Friday, December 29, 2006

Gardening roots, Part II

Prune off those lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians, and my father sprouted from a farming tradition.

His grandfather from Aschbach, Alsace, was listed as a farmer on the manifest of the ship that brought him to New York in 1868 and again on the 1880 marriage license that united him with a Prussian farmer's daughter in Edwardsville, Illinois.

The narrow wedge backyard of the home that they built is now overrun with ground ivy. Who knows what it looked like a hundred years ago?

On another branch of my father's family tree, here's what my great-great aunt Annie had to say about how she and her sister, my great grandmother, Lillie, handled lawn care in 1880's Edwardsville:

Most of the home place was in bluegrass, especially the front yard where it grew high at times. Then it was mowed with a scythe. No lawn mowers then. On one occasion after it had been mowed, a number of spears of grass were left standing here and there. This was very disorderly according to my notion, and I resolved to remedy it. Securing a hatchet and Lillie’s aid, I began. The hatchet was dull, and the spears of grass were tough, so we took turns about, one using the hatchet and the other holding the spears of grass taut. When it was Lillie’s turn to wield the hatchet her force was better than her aim; consequently she nearly severed my big toe. We were both barefooted. The blood flowed freely, and we both ran into the house, Lillie doing most of the screaming as she thought she had mortally wounded me. The only thing else that I remember of this incident is that I sat with my foot in a wash-bowl of water all of the afternoon and that I chafed at the confinement and at the interruption of my interesting task.

Perhaps the two gardeners are just visible in the upstairs windows of the home place in this 1880's tintype.

Twenty years later, in 1907, their nephew, Billie, was pushing a reel mower around that Edwardsville lawn.

And in 1913, my one-year old father was wading in a midwestern sea of grass.

While the children were tackling the lawn, the adults busied themselves with flowery pursuits. Sometimes, it was difficult to untangle the two, as my great great aunt, Annie, wrote:

Papa once had a special flower bed and he threatened to whip the next child who trod on it. The next day, when Mamma left the print of her foot in it, he didn’t know what to do. At dinner he said, “Mamma, after all my trouble, Alfred has stepped on my flower bed.” Mamma had to own up, since Alfred, our [hired] . . . man wore about number 13 shoes.

Here is my great grandmother, Lillie, inspecting her floral namesake with her dainty-footed mother, Piety (on the right).

Strange to think of these off-hand comments about gardens that no longer exist from people long dead.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gardening roots, Part I

When winter arrives, I'm not one of those people who happily turns to domestic tasks. I hate to cook. I don't knit. And I sew only on an "as needed" basis.

But I am fascinated by genealogical research and could happily spend hours organizing papers, entering information in a computerized family tree, and poring through census, civil, and parish records.

So I got to thinking, what about other gardeners in my family? And before the concept of gardening had trickled down to the common folk, what about the plain old farmers--the cultivateurs, labourers, and Bauern--among my ancestors? Here's what I dug up.

In 1634, my eighth great-grandfather settled an eight-acre homestall in what was then Watertown, Massachusetts. His plot, about a half-mile from where I now live, today lies under suburban housing.

Later, he acquired land in the area of Beaver Brook

and Rock Meadow.

There is no record of what he farmed, but presumably this low-lying land served as pasturage. His will, written in 1685, mentions his house, meadow acreage and a barn in Cambridge Farms.

Fast forward about 300 years to my mother, a passionate tiller of her own back quarter acre. Her love of gardening may have grown from spending summers at her aunt's Connecticut house, where daily tasks included picking sweet peas and gooseberries growing next to the barn.

Years later, my mother marveled how it was that ever more flowers and fruit were waiting each morning. I think that realization somehow connected her with the potential of earth, sun, and rain.

Back in her Maryland community, both she and her own mother belonged to the local garden club. Well into her eighties, she could be found spending six or more hours a day in her yard.

My mother was a yes-or-no kind of person, and her garden celebrated that same lack of nuance. She tolerated a few perennials and adored her roses, but through out the summer subsisted on the brightest of brilliantly colored annuals: petunias, salvia, marigolds, zinnias, and dahlias. Her garden was splashed with primary colors, particularly hot pinks, reds, oranges, and yellows. There was no subtle juxtaposition of contrasting textures, shapes, and colors--plants earned a place while in bloom and were expeditiously rooted out upon their decline. Unsentimental, cheerful, and practical. You can learn a lot about a person from looking at her garden.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Nature's celebration

To take a break from gift wrapping, wreath hanging, and card writing, I went out for a walk this afternoon through one of the town's conservation areas.

The landscape, decorated in subdued tones, was a welcome balm for the intensity of seasonal demands.

I couldn't entirely clear my mind of holiday activities: I saw nature's tree-trimming efforts draped in garlands of bittersweet . . .

. . . dangling seed pod ornaments . . .

. . . and a spouting profusion of stars . . .

. . . while back at home, human hands were busy decorating the Christmas tree.

Inside and outside, happy holidays to all!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Down and dirty

This weekend, a little late season neighborly fence construction had me and DRS back in the yard.

This thicket of bushes, originally a stand of mock orange, offered asylum to errant maple seedlings and invasives such as Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) and Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum). It sloped down over underground springs. Birds nested inside the mess of branches.

However, in order to put up a fence, the thicket came down. An expanse of root-riddled muck and a single mock orange remain. DRS and I dug up quanties of fibrous stumps, slipping down the muddy bank as we pulled and pried. It was one of those afternoons when the notion of a lady of leisure cutting perfect flowers from her bountiful garden is very much at odds with the down and dirty reality. Come spring, DRS and I will be back to rooting out the last vestiges of the invasives and, eventually, to planting a row of water-loving summersweet (Clethera).

Come spring, come spring . . . the first snowfall of the season came this morning.