When the quarantine began, out came the gardening books as I looked forward to the distraction and a way to unwind. After all, I was going to have lots of extra time on my hands.
While seen by some as another chore, gardening has become a source of relaxation for me. I have enjoyed experimenting with increasing the yield in tomatoes, dividing perennials or overwintering plants typically thought of as annuals. I was rewarded with fresh produce and flowers, but the end products were not as important as the process itself.
Gardening has become a nostalgic ritual. It links me to the memories of watching my own mother and grandfather at dusk. They would wander through the yard and do a little weeding and watering – a few minutes of communing with nature before turning in for the evening.
I found I liked doing the same thing, walking down garden paths, deadheading roses and picking off spent petunias. I would pull a few weeds, plunge a finger into the dirt of each pot to determine dryness, while at the same time searching for the glistening tell-tale sign of a slug trail.
The repetitive work was my meditation. Time spent on my hands and knees pulling dandelions and grass was a way to subconsciously work the problems out in my mind.
In March, when schools were shuttered and I was still in the silver-lining phase, I was hopeful that gardening would once again have that calming effect.
But in reality I felt busier than ever – I had added the jobs of tutor, short order cook, therapist and camp counselor. My new garden purchases stayed in their boxes, getting soaked with continual downpours.
Week after week, along with the stress at home, stories in the news and discouraging calls from friends piled up. There was the news story of the super spreader event in Mount Vernon caused by something as innocent and joyful as singing. My friends lost their jobs just one week after hosting their daughter’s quinceañera that they had been saving years for. COVID-19 was not going away, and our economy was not bouncing back as quickly as we had hoped.
I needed to accept that the constant buzz of anxiety and worry would remain a part of everyday life for a year or even longer. It was then when I looked out to my garden, and saw a new purpose for it. Despite the uncertainty of everything around me, my garden could be the one thing I could control, now.
I found comfort in my routine, in what I know. There were the bright pink Fantasia Violet geraniums (Pelargonium hortorum), an annual purchase. I know I can plant them next to the blue Lobelia richardii (Regatta Sapphire is my favorite) and add something limey – like Golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) or Margeurite sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas). The only change was a new color of Calibrachoa – a constantly blooming annual that can be overwintered in our Sammamish microclimate.
By the end of May everything was planted almost exactly as last year. I felt confident I was on my way to another successful summer of beautiful flowers. Similarly in the outside world, we watched, hopeful, as the pandemic curve continued to dip and we felt confident that our collective action had made a difference.
But we all know about control: at the moment we think we have achieved it something happens to remind us what little power we actually have. The next Saturday, the first in June, came the unexpected hailstorm, covering the backyard completely with pea-sized ice pellets. My new sweet potato vines were decimated, like they had been subjected to a shrapnel attack. The bright red salvias looked like red-tipped paint brushes broken off at the top. They still have not recovered.
And the slugs, oh the slugs! They were mostly absent in recent summers and I thought I had mastered these pests. But they mowed down the same plants that did fine in the same pots last year. In less than a week, half of my two large flats of dark purple petunias were down to stubs.
It’s another cruel reminder in this uncertain time that no matter what we do, even when armed with research and a willingness to work hard, the end result is sometimes out of our hands. I worry about traveling for my sister’s baby shower in another state that up until a few weeks ago had low rates of COVID-19 infection. The flattening curve started trending up again and the sad stories near and far returned to our news feeds.
So I fixed broken stems, dug up some plants and pulled out my nuclear-option slug strategy – a mixture of yeast, sugar and water in cups set in the dirt. I bought a few more plants, was gifted some flowers from a neighbor and started anew.
When dusk comes, I go out to the garden. I wander in the meditative repetition of deadheading, weeding and watering. I feel at peace for what my garden, and my life is, right now.
Katelyn Handy Shriber has lived in Sammamish for 15 years. She and her husband Greg are the parents of four sons. She loves gardening, snow skiing in the winter and being on the water in the summer.