Terry Fowler


Doin’ Nothin’

My mother had a friend, Hannah, who was an accomplished gardener. Hannah used to show her garden to my sister and me when we visited her house. “I let nature take its course,” she used to tell us with a wink, “but once in a while I have to step in and arbitrate.” The results were certainly impressive, probably because Hannah was a keen observer. Me, not so much.

But gardens do some interesting things when we’re not looking. Or perhaps looking but not really seeing. Around most gardens, I suspect, there are corners that seldom get looked at, let alone seen. But Mother Nature is everywhere, all the time, doing her thing.

Many years ago, when we were first adding some green to our back yard, I wanted to plant a red oak, but at that time even the largest nurseries told me it was unavailable. All they had were English oak. I love oak trees, and, well, I thought at the time, it’s better than no oak at all.

I planted the spindly six foot specimen they sold me exactly according to the directions. But it languished. The leaves grew brown and then fell off in midsummer. I didn’t have time to deal with it that year, so I just left it.

The following spring, suckers appeared at the base of the stark little trunklet. I wondered if I should cut off all but one or two. I wondered long enough to notice that two of the suckers had thrived and the others had more or less disappeared. A healthy double-trunked English oak was obviously establishing itself. I paid it little attention except to remark periodically as I glanced in its direction that it was doing just fine.

Oaks grow slowly. The years passed. One day last fall I was cleaning up the garden for the winter and sensed a presence. I looked up and was mildly astonished to see that the little oak sapling was now well over thirty feet tall. It was a truly beautiful tree, with branches that shot out horizontally from two sturdy trunks. It occurred to me that some arbitration was needed if I still wanted to grow sun-loving tomatoes and beans in the garden.

On the other hand, back when the oak was small, and its corner of the yard was bathed in sunlight, we had planted stinging nettle. I know, we’re crazy; but that plant is so healthy for us and our gardens. The tea provides essential nutrients (again, for both humans and the soil) and the young greens can be cooked and eaten like spinach. Nettles are incredibly lusty and invasive, but I kept them in check with a pick axe for years, digging a trench around the roots and cutting back the foliage. This task was becoming more and more onerous, and I was ready to bid goodbye to the nettle. That fall day I noticed how it had become peaked and unhealthy and at the same time how effectively the oak’s branches were shading it throughout the day. This spring hardly any nettle came up. No arbitration needed here.

So the oak tree was lesson number one.

In the front yard – again, literally decades ago – I planted some daffodil bulbs next to our front walk. Every year the leaves would emerge with the promise of cheerful yellow blossoms. But year after year no flowers appeared. “I must have planted them too deep,” I would think, and then turn to other chores that seemed more urgent, continually promising myself to dig them up and plant them a couple of inches closer to the surface.

You can see where this is headed. The bulbs were planted in the 1980s. In May 2013, during an exceptionally wet spring, not one or two but four magnificent daffodils shot up, spreading their golden light across the yard. What is in their DNA that encodes “Sometimes we’re planted a little too deep; but just keep trying”?

The daffodils are coming up through the part of our front yard that is lawn, more accurately described as a patch moth-eaten grass. The rest of the yard, about a third of it, has tulips and lilies – even some daffodils – that bloom reliably. I’ve weeded it only half-heartedly over the years because I’m afraid of digging up some of the bulbs (which seems to happen anyway).

As it turns out, there are some common wildflowers growing in the same spot: tansy, yarrow, some rogue hollyhocks from next door, goldenrod, purple asters gathered from a nearby ravine, even creeping bellflower. I suppose many of us would call these plants weeds, but we really love them, at least in moderation.

This year my health was poor, and I concentrated my energy on the vegetable garden at the back, leaving the front to its own devices. Well, these plants’ devices are pretty impressive. By midsummer, our mix of wildflowers and lilies was spectacular, full of different colours. In other words, it became much more beautiful when I just left it alone. I’m a bit apprehensive about leaving it untouched for another year, but it’s the same lesson – minimize the arbitration and let nature demonstrate its genius.

I’ll never be as skillful as Hannah, but I reflected that there might be some benefits to carefully timed stretches of attention deficit disorder.