongly advised that I “deal with it” and get my young plants in that weekend, in an effort to reduce the degree to which their roots would become pot-bound. Evidently plants like their roots to range freely, seeking water and nutrients.
Respecting this advice, and knowing how happy I would be when I had little plants growing, I collected my gear and went out. The job requires a trowel for easy digging in wonderfully wet soil; my blue-handled screwdriver, exactly eight inches long, the prescribed distance between these baby plants; and a bit of fertilizer to give them a good start in their new home. I used to be able to do this job on my hands and knees, but because of various orthopedic issues that is no longer possible. However, my version of the “forward fold” move (uttanasana) from my yoga class works well. Ideally one bends over from the hips, not the waist; legs straight; “sitting bones” lifted toward the sky; the entire top of one’s body folded over, neatly parallel to one’s legs; hands flat on the ground (elbows on the ground if one is especially flexible or under 40). While my version of the forward fold is not as elegant as the drawing in my yoga book, in this position one’s hands are conveniently where the work is, for digging a hole, inserting a plant, and pressing soil down with one’s fingers.
When I began that morning it was cloudy and the garden was wet from the previous day’s rain. The woman at the nursery had suggested wearing the pants from my foul weather gear, which I would have done had I been able to find them. An old pair of jeans would have to do. My gardening gloves quickly became sodden, as did my feet and the bottom four inches of my jeans. A gray wind whistled off the sea, rushed up the street, and swung around the corner of the fence. I wondered about frostbite.
By about the 30th plant my hamstring muscles were very stretched, but needed rest. I stopped for a while, then did another thirty plants, alternating rest and work through the day until most of the 150 were in their place. It was still cool, but the wind had died down and sun warmed my back as I folded forward. My clothes, along with the stone pathway and the street beyond, began to dry. Birds living in nearby trees decided that the warmth of the sun was sufficient for a chorus of their favorite songs. Everything around me was perking up, declaring that it would be a good day, after all.
As I finished, my garden promised future glory, with young Phlox of Sheep standing unsteadily in formation, drinking in the sun and stretching their roots in the damp soil. But I was very tired. Planting 150 plants was not something I could continue to do every year. My hamstrings simply were not up to the job, and spending that much time upside-down had an unpleasant, dizzying effect.
In consultation with my gardening guru I developed a new strategy for this garden. Instead of blanketing the area with Impatiens or Phlox of Sheep each year, I would change it to a largely green perennial garden and choose a few annuals to rotate, one kind at a time, through the season; perhaps pansies for spring, begonias for summer, chrysanthemums for fall; and plant just three or four of each. With my need for yoga’s forward fold reduced to just a few plants at a time, this seemed a practical possibility. While I would have to give up my beautiful blanket of pink, I surely would come to appreciate the new woodland look of my garden with a few spots of color strategically placed among the trees, rocks, and bushes – a look I will try this spring and will likely be able to sustain for a number of years.