SUNY Jefferson

Perennial Love

Michele Bazan Reed

             My first winter in the North Country was 1975, and I was convinced I had moved to the North Pole.  We had record snowfall that year along with record cold temperatures.  It took more than four decades, until the winter of 2017-18, to beat those benchmarks.

Over those 40-plus years, I’ve come to appreciate our seasons:  summers full of warmth and sunlight punctuated by the crashing of epic thunderstorms off our own Great Lake; autumns spent crunching through red and gold leaves, savoring the tang of apples on the tongue and the smell of campfires on the breeze.  Even the winters hold some charms, with evenings spent under a plaid blanket by the wood stove, curled up with a good book and a cup of steaming cocoa, or sunny late winter days, shushing along on cross-country skis.

Like so many North Country folks, though, I eagerly await the arrival of each spring.  Lake-effect snow squalls, shoulder-high banks, and months of cabin fever leave me dreaming of the feel of April showers on my face.  There’s nothing like winter along the shore of Lake Ontario to make the sight of crocuses, the smell of mud on that first spring day and the song of an early robin especially welcome.

When I was younger, those first few years here, I’d greet the arrival of spring by planting annuals.  In February, I’d read the nursery and seed catalogs and check out the new arrivals.  Each May, I’d eagerly visit the greenhouses, stocking up on plants for the yard and garden.  There were the shady plants for under the deck:  begonias, impatiens and a little coleus for leafy fill.  Then the marigolds and geraniums for the full-sun areas, especially nice over the septic tank.

When it came time for vegetable planting, another trip to the greenhouse, and I’d come home with a minivan full of tomato and pepper plants, green beans, squash and the ever-prolific zucchini.  If I was feeling particularly adventurous—or crazy!—there would be something new.  One year it was Brussel sprouts.  The deer loved those.  Another year, we fed the rabbits a Swiss chard buffet.  Kale wilted in the sun. Broccoli didn’t love our clay soil, managing to only become broccolini, long before that was trendy in big-city restaurants.

             My father was an avid organic gardener, who kept detailed charts in marble composition notebooks, each year’s plantings plotted out by location, number of plants and eventual yield.  I inherited the notebooks but not the green-thumb gene.  Year after year, I hauled my plants home, along with extra soil, compost and mulch, only to watch them limp along to a puny harvest.  To be honest, I never was much of a weeder.  If it weren’t for my husband hauling bucketfuls from our pond, the garden would never get watered.

Still, I persisted in my hopefulness.  Then, one day, I got smart.

It happened quite by accident.  One year, my husband was coaching youth soccer, and I was assisting.  At the end of the season, a grateful parent gave us a hosta plant.  I didn’t even know what it was, and those were the days before the internet.  Good thing I had stocked up on gardening books, or I would have pulled that perennial beauty out in October to replace with mums.

Instead it returned the next year and flourished.  Soon I had a colony of beautiful hostas taking over the space under the deck previously occupied by those begonias, impatiens and mums.  Our bank account grew each year by the $100 or more I used to spend on those annuals and bags of mulch.  Plus, the hostas required almost no work.  Mulch a bit in spring, put out a dish of beer for the slugs in summer, remove the dried flower stalks in the fall, and I was done.

It was a light bulb moment.  By now the kids were growing, and trombone lessons, football practices and the like took up the time once devoted to planning and planting.

Plus, I was no spring chicken.  My knees and back welcomed a rest from the rigors of hauling mulch and kneeling in soil.

             We invested in a batch of spring bulbs.  They weren’t enough to cover much of our acre and a half, but we planted them to optimal effect for a beautiful welcome to spring outside our front deck.  Eagerly I’d await the first peek of the crocus and grape hyacinth through late winter snow.  I’d wander out into the still-muddy yard, sneakers making squishing sounds, to see if the daffodils were poking up.  And then it was the tulips’ turn to burst out in fireworks of red, purple and yellow.  It made those harsh winter days fade into a bad dream—well, almost.

I gave up on growing vegetables, visiting the farmers’ markets for tomatoes, zucchini and lettuce.  In their place, we planted an herb garden.  Mint garnished summer’s berries, while thyme, rosemary and sage seasoned my Thanksgiving turkey.  Best of all, they reappeared year after year, no thanks to me.

I was bitten by the perennial bug.  Our garden now hosted rhododendrons from the nursery’s marked-down rack, hedge roses from a seed catalog, Oswego Tea from my husband’s friend at work.

My grandmother-in-law helped.  By now she’d seen more than 70 years of life in the North Country and had amassed a yard full of perennials.  She would share, and we would plant:  lily of the valley, hydrangea, still more hostas.

She shared more than her plants.  From her farm down the road, she imparted her knowledge and love as generously as she handed out her homemade chili sauce, sweet-and-sour pickles and rhubarb pie.  I loved listening to her stories over a cup of tea and a plate of her molasses cookies.

As she grew older and frailer, she ended up in a nursing home.  The thing she missed the most about leaving her home, I believe, was her garden.

In her 94th year, Grandmother passed away.  On that very day, her house, sold to a neighbor when she entered the nursing home, burned to the ground.

             A few weeks later, the neighbor called us.  “We’re bulldozing the ruins of your grandmother’s house.  Come down and take whatever plants you want,” he said.

             We set to work with shovels and spades.  We hauled wheelbarrows full of lilacs and peonies down the road to our yard.  And there we planted a lilac grove in Grandmother’s honor and a peony patch of a dozen plants lined up in a double colonnade.

Now when spring comes, we greet its arrival with the sweet aroma of Grandmother’s lilacs and the brilliant magenta and stark white of her peonies.

Spring—and love—really are perennial.