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It’s both a joke and true that my partner and I bought a garden with an attached house; While we love the house itself, a late 19th century row house with bars and original hardwood floors, the garden was straight out of my dreams. When we first saw it, a pumpkin vine had taken up half of the back patio, climbed onto the grille, and dumped it on the nearby table and chairs. There were four raised beds full of produce – tomatoes, peppers, herbs – on two terrace levels that were planted with pollinator-friendly plants and flowers. The care that had been put into it was evident, and the results of that care were staggering. Once we closed and got the keys, I would visit the house every week (as we hadn’t fully moved in for about a month) to drink water, pull weeds, and collect the bounty that kept coming up. When we were fully moved in, I felt the shock of inheriting the care of this garden: what if I screwed it up? What if I killed everything in it because of my inexperience? Nature laughed at me; We moved in on Native American Day in October 2020, and winter came early enough to do just that. When everything went into hibernation, I sat down to take care of myself and wondered what it might be like in spring. And while it’s true that actual gardening books do have an impact, there are other, less obvious books that shape my garden.
I don’t lose the irony of claiming ownership of a house and garden on Native American Day. We are two white people who buy our first house and live on the traditional Lenni-Lenape land. We became homeowners amid a global pandemic that has hit and continues to hit marginalized communities hardest. It is a great privilege, and with that privilege comes a great responsibility. I am working on learning to be a good steward of stolen land, a good neighbor of my fellow human beings, fauna and flora. In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, she asks what it might look like to “put the colonist’s ways aside and become indigenous”. This gloriously rampant gourd vine is an answer; I’m a third on the way to a three sister patch. It’s a small way to honor the indigenous people and their deep knowledge of land maintenance, and I hope it will regularly remind us to give back to the land and the indigenous community in other ways too. Squash volunteers are already sticking their heads above the ground and surviving the many squirrel raids. I have seeds ready for Blue Jade Dwarf Sweet Corn and Scarlet Emperor Runner Beans. Now we are waiting for enough sun and warmth to plant.
In the meantime, other parts of the garden are already in motion – as are the bees. My obsession with bees was already on a low level by the time I read Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, and then it got really big. Bees who are telling the truth and could destroy or save the universe? Combined with their real meaning to the survival of basically everything? Made and made. I have had a bee tattoo for years and now I have a yard full of pollinators! Salvia, mint, even our bay hedge has proven to be a great source of pollen for our local flying friends, judging by the frequency with which I dodge giant bumblebees while weeding. The next step? A bee bath and a beetle hotel are on my Garden Glow-Up, Phase 2 list.
It was originally Robin McKinley’s fault that I was obsessed with rose bushes from my teens, though for my entire life I can’t remember whether it was Beauty or Rose Daughter who did it. Either or both would work; McKinley is obviously as big a fan of Beauty and the Beast as I am, but where I was focusing on the Library of the Beast in the Disney film, her retelling made me covet an arbor of roses on my doorstep. I had forgotten everything about this childhood dream until I read Alexander Chee’s absolutely gorgeous essay “The Rosary” from his collection How To Write a Autobiographical Novel, in which I was amazed to learn that Brooklyn (!) Can grow roses and that you could do it in a rental yard (!!). Why did I get it in my head that without a house you couldn’t have roses? Who knows, but I’m grateful to Chee for breaking that nonsense bubble. My first notable pandemic purchase? A tiny dwarf Rosa rugosa that I could take anywhere. It arrived with a black-spotted fungus but some hectic emails to the supplier and targeted applications of neem oil cleared this up right away. A year later, it is planted in the actual soil and it thrives. The fact that the yard had a rose bush already installed was an unexpected bonus, especially since I didn’t notice it until after we’d already lived in the house for a month. I still have no idea what color the flowers will be, as they were already dormant when we moved in and haven’t bloomed yet – will it be red or maybe yellow or orange? Is it a climber or a hiker? How will it smell It is a splendid puzzle that I cannot wait to solve.
Of course I already had a few mistakes. The coriander and chard seeds I planted were either too early or were dug up immediately by the above squirrels. Seedlings, which I keep mistaking for volunteers from last year’s products, turn out to be stubborn weeds that I then have to dig up. I have no idea how to deal with the hugely active raspberry stalks that a friend gave me. But the garlic, sage, and strawberries I planted last fall not only survive, but also thrive, and as new books come into my life – most recently The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson, which I cannot recommend highly enough – I think about canning, saving seeds, and feeding family and friends. I’m not sure what my garden will look like this year and I will make mistakes, but aren’t all relationships like that? We show up, we listen, we learn, and we keep coming back.
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