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October 17, 2011

MIKE LUNSFORD: Here’s to the simple beauty of an untended garden…

I can hear a combine eating its way across a nearby cornfield as I write this on a Saturday evening. It is a sound that signals the end of one season and the beginning of another. The racket of its cutting and shelling isn’t as pleasant as those of the soft breezes that catch a wind chime just around the corner from my open window, but it is a necessary noise. Besides, the sound will be a memory in just a few weeks as the fields lose their corn stalk rattles and lay down to sleep for the winter.

I have spent my day outdoors until now. I was up early, my newspaper and coffee consumed in the silence of our kitchen. The quietude soon gave way to the ugly buzz of an old weed trimmer, a saw blade torqued onto its head ready to do battle with fading peonies and scruffy saplings and dried coneflower stalks.

I had told Joanie the night before that I wanted to cut our flower garden to the ground and empty the dregs of the summer planters, their marigolds and petunias now thin and tired and ceding turf to the chrysanthemums. Since I knew the weather was going to be perfect for such chores, I woke earlier than I wanted to, as is a customary irritation with me, with thoughts of rakes and wheelbarrows and pleasant southern winds in my head.

Our flower garden is a dusty little plot of clay that at one time refused to grow much more than a few scruffy thistles and dandelions. The folks who owned our house 30 years ago had the spot fenced off for their horses, that in turn obliged them by trodding the dirt into a bleached and barren wasteland.

Over time, I tore down the old wire fence that kept the horses from peeking into the bedroom windows and pulled its gnawed locust posts for firewood. I planted a grove of red pines that eventually grew to hide and seclude the spot, and I borrowed my folks’ tiller and turned a narrow strip of the pasture into powder, slogging behind the moving tines time and time again until I felt I had a perfect garden spot.

At first, I grew vegetables: a little corn and a few tomatoes and a half-dozen rows of green beans. But, despite fertilizing and mulching and weeding and watering, the garden never really produced much, so I eventually worked in a row of Indian corn here and a few pumpkins there and a bed or two of zinnias at each end. Before too long, I had more of a conversation piece than a garden that actually put food on our table.

Over time, the pumpkins and the birdhouse gourds I tried to grow went the way of our vegetables, and I decided we needed a flower garden, instead, that would add color to a relatively colorless lawn, and I went to work again. Using soft sand bricks that Joanie — then pregnant with our daughter — and I culled from an ancient wreck of a farmhouse years ago, I lined a dog’s hind leg of a walkway through the garden spot and started dropping seeds both bought and bestowed into the soil. I planted black-eyed Susans and coneflowers and irises and hollyhocks, and on the shaded end, I dug hole after hole for young hostas I transplanted from the hillsides of my homeplace a few miles away. I planted modest clumps of grasses that today have multiplied themselves times over, and I indiscriminately shoved sedum and mint and butterfly bushes into the mix, too. In time, I had a place filled with pinks and purples and yellows. A spot of lumpy soil that couldn’t do much to feed us, and that had no plan to it, was filled with the blooms of summer lilies and the flutter of spicebush and swallowtail butterflies.

It didn’t take long for me to realize today that I have neglected my garden this summer. I have mown around it, and walked through it on occasion, pulling a weed here and there, but as the summer and its dryness and its heat wore on, I grew to ignore it. Vines had taken over much of it, and poison ivy had overrun its sunniest corners. I hadn’t noticed at all that a pink-berried ground cover had crept up from the woods to infiltrate the place like a silent assassin, and I found mulberries and slippery elms a yardstick tall that had hidden themselves from my pruning shears for months. It was sloppy and weedy, and I was a little ashamed that something that looked good from a distance now seemed so shabby and neglected when seen up close. But I noticed something else, too.

Nearby, a canopy of walnut and cherry trees was dropping a golden shower of leaves, and I often stopped my raking and pulling to just stand and watch it all. I muttered to myself that I was lucky to have such work, for despite my neglect, the garden was filled with color. In its dying, the place had become a collage of deep yellows and ripe reds and rusty browns. The ivy had grown into a variegation of greens and purples, and the grasses, some much taller than I am, had delicate gossamer heads that were tossed in the breeze. The garden was beautiful in a different, simple way.

Today, I acted like that combine down the road, and I mowed my garden down, just as I do each fall. On a day that was as perfect as a day can be — about 80 and breezy and clear — I waded into that patch of earth not expecting to be surprised at all, but I was.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. His third collection of stories, “A Place Near Home,” is available through his website and in some stores now. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com to see his speaking and signing schedule.

 

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