For most Vermonters, mid-May is a time that brings the joyful realization that spring is finally here.
For me, though, it’s a time of reckoning. It’s when, once again, I realize I’ve been taken hostage.
Now considering the political climate, you might think I’m being held by right-wing loonies or black-clad Antifa protesters (or perhaps black flies, who hold many of us unfortunate rural denizens hostage indoors in May).
But actually, it’s far worse than that.
I’m a hostage of my gardens, whose brutal demands are relentless, persistent, insistent, perverse and, at my age, ever-more back-breaking and stiffness-inducing. And yet I submit willingly, a clear example of Stockholm Syndrome, whereby one sympathizes with his captors, not to mention revealing a tendency for masochistic pursuits.
My captors are a diverse and ever-expanding horde.
I bought my 1830s Calais farmhouse back in 1984, after living in Stowe, the Mad River Valley, and Montpelier. The house was a wreck, but it came with a wonderful asparagus bed, a dormant former garden gone to weed (of both kinds, I might add, based on certain inside knowledge), and a few apple trees. Ever since then, I have been striving toward a kind of idealized country landscape, call it up-country Martha Stewart. This is an unattainable folly, considering I live in Vermont, not suburban Connecticut.
My vision, which is rooted in the fertile memory of my parents’ flower and vegetable gardens at our rural home southwest of Boston, was expansive and powered by the vigorous enthusiasm of someone young who didn’t know what he was getting into.
First off, I ignored the pre-eminent rule of Vermont flora, which is that Vermont is always trying to return to the Forest Primeval. And it is very good at it.
Second, invasives were not even on my radar when I blithely started creating not one, not two, not three, but four perennial and annual flower beds.
Third, it never occurred to me that “perennial” does not mean plant it and forget it.
Fourth, a large vegetable garden is itself a full-time project that must be both tended and defended, sort of like Alcatraz, except in this case you keep the criminals out. Talking Bambi and your woodchuck pals.
You can see where I’m going with this.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t done.
I also planted some fruit trees, ignorant of how much pruning they require, plus a host of ornamental trees that always need tending, and I added a kitchen garden/herb bed close to the house. Then I planted blueberries and three (what was I thinking?) rows of very rambunctious raspberries.
Not content with the natural Vermont summer (but who is?), a few years ago I erected a kit greenhouse to extend the seasons. And the hostage season.
And so, as soon as the snow vanishes, the gardens deliver their annual ultimatum: If you don’t provide the ransom of weeding, mulching, tilling, fertilizing, cutting back, digging up, planting and removing, everything is going to go to hell. And every year I pay the ransom, because I know from harsh experience that hell comes rampaging in a stampede of burdocks and thistle, nettles and quack grass, creeping Charlie, bedstraw, and dandelions. Like Attila the Hun, only green.
Thus it is that when friends text about a bike ride, I reply that the Bishop’s weed is sneaking into the irises. Pondering pickleball, I trudge gardenward to get the peas in and cut back the rugosa roses and raspberry canes. Go for a paddle? Can’t. I’m putting in onions, but first have to dig up all the damn hollyhocks and foxgloves that seeded all over the vegetable garden. Hike? No, I’m hacking back migrated daylilies, or Siberian iris, using an axe (yes really), or more delicately dismembering the Bishop’s weed tendrils that crept into the monkshood.
I know I am not alone in this hostage situation. On Front Porch Forum, there is no shortage of people looking for help taming unruly gardens and yards. It long ago became obvious to me that the ideal of the English cottage garden or the suburban Martha Stewart version is promulgated by those who have full-time gardeners named Cecil or Juan with a bustling crew of helpers. They can wander carefree down the garden path, picking flowers to decorate the manse, while I must genuflect to my captors, wielding the dozen garden hand tools that will someday enable my freedom.
I’m hoping for Memorial Day.
Andrew Nemethy writes and fends off the Forest Primeval from his home in Adamant.