I bought a house last fall, but what I really wanted was a home. No small part of turning it into one will be transforming the yard into a garden. There’s just one problem: me.

Please keep this to yourself since I edit the weekly garden column that runs in this section, but beyond being able to identify the same flowers any second-grader could – tulips, poppies, sunflowers – what I don’t know about gardening could fill a book. A large one.

On the small grounds that surround my 101-year-old bungalow, I inherited three raised beds, two shaggy lilac trees, several clumps of hostas and daylilies, a stately old maple tree, and much more lawn than I have any interest in mowing.

Though I am the daughter of an expert and passionate gardener, I have spent all of my adult life in rentals and much of it in what statisticians like to call “major metropolitan areas.” Excepting houseplants, the last time I can remember gardening was when I was about 10 and my mother deeded me a woebegone patch of stony soil in front of the central air-conditioning unit. I loved it.

Here I am, some 40 years later, interested, yes, but overwhelmed and, frankly, clueless. If you don’t believe me, ask Tom Atwell, who has written the Maine Gardener column for this paper for more than a decade. This spring, he has patiently suffered through a stream of emails from me filled with ignorant – OK, inexperienced – questions about gardening. If you asked me what essential tools a new cook needs to equip his kitchen, I could rattle them off with my eyes closed, my hands tied behind my back and hopping on one foot. If you asked me what tools I need for even the most basic gardening – well, don’t bother. To spare Tom – who, after all, never signed up to be my personal garden coach – and to jump-start my garden, I hired someone to jump-start me.



By the time Lisa Fernandes, director of the permaculture-oriented Resilience Hub of Portland, was sitting at my dining room table in late April, she was already familiar with me and my small patch of earth. That’s because before our consultation, I’d filled out a 4-1/2-page survey asking me about my garden goals; the age of my windows; whether I intended to keep chickens (probably not) or considered myself handy (lamentably not). Also, what worries and what excites me most about the future. It worried me that the worry question was so much easier to answer.

Fernandes, who said her organization does roughly 40 garden consultations a year, had done a little digging of her own, arriving with a 1924 tax photo of my house and one that seemed to be from the 1960s, judging by the carport (now, thankfully, gone).

“Whoever lived here in 1924 had some really lovely garden beds,” she said. Also chickens, a window box and a Flexible Flyer propped up against the house. We peered at the photo together trying to determine which of the skinny, young trees that ringed the yard could be the old-man maple.

For some 10 minutes, we chatted about the photo and the survey before heading outside, where we spent the next two hours circling and scrutinizing the small yard.

Fernandes offers advice on everything from adding edibles to evicting a skunk.

Fernandes offers advice on everything from adding edibles to evicting a skunk.

Like the house inspection, it was eye-opening. Where I’d seen a sweet, sunny bungalow, the home inspector saw a sagging deck, a questionable sewer line and a satisfactory roof. This experience was cheerier, or more aptly – like my south-facing yard itself, which Fernandes declared “an enormous asset” – sunnier. Where I saw a forlorn front yard, Fernandes imagined a beautiful, edible landscape of sea kale, Turkish rocket and a fruiting dogwood tree. Where I saw a neglected pile of junk behind the shed – broken fencing, abandoned wires, rotting planks – Fernandes saw a “materials handling depot.” I belly laughed. “I’m serious,” she said. “Everyone needs one.” And where I lamely mentioned a patio table on the deck with an umbrella to protect me from the sun, she suggested what she couldn’t have known had been a decades-long dream of mine – a vine-draped arbor. (Alas, that pretty rose bush I saw? Fernandes fingered it as the invasive and “perniciously assertive” multiflora rose. “It’s really, really tough to get rid of once it gets established,” she said. “You probably want to pull that out right now, as well as you can.”

Easier said than done, I learned when I gave it a go a few days later.



To be honest, I’d been a little nervous about hiring a permaculture organization for garden guidance; the consultation costs about $200. Permaculture is a type of design that encourages self-sufficient, sustainable and food-oriented landscapes. In my next life, I intend to be a DIY sort of gal. In this life, though, beyond cooking, I feel woefully unskilled, not qualified for the permaculture approach. I hoped to merely dip my toe into gardening, not go in sickle, machete and hoe first. As it turned out, Fernandes’ enthusiasm was catching, and the philosophy she outlined – commonsensical and holistic – aligned with many of my own beliefs:

The inside and the outside are connected, she said. Don’t merely address the symptoms – figure out the problem. Let the worms do the digging so you don’t have to. Place the rain barrel uphill of where you need the water. Better yet, irrigate passively and minimize watering. Place the plants you need the most, say herbs, by the kitchen door.

