Mud Pies & Butterflies

By Susan Stets

Why would a grown woman look forward to endless hours spent up to her elbows in compost and mud? Don’t laugh. I actually yearn for weather warm enough to get out there and dig in the garden. In fact, the local garden center knows me as that flaky lady who haunts the place in colder months just to inhale the scent of living, growing things. I go there and walk around, dreaming of gardening days in the grueling heat, perspiring profusely under my huge floppy sunhat, or sprawling on the soft grass in the shade of a beach umbrella as I pull curbside weeds.

“This isn’t the beach,” my neighbor, Tom, jokes as he drives by, waving jovially.

People around here know me as “the iris lady” or “the flower lady” or, possibly I think, “the crazy lady who doesn’t know when to stay out of the noon-day sun.”

At times, joggers and walkers pause in wonder to watch me rearrange plants as though moving furniture during spring-cleaning. Just when everything is in perfect order, adjustments are made to make room for an unusual specimen donated by a fellow gardener.

“Not more flowers,” Tom will say, shaking his head.

Critical neighbors notwithstanding, the camaraderie bred by a shared interest with like-minded friends is part of what keeps me going. On those cold, damp mornings, trying to get new plants in the ground before a rain—or on brutally hot afternoons, trying to keep up with the weeding after vacation—it is comforting to know there are other enthusiasts out there like me, doing similar tasks under similar circumstances. It’s also fun to compare notes.

In addition, when my irises multiply like overly-fertile bunnies, or my hostas get so big they threaten to overtake the sidewalk, I know their divisions will find a good home. And when my gardening friends are suffering from surplus plant overload, I just put a bucket of whatever has been divided near the driveway with a “please take” sign.

Sometimes, folks approach me and say a quick thanks. Other times, the plants disappear in the dark of night or while I’m inside having lunch. That is how I know there are closet gardeners out there, or novices looking for a sure thing, who have admired my “babies” and want some to pretty-up their yards.  No matter—it is nice to discover one of my “kids” peeking back at me through the foliage on a walk around town.

And do not get me started on the bunnies, or the deer. Save for a few they have not discovered yet, the rabbits thoroughly devour my tulips every spring. I can’t even remember what colors they are. And no one told the local deer they’re not supposed to like eating my forsythia.

Indeed, here in the Lehigh Valley, we are blessed with a healthy critter population, and it used to upset me when they ate my plantings. It still does, but in recent years, we have developed a sort of détente. Lately I just laugh when the chipmunks try to scold me away from their habitat under the Mugo pine, and I love to sit in my Adirondack chair and watch the hawks cruising the air currents in big, lazy circles.

Having made peace with most of the wildlife, I have decided it is a welcome surprise to see where the squirrels have planted, or re-planted, my hyacinths, or to find a new kind of evergreen the birds have deposited in the rock borders.

The challenges of marauding beasts, weeds and drought are no deterrent to garden fervor, possibly because we humans love a challenge. Indeed, what fun would it be if you could simply throw free plants into poor soil and have abundant foliage with spectacular blooms year round? Okay, I admit that would be quite acceptable—more than acceptable. However, there is great satisfaction in nursing a spindly shrub into robust health, or the spectacular show the bleeding hearts and forget-me-nots put on because they have been properly tended. And there would not be first prize ribbons at flower shows if things went so easily.

Gardening is a lot of work that sometimes means a sore back, mosquito bites or poison ivy. But it also means the delicious scent of cut lavender, the exceedingly exquisite shape of a perfect calla lily, or the arching elegance of tall ornamental grasses with their showy plumes.

I love sitting on my haunches in the summer shade while butterflies land precariously close, lighting on my arm for a brief second, or a hummingbird flits from bloom to bloom. I must be addicted to communing with nature in this way, or to fellowship with other gardeners. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of a job well done that draws me. Or maybe I just wasn’t allowed to make enough mud pies as a child…

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