Finally, winter left my garden, kicking and screaming like a mooching relative. I was happy to get my hands wet rolling back blankets of damp leaves and airing out the well-slept winter bed. Gladdening my heart were infants: lily, daffodil, and crocus — yellow stems blinking at skylight, loyal to Wisconsin, while fragile humans talked about moving south.
Red chokecherry will arrive by mail and soften an uneven lawn border with my neighbor.
Indigo columbine was a gift from the turf. Oh, joy. Once I stopped cutting grass they appeared as ballerinas on point. I thought I heard “thank you.” Orange columbine was a catalog adoption, and I bedded them in the wrong place at first. If you listen and take notes they will tell you where they belong. Blue columbine, a gift, will also find a home in my prairie garden.
A white variety of milkweed will join a red (“swamp milkweed”) and the orange (“butterfly weed”).
My backyard begs for shade in the afternoon; and my horticulture guru assures me that Pagoda dogwoods grow fast. Two will form an arch over my sitting space, softening both the summer sun and the glare of hunter-orange alley lamps. The dark peace of a night garden enriches my soul.
Prairie is my church, my retreat. For liturgy, I accept the ten-second song of the bird, any bird, any song. I turn in praise. The American Goldfinch hides in full view feeding at the same-yellow cupplant flower. One day a pair mated in flight overhead, a signal endorsement of my effort to make them welcome in these parts again. Perhaps they see raising their brood here —abundance, safety, and even a school because my leashed cat is only a practice cat, harmless as a lesson plan.
Rabbits have measured the cat leash and dug burrows out of reach. The possum came during the winter nibbling on thistle seeds from the bird feeder. With warm months there will be abundance, summer food and the harvest; perhaps Mrs. Possum and her brood will stay the season and get fat.
Every April I look for the hundred crocuses on the front slope. Later, the anemones — the Forest Anemone and then the Canadian and in the late summer, the Japanese. From July I begin to see Culvers root, wild senna, yarrows, New England blue aster, several goldenrods including an odd white variety. The silphium — rosinweed, compass, prairie dock, cupplant — are the nine-foot tall hallelujah chorus of late July when the garden crescendos.
Asters are those autumn sparklers that prefigure snow. Patient insurgents, they wait in the midwestern turf until the Lawn Boy war machine passes from the scene.
One neighbor, concerned about the effects of native plants on his lawn, asked me if they would deliver wind-blown seeds to his turf. Now, I love the dandelion. But I will pluck them after all, as a courtesy to my neighbors’ preference for lawn. For those who love Kentucky Blue Grass carpets, and indulge its craving for fresh water, nitrogen and herbicides, not to worry, natives prefer dormancy to defeat. The human experiment, on their calendar, is short and the natives will return as they can, perhaps when the poisons we imbibe put our bodies to rest beneath their roots.
Some say the government will fix our environmental mess. Or a messiah. Maybe so. If you can get anyone to work on this problem, tell them my idea of heaven is four seasons, drug free soil, and Sunday mornings without the noise of lawn mowers.
April is the fast month. I am at the top of a Ferris wheel about to glide down. I can see in one giddy glance the all of it, from crocus to aster. As I cut dry wintered stalks today, I know I’m caught in nature’s reassuring cycle, watching June greens and August golds become October’s browns. These stalks support the migratory birds, frame the snow-falls, and brighten again the winter months.
You can reach Bill Sell at the author’s eMailbox .
Published in the Bay View Compass, April 2005. Here without annoying edits that violated common sense.