With trepidation we swung open the garden gate at our home in Columbia and took a wide-eyed look around. We’d been gone to the mountains for a year, and though we left our house in the hands of a perfect tenant and good friend, the garden had grown up because he wasn’t an avid gardener. No worries about that, I’d told him last year, as the garden is designed to withstand abandonment and only get more abundant. Still, I’d wondered all year if my claim was true or if instead I’d return to see our food bearing trees, shrubs, perennial greens and ground covers killed back by heat and damaged by cold, and the space over taken by weeds.
One strategy of permaculture is to design with the unstoppable process of succession in mind. We say,”Fill every niche before nature does it for you!” This was what Emily and I tried to do over the last ten years on this little piece of urban land we have called home. We planted densely, using vertical and horizontal space, mimicking a woodland edge with edible species. We shoveled tons of wood chips over barren ground to kick start the soil making process and block the rampant growth of weeds. Lots of the weeds that did pop up appeared on our dinner plates. And some we semi-cultivated as wild members of our hybrid backyard human habitat. Countless hours of walking around observing and imagining, arguing about what should go where or whether or not one of our latest schemes would work. So many failures. So many surprising successes.
But returning to our little eden to see what had become of it had wider emotional dimensions too. The story of our family has unfolded here. Our early gardens with baby Sadie toddling around…Phoenix born in the bathtub and brought outside to sit in Emily’s lap, watching me bury her placenta under a pomegranate tree at sundown….Morgan climbing high into the loquat tree to avoid bedtime. Their catacomb-like forts cut into the thicket of elderberry. Their laughter at watching the laying ducks puzzle over the frozen pond in winter. The tissue of a miscarried baby buried under the plum tree. Parties with kids running everywhere, balloons tied to the cedar trellis among climbing loofah squashes. The tenderness and anguish of our thirteen year marriage has played out sitting in the shade of the lima beans or lying on a blanket by the feijoas. We have lived our history together outside in our garden. Our kids have grown up in their back yard, and to them it’s somehow vast and very magical. So, a lot was at stake for us upon our return.
What we found was that we had to cut our way through with a sling blade and clippers, but amazingly most of what we were cutting were our edible species growing wildly, rather than wild species overtaking them. The elderberry had swallowed the rain barrels. The pomegranate and wineberries had stretched across a walkway, redefining what was our walking space and their growing space. Thornless blackberries had sprung up new shoots along the wattle fence and spilled with ripening fruit into the vegetable garden. Lambsquarters, a wild green I’d been sort of cultivating, had gone to seed and spread like an edible carpet around the swings. The plum was overcrowding itself with fruit and had birthed a dozen plum saplings under its canopy. There were of course weeds like moonseed, smilax and crabgrass but their presence was like that of visiting guests rather than tyrants. Ok, to be honest the crabgrass was sort of attempting a coup d’etat, but our trees are established enough that it’s no threat to their root systems.
“This is working!”, I said as I looked around at this little ecosystem we’d shepherded and fretted over. It was evolving beyond the vision of its designers, as it should. We reined things in so as not to totally give up our place in the system. Humans too are partners in this symphony. But the scene was one of abundance and well being even in our absence. Of soil repairing itself. Of networks of creatures who came unbidden finding their place among our plantings. Frogs chanted in the pond and butterflies flitted above the beebalm as I finally put down my sling blade and sat nibbling a feijoa flower and taking it all in. Emily was cutting huge clumps of mulberry leaves, catnip, mint and lemonbalm to dry for tea. The children ran in a pack with friends they’d hardly seen in a year. I adjusted the mosaic marker over the buried remains of one of our miscarried children and whispered hello.
While I’d been trying to plan an idealic life I’d one day have, this one had unfolded around me, full of heartache and riches I never imagined when I first set foot in this yard and assessed the possibilities. Even if this urban lot in a run down city neighborhood isn’t the homestead on a pristine mountain river valley I always imagined, the seasons of this garden are part of the pulse of our family. I lay under the plum tree and watched the wind tip each branch, as if they were nodding a soft “welcome back..”