The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
I clearly remember watching my father in his tunnel-shaped greenhouse on the hill behind our house in Kernersville, NC. On my frequent visits, I’d wander around in the humidity as I inspected his tools and projects. The air was a musty mix of soil, fertilizer, and him. He had long tables full of plants, mostly flowers, organized into sections with carefully placed labels and tags. A spiral-bound notebook with a dirty cover kept his barely legible notes. Little film canisters, each with their own labels, seemed to be sprinkled about and stored in a tiny refrigerator along with a couple of bottles of Yoo-Hoo.
When he wasn’t inside the greenhouse, he was somewhere on the property digging a hole, moving a plant, starting a sprinkler, pruning, weeding, and more. As a child, I never understood what he was doing in the greenhouse and garden, but I knew it came from a place of passion. At dinner time, I would often have to go find him. Left alone, he would stay in the garden until dark.
Now that we’ve moved and built garden beds, our garden is our next big project and I can’t help but feel that I’m becoming a version of him in his garden. We are putting down literal roots on a landscape that has been stripped of life in the course of construction and building it back feels like a lifelong pursuit. Aside from the vegetables in the garden beds, the garden and landscape around our property won’t develop fully for many years and that’s part of the beauty of this project. We will bring life back to the rocky ground.
In my book, Big Enough, I shared this quote in a chapter on long term planning:
The success or failure of any design comes down to the goals you’re trying to reach and I take inspiration from Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York, who often ignored the need for short-term success and took the long view of landscape architecture.
In a letter to his son Frederick Jr., he wrote: “I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no result to be realized in less than 40 years.”
Forty years. That’s how long he thought it would take to see results. The distant effects of our garden will hopefully take fewer years, but I am prepared for the long term. As much as I want to snap my fingers and transform the sword fern by our front door into its full prehistoric splendor, I must water and wait.
In our division of duties, I am the landscaper and Sachi is the vegetable gardener. In Seattle, we had a backyard planter bed where Sachi grew veggies for years. I was always interested in the challenge, which I didn’t fully comprehend going into the process. Gardening seemed like a nice hobby where you put seeds in the ground and a few months later, harvest a cornucopia of big beautiful vegetables. And in some cases, that happened with minimal effort (I’m looking at you, tomatoes!)
What I witnessed then, and now understand, is that tending a garden is more like an arms race or a puzzle than a set-it and forget-it hobby. It took Sachi multiple years to learn how to optimize the garden for maximum sun and what plants worked best in our little corner of Seattle. She was always at war with pests, like slugs, snails, aphids, birds, and squirrels who used the garden like a buffet. Then there was the weather, which can be uncooperative and the all-too-short summer season in the PNW. If it doesn’t get warm enough for long enough, gardens can remain puny. No season is ever the same. And that’s also part of the fun.
The rush in building our raised beds at Flattop was an effort to get seeds in the ground before it’s too late. Now that we have them in, the real learning can begin. I’m sure we’ll have successes and failures, but for the first year or two, the real goal is experimentation. Our garden, like most, has a sweet spot between the spring and fall when the plants don’t need to be protected or covered from chilly winds and low temperatures. Finding that sweet spot is the goal, and it may take years.
Orcas Island has multiple micro-climates and ours, on the west side, is known for being warmer and sunnier. Some say it’s Mediterranean. I’m not so sure, but taking advantage of what sun we have is high on our list. With its pests and wily weather, we have a lot to learn.
Today the beds are approaching full, with squash, french beans, radishes, tomatoes, lettuces, and more. It feels like the calm before the vegetable storm, which gathers strength each day.
The vegetable garden is Sachi’s happy place. She spends mornings and evenings tending it and watching it grow. Yesterday she was excited to show me that the Hubbard squash was starting to show fruit. Unlike the landscaping and ornamental plants that I tend, hers are productive. They feed us and that surely adds to Sachi’s attraction.
Flattop has large spaces to fill in terms of landscaping and it sometimes feels daunting. I have plans for filling each space, but the lower priority areas are slowly succumbing to weeds and grasses. We’re hoping to establish ground covers that, over time, prevent other plants from growing. It will take years, but will hopefully provide us a natural, low maintenance, and beautiful way to wrest control of the soil from invaders.
One of my favorite projects is a relatively modest one. The west side of our house slopes down precipitously and the north corner is barren and rocky. Over time it may start to erode and one of my first goals was to plant ground covers that would beautify it and keep the ground in place. So far, like most of my landscaping, it looks puny, but I’m keeping it watered with high hopes. Thankfully, the rocky slope is not a place deer like to tread.
For me, the garden has become a place of refuge. I jump at the chance to take a break from work and inspect the plants. In the evenings, I look forward to the meditative feel of watering. Looking back, I think that was also true for my Dad. His garden was his refuge and place to do what he wanted.
He turned a few acres of family property in North Carolina into an expansive garden that became a stop for bus loads of garden tourists. Those greenhouse projects, notebooks, and film canisters were his tools in creating and naming hybrid varieties of daylilies, hostas, hydrangeas, and rhododendrons. One of his best-known varieties is a hydrangea named after my mother called Dear Dolores. Like most members of the family, I have a daylily named after me: Forsyth Lee LeFever.
Today he’s 86 and his best gardening days are behind him. But he still reads gardening books and loves to talk about what we’re growing out here on the west coast. Someday, we’ll have a space like his greenhouse for our garden projects and experiments. We’ll grow what we can and hopefully, our garden will be a lifelong source of happiness, exercise, beauty, and food. Who knows what we’ll see in 40 years?