Roots

July 26, 2022

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

Early this spring, I planted a tree called a staghorn sumac. It was about two feet tall and looked like a dead branch sticking out of the soil. We were promised it would grow to over 10 feet, eventually. (See mature version)

Nearby is a blue Chinese wisteria tree with a trunk as big as a pencil. (See mature version)

The sumac and wisteria trees are emblematic of our approach to the ornamental side of the garden that is my domain. We’re starting small. Sure, we could spend more and get mature versions of the plants we like, or we could watch their growth and savor tending them from a young and fragile age. 

When people visit, I often tell them they are seeing a miniature version of the garden and that, over time, it will change. I want them to remember this version for a sense of scale. Starting now, each year will bring another, fuller version of it. For the first time since 2017, we can plant a tree and feel confident that we’ll see it grow and mature. That feeling has been missing for too long.

This newfound sense of permanence is something we both feel deeply, having lived in the new house for over a year. It’s fascinating to develop a new rhythm of daily life with the knowledge it may stick. Twenty years from now, will I be taking out the trash, brushing my teeth, and making coffee just as I am today? If everything goes according to plan, there is a good chance I will. The accumulation of these permanent rituals will probably get boring and stale and that goes with the territory of permanence. We can only hope we get them right as early as possible.

Part of what has gripped me about the garden is the combination of permanence and change. The sumac tree may be here in twenty years, but it will have changed constantly in that time. Every day, I can inspect it and notice the little things. I can see it in different colors as the seasons change. 

There are some parts of the garden that I’m hoping will trend toward permanence, or at least long-term stability. As a result of construction, we have large and visible swaths of the property that consist of rocky construction fill. One of my first priorities this year also seemed like the most boring: planting low ground covers that will one day cover the troubled fill areas and create a dense groundcover mat that looks great and prevents weeds. 

Today, these plants are miniature, too. I planted creeping raspberry, kinnikinnick, thyme, and cotoneaster around the property and feel real joy from seeing them spread. Everywhere they go, weeds and future maintenance are being reduced. Within a couple of years, my work will hopefully be limited to trimming the edges into the shape I want. 

creeping thyme
kinnikinnick

Right now, the hundreds of new groundcovers, ferns, sedums, trees, bulbs, and shrubs require daily or weekly care because they are new plantings. They are young and need to get settled. Most need a year or two of regular watering to establish their roots. Once established, they can trend ever so slowly toward permanence.

We’ve opted for a number of drought-tolerant plants, which I know sounds odd for the pacific northwest. Our summers are very dry, with almost no rain July-September. The tolerant ones need to get established, so my watering duties for this summer are significant. In this, I’ve developed a ritual. In the afternoons, I start a podcast and spend an hour or more watering and weeding. It’s not much of a workout, but I find it meditative and a time to focus on just one thing. Every minute I spend watering contributes to the plant becoming healthier, more permanent, and lower maintenance. I have this summer to get it right.

In June, we declared our planting season to be over. I didn’t want it to end, but I knew it was time. Sachi wanted me to pause and leave some things for next year. She knows my happiness lives in anticipation and didn’t want me to use up all the fun planting and landscaping projects too quickly. I told her something I believe deeply: there will always be projects in the garden. Unlike brushing my teeth or taking out the trash, the garden changes daily. Soon enough we can transition from clearing, preventing, and preparing to a focus on developing, maturing, and beautifying. Maybe that applies to humans, too.

Today, the staghorn sumac is changing every day and has become an essential part of the garden. The groundcovers are slowly reaching out to one another in what I call the Sistine Chapel moment of development.

Every time I water, I imagine roots below the surface slowly becoming permanent parts of the landscape. And as I do, my roots become more permanent, too.

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