It’s go-time for backyard gardeners, and the signs of summer are unmistakable in my little patch of paradise — nickel-sized chigger bites where I used to have skin, chipmunks feasting al fresco on my just-ripe strawberries, and bulbous carpenter bees so bored with our daily staredowns that they’ve moved on to the more important work of packing bee bread into the perfectly round holes they’ve drilled into my old wooden deck. (Bee bread, also known as ambrosia, is the pollen-and-nectar equivalent of baby formula.)
Curmudgeonly as I may sound, I’m not complaining. I love sharing my space with these industrious and engaging critters — though, in all honesty, the chiggers could stand to ease up a skosh. That’s just my opinion, though, and I try not to give unsolicited advice.
The truth of the matter is that everyone’s got to eat, and I fully understand that around here I’m just another 130-pound strand in the ever-widening food web. There’s plenty to go around, thankfully, and I’m more than happy to share.
At this particular moment, however, as I lounge on my deck amid pyramidal piles of sawdust (those carpenter bees are precise and tidy), I am off the menu — temporarily, at least. The mosquito population won’t reach the point of pestilence until July, and the chiggers prefer hanging out in that humid jumble I call a perennial border.
So now, from the relatively safe vantage point of what’s left of my deck, I savor the morning coolness and take in the tableau — a fundamental, yet often overlooked, gardening skill at which I excel.
Before long, a sleek, twitchy chipmunk toting a strawberry the size of his head bounds onto the deck. I watch him nibble, admiring the stripes on his curved chestnut back. High above in the sweetgum, tattletale robins snitch on prowling neighborhood felines, one of whom pads undeterred toward the catmint. Atop the fence line, a trio of grey squirrels pause their exuberant chase to check out the progress of sunflowers growing below. Reassured that the delectable seeds are nowhere near ripe, they resume their acrobatics with the grace and agility of Olympians.
Less animated but equally eye-catching is the flower bed, lush and lovely as a June bride. On this particular morning, blooms of dainty white beardtongue bob among swords of spent iris, red-hot poker spikes pierce the air next to cool blue rue, and nascent daylily buds promise drama beneath the thousand green hearts that the redbud calls leaves.
The vegetable plot is a different scene altogether. Over by the yard barn, the salad garden is winding down — once-orderly rows of radishes are now a tangle of flowering stalks. Nearby, in seeming consolation, seeds of yellow squash, zucchini, and cucumber have sprouted and are making up for lost time. Around the corner, burgeoning tomato and pepper plants explore their cages along the east side of the house.
As I survey my surroundings, it occurs to me that a garden — like so many other things we create — is never really finished. Dynamic and evolving, it is simultaneously alive and dying, providing endless bounty in the form of beauty, nourishment, and perhaps most importantly, food for thought. There are lessons here — on humility and gratitude, acceptance and awe, stewardship and sharing.
With so much injustice and turbulence in the world, a garden — or any natural green space, for that matter — is a place of respite and renewal. There is a soothing symmetry in nature, a reliable juxtaposition of “what was” and “what will be” — balanced perfectly on the fulcrum of Now. With perspective in short supply these days, anything we can do to maintain equilibrium seems well worth pursuing.
My small backyard deck heats up quickly in June. By mid-morning it’s time to move indoors or to a shadier spot (where hungry chiggers, no doubt, lie patiently in wait). I weigh my options, considering whether to do some weeding or go inside and write. Lacy mats of spurge are taking over the brick walkways, and thistle has sprouted in the perennials… but those things can wait.
As beautiful as the day is, I opt to go inside, my decision based on another valuable lesson I’ve learned over the years — know and respect your limits.
After all, I can only take so many chigger bites, and the strawberry harvest is in very good hands indeed.
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To my way of thinking, there is nothing more creative or forward-thinking than planting a garden and watching it grow. It’s only June — still early in the season — so if you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to try planting something this summer. Start small if you’re skeptical or short on time/space. A single tomato plant in a pot can produce satisfying results that will feed both your body and your soul. Free seeds are still available at the local library, or you can buy plants all over town. Remember, it’s never too late to grow.