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Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gardener

In my family, gardening is something of a competitive sport.

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Jan Benzel
, New York Times

In my family, gardening is something of a competitive sport.

My mother spent 50 years transforming a farm in southeastern Pennsylvania into a sylvan dream. My sisters also garden, one of them professionally. My brother gardens. One brother-in-law grows tomatoes from seed and tends an orchard he planted himself. Another kept bees.

My siblings’ lives involve muddy knees, aching backs, chronic poison ivy, pitchforks and trowels, mailboxes stuffed with bulb catalogs, nursery visits, truckloads of mulch, chain saws and tractors with hole diggers for tree planting.

Me, I opted out early, choosing instead an urban existence with the occasional windowsill ficus or window-box geranium, tulips on the dining room table plucked from the corner bodega.

Now, at 62, I have a pitchfork. I comparison shop for mulch. And I have a vast backyard that was mostly mud through most of this spring.

Back story: Frazzled by sirens and never-ending construction on our Manhattan block, my husband and I traded our day jobs for self-employment and fell for a fixer-upper on the North Fork of Long Island. Built in the 1990s, the house needed some love but was big enough to stretch out in, with plenty of light, and the clincher: a pool.

And the land it sat on! Nearly an acre! To us, it looked like a park. Tall pines shielded us from neighbors on the left, a tall hedgerow of something-or-other stood between us and the street. Flowering cherry and crabapple trees bloomed pink and white in the spring, shading a lovely green lawn. The alluringly blue pool in the backyard was just like my grandmother’s pool, the one I first swam in. As I splashed and paddled, my grandmother would float, glamorous in her jeweled cat’s-eye sunglasses.

Part of the house’s appeal was the apparent low-maintenance nature of its flora. Weed and mulch a little in the spring, mow the grass, done. Rhododendron and azalea were already in place, as well as a spirea, taking turns on center stage as spring unfolded.

It seemed completely feasible that I would be able to continue to resist gardening, which I knew to be an addictive distraction from everything else I thought I wanted to do in this new chapter.

In Year Two, dwelling renovations accomplished (including a rebuilt fireplace chute after a near disaster — not our fault! — involving a call to the local fire department, but that’s another story), we ventured outdoors.

Neither my husband nor I had lived in a house, let alone a house with a yard, since we had fled our parents’ homes after high school. Let’s just say we faced quite a learning curve.

Having a pool means that, by law, a childproof barrier must surround it. The previous owner had enclosed half of the backyard with a cheery-looking 6-foot-high picket fence. The pickets were plastic, not wood, but from a distance you could not tell. The other two sides were bordered with waist-high chain-link fencing — functional but ugly. It also completely failed to keep out certain unwelcome visitors.

The hordes of deer that rampage through Suffolk County bound effortlessly over anything shorter than 6 feet. So too does a local flock of scavenging wild turkeys.

A row of evergreens along the fence includes half a dozen or so arborvitae shaped like Popsicles. We assumed the previous owner, a Swiss gentleman, had trimmed them that way. Perhaps it was a Swiss topiary tradition? No, we learned. Deer had eaten the branches as high as they could reach.

I confess, I yielded early on my no-gardening stance. My wonderful friend Linda had died soon after we moved in. We left her memorial service with crocus bulbs, a gift from her family, which would bloom in April, her birthday month. So I dug a small, half-moon-shaped bed beneath a white birch in the front yard, nestling the crocus bulbs, mixing in some daffodils and covering them all with mulch.

But back to the deer, and the fence. If we were going to grow just about anything, including the once-deer-resistant hydrangeas planted by our Swiss predecessor, now ravaged, we would need a higher one.

“Sure, you can match the picket on this side,” the fence guy said. “But where’s your property line? You might as well fence in whatever’s yours back there.”

A real estate agent friend had advice for us, too. “Bury those power lines,” she urged.

In the farthermost back corner of the property, we were surprised to discover a country-style dump. An overgrown mound of brush had hidden a ramshackle shed, old tires, a porcelain toilet and hundreds of sizable rocks.

The dump came out. The power lines went underground. More plastic pickets went in, enclosing a muddy plot big enough for a serious game of catch. This whole enterprise had become a “Cat in the Hat” situation. Clean up one mess, and you’ve got another to deal with, and another, and another.

Enter Ed, an old softball pal of my husband’s who happens to be an accomplished local landscape architect. I admitted I was daunted.

“I don’t know what to do here,” I said.

“Not a problem,” Ed said. “I do.”

His prescription: Three river birches. Three crape myrtles, pink and white. Half a dozen lilac bushes. All of these we adopted as adolescents, specimens grown in nurseries, selected and planted by a tree guy and his crew, who had backs and muscles stronger and younger than mine.

I had a nagging sense that I was cheating. My mother dug her own holes, and nursed trees and shrubs from babyhood to their full glory. She planted her garden looking ahead to a lifetime. I was in more of a hurry, a late bloomer.

“You can fill in with shrubs and flowers,” Ed advised, reeling off half a dozen names of species that would take to the climate and exposure. “Peonies will work. Get a butterfly bush or three.” Also on his list: native grasses, Russian sage, bee balm, agastache and ilex verticillata for its cheery red berries in winter.

“Hydrangeas?” I asked, hopefully. “Maybe a lacecap?”

He tried hard not to but looked at me as a professor might at a kindergartner, or a grizzled rock star at a fan requesting his hoariest hit.

“Try a tall hydrangea paniculata,” he recommended. “They’re the ones with those rocket-like white blooms. Great varieties are Limelight and Tardiva.” I showed him my half-moon garden out front, to which I had tentatively added a few perennials that I had had modest success with in the only other garden I had ever tended, a weekender’s plot on my parents’ farm. Most never had the chance to flower. “Nipped in the bud” took on its most literal meaning.

“Blues and purples,” he advised. “Stick with those — lavender, catnip, thyme. The deer will leave those alone.” He admired my choice of potentilla, a deer-proof perennial with delicate yellow or pink blooms, and my Elijah Blues, little ornamental grasses that look like Cousin Itt.

So I dug up what was left of the daisies, the day lilies, the black-eyed Susans and the coneflowers and moved them to safety in the backyard. I’ve started keeping an eye out for what others have in their yards and get obsessed with one thing after another as they bloom.

Magnolias! Dogwoods! Iris! What is that bush with the translucent pink foliage? Basil! Rosemary! Chives! Parsley! I drew a firm line at vegetables, but I suspect it is only a matter of time before I succumb to tomatoes, zucchini and peppers.

I visit every nursery around, returning home with the back seat laden. I field phone calls from my husband, calling from Agway or Ace, on a mission to acquire topsoil, grass seed, a hose. “What kind of nozzle do we need?” he wants to know. “They’ve got an entire nozzle department here.”

A few of Linda’s crocuses did bloom this year, but it was a small showing. The deer do not touch them; the squirrels do. But those bulbs are what got me to start digging, and that garden, and the one underway in the newly protected space in back, are shaping up nicely.

The Shastas have burst open. The day lilies, Happy Returns, are a circus of yellow. The scent from the purple and white carpet of sweet alyssum wafts through our open windows if the breeze is right. I asked for a wheelbarrow for my birthday.

Yes, I am turning into my mother.

I feel planted.

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