Sometimes we meet the most interesting people through correspondence. Of course, I’m a little partial to artists and writers who garden, and I meet those individuals most often through this blog and other material I publish. I met Monica when she shared a couple of her poems; poems, she wrote, which “sprung up in between my many other writing projects, most of them unabashed fantasy and science fiction for children and adults.” She grew up in North Carolina, went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and got a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. She lives and works in the Boston, Massachusetts area as a medical writer, and has two young sons, and she gardens. Now you may rightly think, like I did, where does she have time to write or publish at all?
She makes time because she loves it. I liked her work (I especially delighted at the mention of a triffid!) and asked if I might share a poem with you. She said yes.
I think you’ll find it sweet.
(Note: Please forgive the extra space after the second line in the poem–Wordpress has some formatting “kinks.”)
– Sandra Knauf
Battling the Bittersweet
Monica M. Eiland
When we bought the house
We saw the vines, it’s true
They looked so innocent and sweet
Who knew they’d be so hard to control
Soon we were battling the bittersweet.
The clear signs of this ornamental vine:
Tender tendrils twisting, turning
Up every fence along the street
Climbing, straining, ever hopeful
Like ourselves, the bittersweet.
Growing into a dreadful triffid
Like something from a manga
Never enough for it to eat
Strangling, mangling all in sight
This oriental ornamental, this bittersweet.
Baby swinging, sleeping in his blissful seat
Alone, while we whacked away at vines
We’d rather admire his chubby, fragrant hands and feet
Than stand out in the blazing sun
‘Cause we were battling the bittersweet.
Come the patter of his little feet
The next season, the vines were back
Trailing tendrils, clearly difficult to defeat
We’d rather have a riot of raspberries
Than this freaking bittersweet.
Another year, a new baby at the teat
Who has the time to fight these vines?
Why’s it taken us three years, and still not beat?
We’d rather enjoy the water park
Than keep battling this bittersweet.
Years later, still battling, why fight
While life goes by us
Why not simply admit defeat
So we can watch our boys grow up in peace
Instead of battling the bittersweet?
But we cannot stop, we cannot rest
We won’t give up like tenants past
We know the price of cowardly retreat:
Life slowly mired in this suffocating vine
Drowned to death by bittersweet.
* * *
My relationship with my garden is chiefly one of benign neglect. As a working mother with two active boys, all of those normal things that one is supposed to do in a healthy garden – the weeding and cleanup, the watering, the fertilizing – often aren’t in the cards for me.
My husband and I didn’t start with benign neglect, of course. When we first moved into the house – with just one boy small enough to take his first steps in the kitchen – our first order of business in the garden was to remove the bittersweet. For the former owner, the bittersweet must have seemed a low maintenance way of generating a privacy screen between herself and the neighbors. And it’s an attractive plant: elegant, unusually shaped three-lobed leaves, delicate tendrils (when it’s young, anyway!), and berries of green, red, and a dark purple black. It was one of several species we found in the yard that are, these days, considered Plantae non grata: non-native invasive species with no respect for limits. Its sisters-in-crime were a diseased hemlock that had grown over a story high right next to the foundation, some aged rhododendrons more suited to a roomy hillside in the Azores, and several other rapidly overgrowing bushes of ill repute.
Unlike in the poem, we hired help with the garden, to do the heavy lifting of removing these plants. That allowed us to plant, first of all, the raspberries, the blueberries, and the apple tree, knowing that all things that bear fruit require time. Given that neither my husband nor I are from New England, we also hired experts to help in choosing and installing some other species that play well with others: lavender and flowering mint, tall grasses, the Pasque flower, sedums, hellebore, mountain laurel, and rhododendrons (the kind that want to leave other plants some elbow room) to name a few. Over the years, I filled in with other intriguing varieties: the eccentric euphorbia, an energetic and healthy dead nettle, the family of hens and chicks, grape hyacinths, bleeding hearts, and an army of bulbs that never seem to be as numerous after a winter onslaught of hungry squirrels.
In the late spring, I find just enough time to dash to a garden store and procure some greenhouse-fostered tomato plants and squashes and Neptune [organic fertilizer] for the raspberries. So, by midsummer, there are mini-tomatoes more delicious that the ones you can buy in any store, along with plentiful zucchinis for the grill. Then, all fall, there are raspberries, and perhaps, if we were lucky that year, some blueberries and apples. If there were any justice in the world, I suppose, my lack of diligent watering, weeding, and regular fertilizing would leave me with a poor crop, but so far, the yard has been all too kind in the face of benign neglect. And sometimes, when I stay my hand for long enough and do not pluck those weedy herbs that crop up on their own, I find, instead of bittersweet, a gift from God: plentiful dill and mint and marigolds from prior years; bluebells in the front garden; Queen Anne’s lace; a profusion of wild violets; a bush with oddly shaped leaves that suddenly flowers; or, every other year, a fuzzy-leafed verbascum that matures and sends up a five-foot high stalk topped by a foot-high show of yellow flowers. It is not a tidy space, as you can imagine, but one filled, increasingly, with pleasant species that I have chosen, or that have fortuitously and unexpectedly, chosen me.
– Monica M. Eiland