Did the roses win?
My over-sized house has a super-sized yard, a playground, I imagined, when we moved in nearly fourteen years ago. I didn’t even begin to fathom the yard work required to keep it up—in fact, the former owners showed it off with pride all the while insisting it was fairly self-maintaining. That sounded good to me. Later we learned that they would routinely hire grad students to keep the weeds at bay, the leaves raked, the gardens mulched, and the trees and shrubs trimmed. These are tasks I abhor.
In the time I’ve lived in my house, I’ve—ahem—simplified the overly complicated plantings and let the areas around the trees go quite wild. I’ve hired the trees trimmed and said farewell to four tall beauties, the tree contractor showing me how they were strangled by their own roots having been planted too deep by the property’s developers. Flanked by museum-quality lawns on all sides, my yard is untreated and thus the one with violets and marigolds and, more and more, a carpet of creeping Charlie whose purple flowers I find pleasing.
This year, determined to do what I can, I purchased the “premium” yard waste sticker for the brown bin that’s been languishing in my garage. I set the goal to fill the bin once a week during the yard-waste collection season, about forty-five minutes of yard work, hoping it would be tolerable.
The first week I cut back the bush that charmingly turns red each fall but less charmingly has grown higher than the outdoor light between the garage doors. It scratched back, leaving a four-inch trail of scarlet dots down my arm. The second week I raked leaves out from around the boxwood hedge that lines the front. I was not wounded, but I was grimy and sweaty when I finished. The third week, on Earth Day, I recruited Fifteen to help me—she cut out volunteer trees while I raked leaves. It was nice to have company. The fourth week I kept working around the side of the house, trimming the honeysuckle that has grown higher than the window line. Per usual, I was completely and utterly miserable. I hate this, I thought. I really hate this. I cut another branch. I don’t want to do this. My brain whined. I’ll never fill this damn bin. I thought, as I often do, of friends who love to work in their yards. I thought in particular of three, each of whom at one point or another has voluntarily worked industriously in my yard. Why do they love it? I thought, shoving more branch trimmings into the bin. What is there to love?
My musings rambled. When I was about nine, Sunshine and Diana, our ne’er do well goats, got out, turned their backs on 500 acres of tasty edibles, crossed the road and ate to the ground new plantings in our neighbors’ yard. My parents, muttering mightily about the costs, replaced the shrubs and trees. I remember thinking the whole thing was funny, even as I wondered why anyone would plant expensive cultivars when the world grew lush all around us.
On our farm we mowed around the barn a few times a summer—the four-acre yard more frequently, but not before it was more like cutting hay than trimming the grass. Tractors cut through the overgrowth in the woods, keeping the long-established paths clear enough for trail rides and nature walks. Occasionally we would plant bulbs in the fall, and these would go wild and spread, popping up in unexpected places. Every summer we put in a huge garden, fenced to keep out the bunnies, the rows three-feet apart so a tiller could detain the weeds.
Stewardship of that land took on a very different feel, with the woods enrolled in forest preserve, the once-cultivated fields turned to pasture, the state’s big machinery brought in to build ponds where runoff washed out culverts. It was these maneuvers that turned the once heavily farmed land into a haven, now public lands administered by the state of Iowa.
Back in the suburbs I stuffed my bin full of trimmings, remembering the farm where I grew up, and I tried on the word steward, a word I really like. Could I be a steward of this yard? Would that help? I looked around mentally cataloging all of the work to be done. Not really, I sighed. I still felt intense resentment for the fact that I am required to spend time pruning and shaping, raking and trimming. And it was then that I realized why: to me, land in Iowa, was meant to be like the land on our farm. We didn’t have to rake up the leaves in the fall—they mulched where they fell. We let trees grow, taking those that eventually toppled over for firewood. We had no need to plant flowers—the woods were full of them. There was natural beauty at every moment of every season anywhere you looked.
Thinking all of this through helped, a little. At least I now understand where my intense dislike of my required forty-five minutes a week comes from. (Mowing is more tolerable and in summer months can be passed off to my teenagers who enjoy zooming around on the lawn tractor.) Then again, after last week’s wrestling match with the leaves and ivy that converged in and around the back patio, my forearms are covered in the worst case of poison ivy I’ve ever had. I may have killed the roses, but the overgrowth continues to fight back hard.
Every once in a while there’s a product that changes everything. Zanfel changed mine. If you are so unfortunate to get into poison ivy (or oak or sumac) this summer, don’t walk, run to your nearest pharmacy and get a tube of this magic. Made here in the Des Moines area, it will reduce your symptoms and help manage your outbreak swiftly. May you enjoy your gardening chores hundreds of times more than I enjoy mine. I am so much happier pruning words from sentences! With much love, Rxo