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My Turn: The garden – a drama in many acts

For the Monitor
Published: 5/22/2020 7:00:15 AM
Modified: 5/22/2020 7:00:04 AM

Few things help me forget the crazy world we are in more than time outside in the garden. But during the time of COVID, my garden also seems to me like a microcosm of the larger world.

Here, the dramas that play out may be small, but it always feels like there are lessons to be learned. There are times when the pluck and promise of growing plants and creatures give me nothing but hope, but there are other times when predators, opportunists and unseen enemies threaten to upset the balance I have worked hard to achieve.

I need to be vigilant to root out weeds before they gain a foothold, to protect my plants from the vicissitudes of weather, or from the invasion of the hungry swarms of insects, animals or disease-causing organisms that lie in wait for the right conditions. Today, I wish our leaders had been as vigilant about the virus tearing us apart, before it was out of control.

I would not be gardening if I didn’t absolutely love it. I have been privileged to have been able to rent a plot at the Birch Street community garden for more than 10 years now, and it truly is a magical place.

For those unfamiliar with these plots, they are one of a number of community gardens administered by the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands, and are available for seasonal lease to the public for a very nominal fee. Sharing growing tips, seedlings, extra veggies and especially camaraderie with a group of others outside in the sunshine (and socially distanced, I might add) is an amazing antidote to anything else a day might bring. It drives home for me the meaning and possibilities of community.

My plot is a beautiful place to me, and I love the new and different challenges each year brings. The first year I gardened there I had a grand vision of the luscious vegetables I would enjoy with my family all summer and fall, and of gorgeous flowers to share extravagantly with anyone who wanted them.

I emerged from that season with astonishment over the tenacity and treachery of weeds and garden pests. I had relatively few items suitable for family meals, much less for sharing with friends. This year, I’m hoping to be more proactive, especially with the sharing part, now that I’ve learned a thing or two from my neighbors. This year especially, we need it so much.

In the years since I started, and believe me, no two have been alike, I’ve seen bumper crops and abject failures. I’ve seen flowers bloom nonstop, or not bloom at all because of an early frost on top of a late start. I’ve allowed some plants which readily self-seed to do so, only to find they have become so rampant that the precious plants I want to grow are smothered. Other years, I’ve had so many of the precious things I’m trying to grow I’m begging people to take them off my hands. This, too, reminds me of the wild, unpredictable ride we’re on today.

The pandemic we’re in reminds me of the all-out organic wars I’ve waged against blight, bean beetles, hornworms, voles and, yes, a woodchuck. You have to be on the lookout. You have to consult your neighbors and the experts, and you have to act decisively instead of complaining and casting blame.

Actually, it was spotting a pair of bluebirds this week taking up residence in my garden’s birdhouse that reminded me of the garden as a place of drama, and of the inevitable connections I seem to draw these days between my garden and the larger world.

Early this season a bluebird pair had prepared a nest in the house, and I was excited that I’d be able to witness this family in the feeding and fledging of their young. However, shortly after the pair had established housekeeping, I came to the garden and discovered the male bluebird, with his rusty breast feathers and gorgeous deep blue wings and head, stone cold dead at the base of the house. A noisy, hostile house sparrow sat triumphantly on the house roof , claiming the house as his own.

Bluebird habitat is shrinking. The habitat of the opportunistic house sparrow is anywhere and everywhere. Our endangered species acts are under threat in the current administration, but house sparrows are not and should not be on the list. So, without a trace of guilt, I spent the past several weeks removing nests the house sparrow was attempting to build to secure this spot. I have a clear conscience about this.

And, today, a male bluebird was sitting on his new house, offering an insect to his prospective mate. I felt a surge of confidence that there would be a new resident in the house. I will do everything I can to ensure he makes it.

(Millie LaFontaine lives in Concord.)

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