The year we moved into our home, the weeds in the backyard soared over my head. That first summer, we had ignored the back until my husband, who measures up at 6’4”, stood eye to eye with those monster plants. Horror replaced bemusement when we realized that an entire army of briars and pokeweeds had invaded the half-acre of our new backyard.
Before that discovery, we had other things on our mind. The previous occupants of our home, my husband’s brother and his wife, spent four years reversing the neglect that had occurred under the helm of the old Doctor from whom they had purchased the house. A widower, Doc P. had given up maintaining the place years before. The day he sold the home he sealed the deal with a handshake and departed, leaving a ‘76 Plymouth dead in the garage and a load of wet laundry growing moldy in the dryer. Room by room they cleared out what he left behind, polishing grimy floors, stripping water-stained wallpaper, and laying claim to the inside of their residence.
When they sold the house to us, the inside glistened--so we spent our first months painting the outside--and my husband went after the poison ivy patch covering the front lawn. Five itchy sessions after and way too late, we noticed the wilderness consuming the back. Doc P.’s ancient sickle hanging from the garage rafters offered the first clue that these weeds had history, but undaunted, we commenced an assault, chopping a path through the vegetation swallowing our property.
When the lawnmower stalled upon its introduction to the tangle, we saturated the foliage with environmentally safe--therefore, I'm sorry to say, ineffective vegetation killer. Then we got down and dirty--donning gloves and yanking at the plants--but endless roots burrowed yards away, along the trip giving birth to new shoots. We hauled ropey tendons out of the ground until subsequent crops erupted--then threw up our hands and whacked at the mess with the Doctor’s sickle until frost killed the weeds for the year.
The following spring, as we squared our shoulders for a new attack, a scrub hemlock imbedded in a hill on our “lawn” distracted us, and we decided to transplant the seedling. Mindful of our wrestling match with the briars, we approached with a shovel, pick ax and hoe. The tree however, needed little persuasion. With a two handed yank my husband pulled it loose along with a snarl of weeds and dead grass. Astonished, we realized that our bush wasn’t rooted into a hill at all.
Thousands of years ago glaciers created rock formations across our part of New England and the thin earth in which our sapling had imbedded itself was resting on a granite shelf chronicling those ice flows. Gullies engraved by glaciers yielded a rock gardener’s dream, a bonanza of black, porous mulch. High-fiving, we abandoned the pick ax and drove winding roads to the nearest garden center, returning to incorporate purple Creeping Phlox, pink Bee Balm, and yellow Coreopsis into our landscape design.
In spite of this victory, elsewhere the weeds multiplied. Once again, we primed ourselves to wrestle the roots, and once again a clang of the pick ax revealed ledge under a veneer of earth. Clearing off further debris, we planted orange Daylilies, purple Balloon Flowers and graceful Anemones in the dirt between the fissures—pleased with our success though the majority of the yard remained an impenetrable web. Adding insult to injury, while digging new gardens, we discovered a granite boulder perched by our cement patio surrounded with piles of broken bricks and glass--evidence that the Doctor’s trash didn’t make it to the landfill. Spurred on by recent accomplishments, we dug out shale and refuse, carted in wheelbarrows full of fresh loam--surrounding the rock with Dutch Iris and more Daylilies.
Soon, a shady area at the back of the top ledge beckoned. There, boulders gnashed like teeth at churning mower blades--so ignoring the roots we were supposed to abolish we established others--edging the area with Hostas and Foxgloves then moving on to the 40-year-old rhododendrons lining the side of the yard. They too were planted around ledge; another lawn-mower nightmare. The solution was Pachysandra. On our knees we planted hundreds of seedlings, creating a leafy ground cover—then moving on to the neglected spot under our bedroom window which became a repository for Cushion Spurge and variegated Hostas. Rosemary, Chives, Thyme and Sage filled the empty rectangle beside it. Eventually, our daughter, a longstanding observer to these backyard maneuverings, requested her own garden by the back door; she chose annuals, Cleome and Cosmos.
Heaving a wrought iron bistro set up to a bluestone patio we had installed--now on weekend days we sit breathing deeply as the sun reaches over the pines and warms us. Sipping coffee we gaze over our property, drinking in the color that has become our yard. You see, suddenly seventeen years have passed since we first began our wilderness struggle and today, we recognize that first invading militia was the force that propelled us to uncover our yard’s potential. Plot by plot, ledge by ledge, our land coerced us into clearing and sowing, each achievement leading us closer to the symphony of gardens that now bloom April through October.
Oh yes--and those uncompromising weeds that first drew us into this garden conquest? Well, somewhere between the Dutch Iris and the Pachysandra, we gave in and hired a backhoe.
Thesedays, our yard is in check—though control remains tenuous and vigilance essential-- yesterday I noticed briars winding their way among the daylilies.
Seventeen years later though, the Doc’s sickle still hangs in the rafters, so I’m off to get my gloves.