Gardening Lessons


Today, Becky Allender reflects on learning to garden in the Pacific Northwest and the invasive root of bitterness, which so easily chokes out joy and beauty. This post originally appeared on Red Tent Living.

The day we drove up the driveway to our new home in 1998, the grass was above our knees when we walked across it to meet our new neighbors. Our builder had told me he would have it cut before we arrived. I guess he had more important things to do. We arrived without a lawn mower because in 1988 my husband had decided that he’d rather work on Saturday mornings in order to hire out lawn maintenance. I knew the acre lot was not a good idea, but here we were at our new home and in a pickle.

I contacted our builder for recommendations for landscaping. The Northwest is a haven for gardeners, and plants are adored and doted on with a climate that gives a bounty for the effort. I purchased my Sunset Western Garden book and began the process of acclimating myself to zone 5, better known as: “Marine influence along the Northwest Coast and Puget Sound.” I was entranced with the abundance that this climate allowed. I began meeting with landscapers, and the mid-range estimates were $50,000! I was crestfallen and realized that, if I wanted to beautify our weed-ridden property of blackberry bushes and scotch broom, I’d have to become a self-taught amateur landscaper.

I hired a few men to help with an irrigation system and planting of nine fruit trees, six flowering cherry trees and over one hundred bushes. My husband’s job became uncertain, and this start-up school dream caused paying for our daughter’s college tuition to become a leap of faith each month. Our health care policy was unexpectedly cancelled and life became even more uncertain. Grocery bills became burdensome, and a gloom settled over our property and in my heart.

I kept reading about zone 5 and studied every business in town, noting what native plants they used. I became an obsessed wanderer of the local nurseries and lusted after ground covers, heathers, camellias, azaleas, lavenders, and boxwood. I turned into a plant addict and longed for every moment in the yard. I lived for the sales at the end of each season. My fingernails were always dirt stained.

As the years went by, hundreds of dollars of bushes, ground covers, and fruit trees were pulled out or cut down. The yard became too much and things grew so big that, even though I had allowed for growth, they still needed to be removed. The fifty lavender bushes became too leggy. The fruit trees brought all the deer and raccoons in the surrounding forest, and our raised beds were the salad bar for every four-footed creature imaginable. I was easily in the yard forty hours a week weeding, fertilizing, and pruning. No one seemed to notice the beauty and certainly no one noticed the sacrifice of time. After fourteen years of care I became embittered to my life and my husband. I regretted having traded tennis for plants.

I had tried to enlist my husband in planting when he arrived home from the airport. I’ll get him to desire home more, I thought. I’ll get him to be grounded. I’ll get him hooked on the joy of watching our plants grow instead of complaining of the rain. I’ll get him to enjoy fresh plums and English peas. But that never happened. And my resentment grew.

I turned into my mother who used to complain about her husband who went on motorcycle trips. I felt sorry for myself with a husband who was gone for work and recreation. I paid our monthly payment for the slip for our sailboat moorage and noticed how little we sailed. I allowed my anger to seed my heart, and the joy of gardening became as soggy as the soil. This bitter root in my heart grew, and I sought counseling in my misery. I realized yet again, I needed to change myself rather than change my husband.

That root of bitterness is a nasty weed that grows deep if not eradicated. My desires for beauty deepened, and I articulated what I needed. Change did not happen overnight. In fact, change was slow. It took time and in the passing of a couple of years, the boat left the water and lived next to the garage for a year or two. Finally, the dream of owning a boat died for my husband and it went up for sale.

It was a bittersweet afternoon when an enthusiastic man came with cash and the many one hundred dollar bills were counted on the kitchen table. I watched from an upstairs window and prayed that the trailer tires would not go flat as he drove down our driveway with our West Wight Potter. I wasn’t relieved or happy with the reality that gardening help was near. I was sad for both of us because the dream to sail had died on the vine. I no longer resented the boat or my husband. The weeds in my heart had already been pulled. It was the sinking deep reality that some dreams just don’t bloom.

I now have funds to pay others to weed my yard. I am grateful for their care and for the money we have to pay them. What once was a passion and important to my identity is no longer. I love my yard and the beauty it holds throughout the seasons. Other than my husband, few compliments are spoken about the property—and it is well with my soul. The lessons it taught me about dreams and desires gone sour still unfold. The most deadly plant, bitterness, has been seized by the hands of prayer and yanked out of the ground. Wild beauty abounds in my yard.