Backyard through window: bird bath, crabapple tree

 Yahweh God planted a garden in Eden, which is in the east, and there he put the man he had fashioned. From the soil, Yahweh God caused to grow every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

— Genesis 2:8-9, The New Jerusalem Bible

We spent 16 years in our apartment, so the yard now under our stewardship is a whole new realm. It was tended for most of its 65 years by a known gardener, so there are many things growing already. Now it is time for us to become gardeners ourselves.

Last September after moving in, I inventoried the existing vegetation and ordered a number of books from Amazon.com, my usual course of action when conquering new realms. We have a typical Midwestern front yard, mostly lawn with a few shrubs around the foundation. The backyard is more lawn, with a southern exposure and a perimeter of shrubs in front of stockade fencing. We also have a crabapple tree and a Paper Birch.

We would like to transition from the somewhat harsh and sunny atmosphere toward a shadier oasis with a multitude of plant species, especially ones that have added value as food, such as nuts or berries or herbs. To this end, I ordered Landscaping with Fruits and Vegetables, by Fred Hagy. It’s exactly what I wanted, a manual showing how to arrange things both practically and aesthetically to get the maximum beauty and production out of even a modest yard, as well as a sourcebook for species and varieties with zone and height and soil and sun information.

As noted in a previous entry, we are bird enthusiasts. I added Attracting Birds to Your Backyard, by Sally Roth. She includes plenty of information on the types of plants and shrubs and trees that attract different species of birds, whether for nesting or seeds or fruit or insects, with species and cultivar names, zone information, and water and soil requirements.

Being situated in Wisconsin presents particular challenges, so I picked out a couple of books specific to our state. The Wisconsin Garden Guide, by Jerry Minnich, is a time-tested textbook which takes an organic approach, beginning with the miracle that is homemade compost and moving though comprehensive chapters on Wisconsin’s weather, vegetables, fruits, berries, nuts, flowers, lawns, ornamentals, insects, pests, diseases, and so on. This book is going to see wear. The Garden Book for Wisconsin, by Melinda Myers, is a picture book catalog of annuals, bulbs, ground covers, ornamental grasses, perennials, roses, shrubs, trees, turfgrass, and vines suited for the Badger State. Each page features a color photo and a detailed description of the plant depicted, with helpful icons denoting sun and water requirements, bird attraction, fruit, fragrance, and flower features. Flipping through this book over and over, I’m gradually becoming familiar with the landscaping staples of our area.

Using Adobe Illustrator, I made a simple plot of our parcel that allows me to add shrubs, trees, walks and patios at will, and move things around without breaking a sweat. Then I spent the winter cracking the books and taking notes. Early on, it seemed like I could select maybe 150 of my most favorite plants, plug them into their designated locations on the first day of spring, and then sit back and sip lemonade all summer in Eden. As it turns out, that’s not exactly how it will be.

First of all, just acquiring some specimens has proven to be a bit of a labyrinth. Racine, Wisconsin is home to Milaeger’s, a regionally famous nursery and garden retailer with two locations, so I thought it would be a simple matter to just go there and buy everything. Instead, I have learned that their growing stock arrives on mysterious trucks under cover of rain and darkness on rumored dates, and that no one knows exactly what will be on those trucks until they arrive. Furthermore, the garden center is an entire culture unto itself, with product organization, procedures and personnel hierarchies that are incomprehensible at first, and a social network more like that of the art or fashion world than, say, a hardware store. We made a handful of visits just familiarizing oursleves and asking to be put on lists before ever buying anything.

Black elderberry plant: Black Beauty by Proven WinnersAbout three weeks ago, some of the goods finally arrived. I was contacted by phone, and hurried over to pick up our first plants. Because of their high bird appeal, I had selected elderberries for the former flower bed where our neighbors had put up a stockade fence — a pair of the Black Beauty cultivar for its exotic handsomeness, and one of the more delicate Black Lace between those two for cross-pollination and aesthetic variety. We also wanted honeysuckle vines to cover our unsightly utility pole and attract hummingbirds with their blossoms. The Dropmore Scarlets were already gone, so we grabbed a Winchester and a Mandarin. Added to that were bags of top soil, composted cow manure, and peat humus to prepare the planting holes and beds. It wasn’t a cheap trip. The elderberries alone were $40 each.

Back at home, having first notified Digger’s Hotline at least three days before any work, we prepared some nice, big holes for our little individuals, then installed them and watered them down. We also transferred a few ferns from a shrub border to the side of the house, along with a Columbine — and Amy moved a climbing rose from the back of our garage to a corner of our house. It was tough to dig out, and probably very traumatic for the poor thing, but so far it is has survived the move.

Whiskey barrel planter, bottom drainage holesLast weekend, we visited the other local garden center, Steins, and picked up a couple of the cut whiskey barrels I had been picturing as our herb planters. They’re big, heavy tubs with charred insides. Following an article I found on the Web, we bored some 3/4-inch holes in the bottom, stapled some screening on the inside to keep bugs out, and then filled them with drainage layers of lava and bark before the main mix of top soil and composted manure. Try as we might, we could not find anyone locally who had ever heard of mycorrhizae. Instead, I mixed in soil from the beds, hoping it might contain some microorganisms that the bagged stuff did not. Mint is growing in one barrel now, with basil and oregano soon to follow. Tomatoes will rise in adjacent terra cotta pots around a back window.

I see now that it will take more than a few weeks to get everything they way we want it, if it ever even happens in our lifetimes. We’re on the list for a Tulip Tree, which I want for its fast growth, sun-blocking height, straight and narrow form, and bird-attracting seed pods. The first seeds are produced at 15-20 years of age, so we’re looking at, oh, 2021 or so. I’ll be 61 years old. Also, it’s now pretty late in this season to be planting that tree, so maybe it’ll have to wait until next year. By the time we thought of starting annuals from seed this spring, we had already missed that boat as well.

Black elderberry flowersMeanwhile, though, our elderberries get bigger every time we look at them — and dig the crazy little flowers, baby! Our honeysuckles are starting to take off, and the hummingbird feeder we mounted above them on Memorial Day evening got its first customer just 48 hours later. The ferns and Columbine on the side of the house are exploding, and they’ll be joined by a couple of new companions today.

This stuff is fun. Amy has been reminiscing about the love her mother and grandmother had for gardening, and being able to share that at last is quickening her memories of them. I’m feeling a bond with neighbors I have not yet met, the people a few backyards away that I see gardening every day, even now as I write this.

I’ve got to get out there.

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