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Plowin' Ahead

By Tina Traster

June 1, 2006 --Spring in the burbs makes me feel like a kid in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. I spy butterflies, bunny rabbits, hedgehogs, beaver, deer and a fuzzy gaggle of goslings at the pond down the road. Daffodils dot hillocks, and perennials fill flower boxes. The smell of grass sweetens the air after a shower, and who needs an alarm when there are all these birds? I’m awakened in the mornings by a tufted titmouse that chirps “peter peter” over and over and over.

This is an exhilarating feast for the senses for an urbanite, which I was until recently, relocating with my husband and young daughter to a mountain perch in Rockland County that borders 200 acres of woods and is surrounded by ponds and streams.

When I lived on the Upper West Sider, spring meant sprouting tulips on island dividers along Broadway, blooming dogwoods edging Riverside Drive and a spike in pregnant bellies hiding beneath winter garb. After a few warm days, everybody’s talking about beach-house rentals and summer shares. Spring, it seems, is a mere countdown to summer fun.

Up here, spring unfolds in slow-motion. Trees around the house grow leaves that alter the path of light and shadows. Lilacs perfume the yard. Green blades push through caked-brown earth, and pollen floats in the air on gentle breezes. Spring is not just a quick journey to summer -- it’s an invitation, ahem, exhortation to create a beautiful garden or grow vegetables or seed the lawn.

Go to a party or pick up your kid from preschool and small talk is all about the garden or yard.

“What are you planting?”  

Lettuce and onions and herbs like basil and thyme would be nice, I reply.

“So have you tested your soil acidity?

Uh, um, no, I guess I need to do that.

So much to learn – so little time to plow through “Gardening For Dummies”. I need to put my hands in the soil and get dirty.

Until recently, gardening meant a trek to the 96th Street plant store to buy annuals to put on the fire escape. I have nearly an acre of scarred, neglected property that cries out for attention.

Newspapers packed with garden furniture advertisements are a daily reminder of the Eden I’m supposed to create. Catalog companies filled with idyllic lifestyle scenes suggest carpets and hanging light fixtures and weather-resistant wall hangings? I thought the whole idea of being outside was to be outside?

It’s time to find my inner gardener. I replace HGTV home improvement porn with garden shows. I buy knee-pads, spades, fertilizer, mulch, seeds, a wheelbarrow and a wide-brim hat that Katherine Hepburn would envy.

On weekends, we head out early to plant nurseries and to Home Depot’s less inspiring but rock-bottom-cheap garden center, where a couple of orange-bibbed employees who know nothing about horticulture attempt crowd control.

We began the rejuvenation by building a stone wall and fence in front of the house and creating an outdoor garden “room” with rose bushes. We planted Jacob’s Ladder along a brick pathway my husband built from bricks salvaged from the recent renovation of our 150-year-old house.

Bibb and romaine lettuce, lavender and basil grow in window boxes we’ve hung. Every night, salad is picked fresh and needs only a touch of olive oil and a pinch of salt.

We’ve had less luck with the row of arbor vitae evergreens we planted along the property’s perimeter. These hearty evergreens look anemic and brown, unwilling to take root and become members of our garden family. Perhaps we needed to snip away the burlap sacks sooner. I water them daily, offering words of encouragement when no one is within earshot. In contrast, our Hostas and Japanese Skimmia and Phlox are thriving in dappled shade.

When the wind blows, we hear the tinkle of wind chimes we’ve hung on our small patio. Our birdhouses, particularly the wrought iron feeder strung between two maples, are like a small town diner. One day, awful squawking came from that direction because, alas, the cupboard was bare. These winged creatures let me know this is no way to run a restaurant.

More and more, neighbors stop by and offer a slap on the back.

“Looking good,” says the guy across the street.

Friends who know you’re a gardening newbie revel in telling you arbor vitae are deer food or the roses will need more sun. Maybe so, but this is my laboratory.

Our biggest challenge was tackling our lawn and driveway, a rather massive rectangle that drops precipitously toward the house. When we bought the house, it was a gravel moonscape with a sharp incline. It was impossible to get a four-wheel drive up the slope all winter and there was little greenery surrounding the driveway. Bob the Builder, as my daughter calls anyone with a backhoe, came to the rescue.

In three days, he moved heaven and a lot of earth to create a gently sloping grass-seeded hill that undulates toward a rocky flower bed. The driveway has been moved to the far end of the property.

As we wait for this brown palette to turn green, we spend most of our daylight hours digging holes and putting small plants in the ground. We understand why farmers pray for rain, and why spring is the season that teaches patience, nurture and humility.

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