Personally, I hate surprises, but something tells me that many of the faithful readers of this column are looking at a new byline with a photo that is definitely not of Jim McLain and wondering what happened.
Introductions are in order. I’ve lived and gardened on a 1.3-acre plot above Franklin Park for 31 years now, and the garden I’ve created has become, in many ways, my autobiography. I never aspired to be a gardener; it’s something that just evolved.
In the spring of 1983, pregnant with my first child, Alison, I planted a six-pack of marigolds around the flagpole of the home my husband, John, and I had moved into the year before, and I was hooked. I never knew that work like this could be so satisfying. Each new growing season, spade in hand, I removed more turf from around that initial incursion, and the garden steadily grew. It was all about bright, continuous color then; a parade of annuals that bloomed their heads off for a couple of months.
I added Red Rocket snapdragons to the Orange Inca marigolds in absolutely straight rows. I coveted hybrid tea roses with names like Tropicana, Chrysler Imperial, Show Biz, and Broadway. Their Day-Glo hues mildewed badly, seemingly overnight. I did what was expected and began a program of spraying the garden every three weeks, from March to October, whether it needed it or not. I wasn’t taking any chances.
While I was busy in the front, juggling caring for my family with caring for my garden, John took over the back, planting fruit and nut trees and berries, along with a huge vegetable garden. He was messy and spontaneous, with little regard for convention or tidiness. I had dreams of a French-styled potager, tended by a Martha Stewart-like farmer, but what I had in reality was a man who mulched between the rows with strips of old shag carpeting. Let’s just say that was the beginning of what I kindly refer to now as the “creative tension” that bubbles between us in all things gardening.
But it was the gardens and spaces, created by John, that nourished our growing family, and the memories of getting dirty in the lushness of their dad’s garden are the ones that have germinated in our children as they grow their own gardens today.
To make more room for that ever-expanding garden, we took out aged and injured elms and cottonwoods and opened up the south side of the yard to sunshine. John built magnificent rock walls and terraces and constructed an elegant arbor for grapes. We brought in truckload after truckload of composted horse manure to amend already rich soil. We installed sand boxes and swing sets, and by 1988, the births of Robbie and William completed our family.
Through it all, I was outside digging, planting, watering, deadheading, fertilizing, mowing, laughing and crying, every single day, even if it was for only 10 minutes before the baby monitor summoned me back to the house. I developed the straight face that is necessary when exclaiming to my husband while I’m unloading $150 worth of new plants from the car, “Look what I got for only $20!”
I had evolved from a person who just wanted a pretty garden into one who had a deep need to garden, and the difference is huge.
In much the same way, I never aspired to be a garden writer. It’s something that just evolved. John and I became Master Gardeners in 2007 and I found my niche propagating in the greenhouse, getting ready for the spring plant sale. Since I was spending so much time there, I was asked to write a short paragraph on the “Greenhouse Plant of the Week” for our member newsletter, and once again, I was hooked. This led to contributing gardening pieces to the Yakima Herald-Republic’s Yakima Magazine six times a year, and now that Jim McLain has retired, I will write this semi-monthly column. Once again, I never knew work like this could be so satisfying.
I am not a trained horticulturalist. As a college student, I had many interests, but botany wasn’t one of them. I’ve never taken a landscape design class, though I recognize that now might be the perfect time. Nevertheless, I have managed to create a garden, learning instead, like most of us do, by trial and error — and error and error.
Over three decades, I would wager that I have tried every perennial hardy in Zone 6 in North America, with few of them alive today to tell the tale. Along the way, this is what I have learned: If you pick your plants like you do your very best friends, you will have a beautiful garden that brings you endless pleasure. Plants should be adaptable and dependable, hard-working, easy to get along with, uncomplaining, and never pushy. In your eyes, they remain beautiful through all four seasons, even without makeup or a new haircut. I took the hybrid teas and their needy companions out years ago. Who needs demanding divas and drama queens when there is the quiet beauty of simply textured foliage or the striking architecture of grasses?
I’ve learned something else almost as important: Being timid is seldom helpful. Try something new, or be downright fearless and take out what isn’t working. Instead of wringing our hands, we should be rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. This isn’t rocket science, it’s gardening.
The first steps are always the most difficult, but believe me, few of us have much of a plan before we begin. The secret antidote to inertia is simple: the rental sod-cutter.
In the simultaneously most heart-breaking and most glorious days of my life, making a new garden became the single most therapeutic and hopeful act of faith I could make. With William at the controls, we took out most of the lawn in the front yard that faces the street. Because we had pre-paid for two more hours, we couldn’t stop there, so we enlarged every garden space I ever dreamed could be bigger.
This garden is still not completely or perfectly planted, but a work in progress is far better than nothing ventured at all. Is there ever anywhere else to go in the garden but onward and upward? We can keep each other good company as we go.
I don’t foresee that the format of this column, so wisely developed by Jim, will do much evolving. It will focus on locally appropriate plants and topics will change with the seasons.
Many of our readers are primarily interested in growing their own food, and information that supports that will continue to be a focus. The quest for the perfect tomato goes on; recycling food scraps and creating compost from yard waste is the new recycling. Let’s continue to learn how to do it, and implement other sustainable gardening practices. New plants, and superior cultivars of old ones, continue to be introduced, and I’ll let you know which ones are worth trying.
Not all of us have yards, so let’s grow an array of plants outdoors in containers or raised beds, and houseplants for the home and office. Garden tours and garden talks ... there will always be something to consider in the glorious gardening world of Yakima. Please contact me with ideas for future columns, or questions and feedback, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Carol Barany and her husband, John, found paradise on 11/3 acres just west of Franklin Park, where they raised three children and became Master Gardeners. Email her at email@example.com.