By Mary Lowengard
SWEET WOODRUFF, ligularia, salvia, Russian sage, astilbe, columbine, giant lamb’s-ear and calamint. What do these have in common? They all graced one section or another of the front yard of my Bucknoll cottage, all are alleged to be repugnant to deer, and I could not differentiate any of them for the love of (the) Lords and Ladies (a perennial that prefers light shade and moist, well-drained soil, or so I’m told).
I know a fair amount about a good number of things, and can fake my way through many more, but there are two huge black holes in my personal book of knowledge: football and gardening.
I spent the entire Thanksgiving weekend of 1976 hounding my cousin David to tutor me in the basics of the gridiron. He agreed to give it a try, laying out all the positions, explaining the rules and drawing circles and arrows on paper napkins. I just didn’t get it.
At the mutually exasperated conclusion, David gently suggested that when I found myself in proximity of a football game and a crowd within earshot, I should do my best to appear engaged and from time to time holler in disgust, “Hey, he was wide open.”
I have since discovered this all-purpose comment is not exclusive to football, but works also for futbol, ice hockey, basketball and bull riding. Sort of.
As for gardening, I plead willful ignorance. I have lived most of my adult life in apartments, and for the past 25 years have claimed Central Park as “my garden,” one tended by large crews of competent professional gardeners. Barring a global pandemic, ladies in frilly dresses and goofy hats throw money at the Central Park Conservancy annually in May, in exchange for a luncheon that results in clogged traffic for 10 blocks north and south of Fifth Avenue at 106th Street. As this event lasts more or less half a day, and the gardens it underwrites bloom all year, I call this a win-win.
At any rate, thanks to F.L. Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (whoever he was), my pre-Bucknoll idea of gardening was a stroll through a lovely space where I didn’t have to do anything more strenuous than gaze upon the flora. All of the messy stuff—the preparing, the fertilizing, the sowing, the mulching, the trimming, the watering, the weeding, the weeding, the weeding—was taken care of. No aching back. No creaky knees.
The Roots of My Personal Lebowitzian Gardening Philosophy
My proximity to Nature means I have rarely felt the urge to grow anything, indoors or out. For many years I have embraced the gardening philosophy extolled by the recently revived-as-trendy Fran Lebowitz, who quips that plants are “the roots of all evil,” and is unimpressed that they make their own food. She advises, “If you run across one that makes its own money, call me.” Yeah, call me too.
Enter Bucknoll Hills, stage northwest. My cottage’s somewhat charmless mid-century charm was embellished by left-behinds of the former owners: a rickety elevator, a bullfroggy but fishless pond with a lopsided waterfall, a few beds and bureaus, a set of baked apple dishes, and not just one but two gardens—one in front and the other out back.
The previous owners had been enthusiastic gardeners and assumed I’d take the ice-bucket challenge. They generously created a spreadsheet of everything they had planted: where, how many and the Latin name in case I might wish to revisit the trauma of my preteen years in Latin I at The Oxford School. (Confession: It is from this crib sheet that I fashioned the list of the plantings I rattled off in the first paragraph. I think, but I’m not sure, that I might be able to identify lamb’s-ears, but not anything else.)
The Advantage of Proximity to a Messier Garden Than One’s Own
I quickly declared the rear garden a lost cause, out of sight thus out of mind, at least so far as efforts to groom it were concerned. As for the front, I felt I had a considerable advantage, located as it was directly across the street from the dilapidated grounds of a decrepit, defunct and decommissioned inn. The juxtaposition made my garden look positively Versaillesian. That worked for a while, until it didn’t.
In my early years at Bucknoll, I managed to wrangle the garden into shape now and then, relying on the kindness of houseguests who generously donated both time and talent. My friends Andrea and Kenny regularly declared their love of garden improvement. They thought it was fun, relaxing even. This was more than enough to earn them several weekends at my place over the course of the summer, and total carte blanche. Have at it, I’d tell them and head off toward the tennis courts.
My other secret source, and perennially on the scene: neighbors. Gene and Dani, when asked to dinner, would often appear to be genuflecting as they came up the flagstone walkway from the street to the cottage. In reality they were pulling weeds along the way.
Calling In the Blunt Trauma Forces
I supplemented these efforts by underwriting an annual “spring garden clean-up,” a blunt-force buzz cut offered for several hundred dollars by any of several indistinguishable local landscapers. This seemed to do the trick. Or a trick. I’d plan to invite them to return in the fall. Sometimes I even managed to remember to schedule it before the snows fell.
When push came to shove a couple of years in, I found a more-or-less real gardener. I encouraged Jenny to stop by whenever she could (i.e., whenever she wanted to, which is to say irregularly) to help out. Every time she asked if it was okay to move a plant I said “sure,” the horticultural equivalent of “He was wide open.” She also taught me how to identify a weed. “If you don’t like it,” she told me with great authority, “it’s a weed.”
When Jenny asked if I wanted her to deadhead the rhodies, I swear I thought she was talking about Jerry Garcia and crew. To entice her to stay on, I created a yoga program for her to lead, hoping she would hang around at least through the leaf-raking season. Except of course nobody who is anybody rakes anymore; they use these enormous hair-dryer leaf blowers. She stuck around for another season, and then she was gone with the wind, leaving me to my own devices.
The Weeds Versus Me. The Weeds Win.
One such device happened to be a push lawnmower, which was a kick to use and managed to keep the postage-stamp-sized lawn under control. But in the battle of plants versus weeds, the weeds would triumph, month after month, year after year. Even day after day. Meanwhile, some neighbors chipped in to fix up the property across the street, which began to look comparatively more like Giverny every day.
I have great affection for things Japanese, in particular Noriko, our beloved au pair who weeded and watered me and my five siblings in the mid-1960s, and the philosophical practice of wabi-sabi, which I use as an excuse for leaving dishes in the sink overnight and, garden wise, weeds in the beds. However, there is also the plague of Japanese barberry, a prickly invasive bush. Eschewed by the deer population, it sports yummy berries the local birdies love to munch and then propagate all over the place.
And then there was the year when, suddenly, long lush grasses appeared not only in my garden but also in my pebbled driveway and just about everywhere else. I learned this is another gift from the Land of the Rising Sun (not to be confused with the House of the same name). This stuff needed no aviary spreading system, it just sprang up spontaneously and multiplied at will.
When in Doubt, Always Seek Professional Help.
I finally decided to spray the Japanese stilt grass cluttering my driveway, since the idea of manually pulling it all out seemed inefficient and anathema, not to mention boring. I purchased several bottles of lethal something that ended in “cide.” But, in spite of several consultations with Dr. Google on what I was doing wrong, I couldn’t get the pump mechanism to work and ended up spraying my left leg. Which happened to be the only area of my body I hadn’t had the foresight to protect.
This proved even more exasperating than, well, watching football. So finally, I unscrewed the mechanism and just started tossing the “cide” randomly onto the driveway, which resulted in ugly erratic patches of brown (presumably dead) foliage. Ultimately, I had to call in the professionals, who came by and laughed merrily as they brought out the big guns and left me with a bill for over $500.
Lesson learned: I now accept that not only can I not grow plants, I can’t even kill them.
Mary Lowengard really did own a country cottage once upon a time somewhere in Pennsylvania. She changed names to protect the innocent, and thanks KW, JM, JAR and Woody, who made these stories possible. For the full story, click here.