Gardening makes a tough year better

When everything goes wrong in life, a garden can provide comfort.

Photo courtesy of Donna Williamson
Plant bulbs such as bluebells in the fall and your yard will look great in the spring, even if you're too busy to garden then.
Photo courtesy of Donna Williamson
River birches are a welcome addition to the landscape. They have attractive bark and are heat-tolerant.

For my friends Michelle and John, it has been a year to just keep slogging. It started with freezing pipes and terrible damage to their home in January, then it included mold inspectors and friends coping with health and other issues.

But they have endured and maintained their good humor, a positive outlook, and – despite sometimes-intense provocation – wonderfully good manners.

Several years ago we started doing some design work together on their landscape. In contrast to northern Virginia's generally hot and dry summers, the area in which Michelle and John live features abundant springs and a jewel of a habitat for moisture-loving plants. It’s been an uncommon delight to develop a garden design in such lush conditions!

Multiples of dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and tupelo trees (Nyssa sylvatica) were included without irrigation or worry. We planted many river birches (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’). They are the most heat-tolerant birches and, with their honey and pink bark, the most attractive of the species for our climate. (In most of Virginia, the chalk-white birches we treasure are disease and pest magnets, living short and feeble lives.)

John and Michelle have enjoyed all aspects of building the gardens around their home. They have cleared out invasive plants and brush, planted natives and ornamentals, weeded, and pruned a wonderful array of plants by themselves with only occasional hired help.

Each has taken delight in a daily garden walk around the garden and the evening view to the west as the sun goes down and sends long light into their grasses, roses, pond, and trees. Their fruit trees, figs, and grapes produce well.

The same cold snap that burst their kitchen ceiling water pipe also damaged their big crape myrtles. Because these trees leaf out so late in the growing season, it’s often hard to tell where the damage ends. But once  in bloom, they saw that it wasn't as bad as we had feared.

More good news for John and Michelle: The roses have been good all summer, the grapes are ripening and delectable, and the beautiful berm of hydrangea and vitex, lilac, and beech has doubled in size from last year, when it was planted.

When there is plenty of moisture, plants can grow with abandon.

I’m glad the plants have done so well this summer. As the year unfolded, the house needed heavy and disrupting repairs. That would have been enough to handle. But added to this were the distracting and upsetting crises that their friends encountered. All involved fretting and problem solving. Busy times.

But despite the tough year for John and Michelle, the developing garden brought solace. After taking a moment to look in her usually up-to-date gardening journal, Michelle found her last entry from late May and wrote this in an e-mail to me this week:

"Some years we take care of our garden. Some years our garden takes care of us. This year has been one of those."

It's been a good year when the garden was able to provide beauty and solace without demanding lots of attention and care. What a delight!

Donna Williamson is a master gardener, garden designer, and garden coach. She has taught gardening and design classes at the State Arboretum of Virginia, Oatlands in Leesburg, and Shenandoah University. She’s also the founder and editor of Grandiflora Mid-Atlantic Gardening magazine, and the author of “The Virginia Gardener’s Companion: An Insider’s Guide to Low Maintenance Gardening in Virginia.”  She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Editor’s note: To read more by Donna, check our blog archive. For other Monitor gardening content, see our main gardening page and our RSS feed.

You may also want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest. We’ll be looking for photographs of fruits. So find your best shots of summer’s blueberries, peaches, plums, etc., and get out your camera to take some stunning shots of early fall apples. Post them before Sept. 30, 2009, and you could be the next winner.

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