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Spring Fling

By Tina Traster

May 28, 2009 -- What relief I felt last November when we packed up the patio furniture, stored the garden tools and disconnected the watering hose. But that's all over now.

Spring and summer around my house is boot camp; we are still taming this unruly swath of land we bought four years ago.

Take pity on this naive city mouse who giggled with glee at the thought of owning nearly an acre just 45 minutes from Manhattan. Especially given that the wooded tract was blanketed by snow and looked like a Christmas card the day I told the broker, "I'll take the spread."

The well-budgeted, four-month renovation of our 150-year-old wreck of a farmhouse went quickly and relatively painlessly. But the outside -- a jigsaw of barren dirt, gravel, weed-choked patches, garbage and a precipitously steep woodland -- has become our life's work.

And a big expense.

After the first thaw, we noticed four giant concrete cisterns where a century ago people stored water. They were nice artifacts, if we wanted to give historic house tours in period costumes. Instead, we hired Jerry the landscaper to demolish and remove the jagged eyesores.

Jerry, a toothless soul who is perennially lobster-red, moved heaven and a lot of earth. He turned a stretch of dirt into a groomed pebble driveway framed with a necklace of large rocks. He stopped rivers coursing through our basement by building a French drain and grading land. His crew erected a stone wall and fence. And he got rid of a long gravel moonscape that looked like an airport runway and replaced it with lawn and a rock garden.

But we haven't sat around with margaritas in hand.

My husband, 6-year-old daughter and I have spent the past three springs and summers with our sleeves rolled up. I've worn through eight pairs of gardening gloves while building a stone patio, slate pathways and a greenhouse. Our home's once-naked exterior is now adorned with shrubbery and a perennial garden.

After filling huge garbage bags with old cat-food tins and broken bottles, we dug deeper to plant a vegetable garden and make borders of Andromedas, Japanese skimmia and boxwoods. We unearthed asphalt tiles, broken bricks, metal pipes, ceramic shards, a guardrail and other debris. And in another spot, rusted horseshoes, wagon wheels and a horse's blanket. That's when I stopped; I had no desire to find a horse corpse.

I can just about remember those summer days of yore spent lollygagging on the beach. But there has been no time for such luxury when you're tending to tomatoes, peppers, herbs, carrots, garlic, onions and potatoes. Or when you're expected to keep bird feeders stocked and birdbaths filled.

My fix-it mania starts every year on the first teasingly warm day. I go outside with a legal pad and make a list of goals. Humorlessly, I plod through the next five months like a drill sergeant, keeping everything and everyone on schedule and on budget.

This year, at the first hint of spring, I burst out the door with that crazed look in my eye and made a decision similar to Kevin Spacey's character in "American Beauty." After ditching his advertising gig he wanted "a job with the least amount of responsibility," and took a position flipping burgers.

This season I will be an underachiever.

House-fixer-upper fatigue coupled with recession blahs has turned my go-get-'em switch off. I know from previous years every project costs more than we think it will. Each time we improve one patch, it highlights how much an adjacent area begs for our attention.

So this year, I made a new list. I will grow only root vegetables -- onions and garlic -- to reduce watering and tending. Maybe I'll keep herbs and tomatoes in pots on the deck. (Maybe.) The iron deck chairs need a coat of paint, oh well. I will happily accept cuttings for my gardens, but I will not throw wads of money away at the garden center.

I have been promising myself I would train the birds to perch in my seed-filled hand but never sat long enough on the deck to gain their trust. This year I will sit and ponder the beauty and wonder of my wooded lot and how much we have nurtured a scarred snippet of earth.

Oh, and one more thing: I will go to the outdoor furniture store after summer sales are rife and buy a chaise lounge so I can take it all in, lying down.

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