She offered many ideas for gradually reducing the size of the lawn. Among those was slowly replacing it with white clover, “which is lovely, and once it’s established it takes foot traffic,” she said. “It’s a perennial, and it’s nitrogen fixing so it’s building soil health.”

Later, I looked up white clover on the internet and rediscovered the commonplace weed that had colonized the lawn of my childhood home. The web was filled with headlines about killing, controlling and eradicating it. Why there are “good” plants and “bad” weeds, I’ve never understood. Bring on the white clover.

After we finished in the yard, Fernandes and I returned to the kitchen, where she wrote up her report, by hand, and we drank tea. I was excited – and daunted.


“We give you enough that you could cherry pick your top priorities and you could implement those items as time, money and energy allow,” Fernandes reassured me. “It’s not meant to be an overwhelming list, but we do want to get all the ideas out.”

Where to start? A few days before, Tom Atwell had dropped off four rhubarb crowns. I’d start with rhubarb.

Lisa Fernandes inspects the soil at new gardener Peggy Grodinsky's Portland home.

Lisa Fernandes inspects the soil at new gardener Peggy Grodinsky’s Portland home.

Followed in short order by a dogwood tree, strawberries and the groundcover vinca (suggested by Fernandes for a shady spot near the driveway). The peas are still in their packages. For now. Fernandes found a good spot for them, but I vastly underestimated the time I’d need to make a garden bed.


At this point, I’ve been gardening a sum total of one week, and my garden thinks I have a lot to learn. Luckily, it’s a good teacher.

Before I bought a house, I failed to realize that it’d be a constant tug of war between the stuff I want to spend money on (built-in bookshelves, an oilcloth for the kitchen floor) and the stuff I have to spend money on (angling the gutters, fixing the kitchen sink). The garden has added yet another dimension: Inside expenditures versus outside ones. Just now, it’s spring so outside is winning. But the song got it wrong: The best things in life are not free, certainly not the flowers in spring. And while dirt and cow poop hardly qualify as “best things,” somewhat surprisingly they’re not free either.


It’s already clear that I could easily turn over a part of my brain to garden anxiety: Did I plant the dogwood tree too near the power lines? Have I already killed the strawberries by smothering them with straw? Were the “weeds” I pulled actually endangered woodland orchids? Even if the answers are yes, yes and yes, I suspect if my garden could talk, it would tell me to chill.

Similarly, the garden reminds me that sometimes you need to let go. In just seven months in residence, I’ve fallen deeply in love with the sugar maple just to the left of the front porch. Its leaves were turning an incandescent flame orange when I moved in. All winter, I admired its muscular trunk. Lately, I’ve investigated its unfurling leaf buds each morning when I leave for work. But Fernandes took one look and confirmed what I already knew: The tree is dying.

“Trees do have an expiration date,” she said gently before turning practical (and bringing to mind Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree). “Even though it can be heartbreaking to take a tree down… the good news is you can have almost all of the small branches chipped and use those chips on site, either for mulch or your compost pile, and the wood itself could be milled and used for lumber, or give it to a neighbor or for barter. In the meantime, you can tap it for sap.”

Lisa Fernandes, founder and executive director of The Resilience Hub, consults with new gardener Peggy Grodinsky.

Lisa Fernandes, founder and executive director of The Resilience Hub, checks out the yard with new gardener Peggy Grodinsky.

Speaking of which, until last week I would have said I know a lot about food. But after walking the yard with Fernandes, I’m not so sure. Among the many items she suggested I plant that either I’d barely heard of or had no idea I could eat or drink were kousa dogwood, schisandra, hosta shoots, sea kale and aronia berries. At one point, to my own embarrassment, I actually heard myself exclaim, “It’s incredible how much is edible!” The garden obviously wants me to step up my kitchen game.

And it may soon suggest that I rethink my (naive?) relationship with all creatures great and small. Through the winter, a skunk has lived under the shed. Our relationship is cordial, if distant. Fernandes listed many ways I could encourage bees, birds and even chipmunks. But she drew the line at skunks, suggesting I seal up the den and evict the creature. I demurred. Did I catch a skeptical look? The skunk “per se” isn’t the problem, she said, just bear in mind that woodchucks and other opportunistic garden-devouring animals may take over the fellow’s lease. “It just depends on how much habitat you want to create for how many critters,” Fernandes warned me.

Then there are my neighbor’s backyard chickens. These charming girls like to break out of their enclosure and parade down the street, delighting me with their cheery curiosity, pleased clucks, and uncommonly speedy stride. But not two seconds after my boyfriend and I had finished several hours work putting in the strawberries and rhubarb, they bore down on us, marching in formation up to and over the raised bed, where they immediately got to the serious work of digging for grubs. I raced across the street and alerted the neighbor, who rounded the girls up. Will my garden survive them?


Despite the painful monthly mortgage checks, it turns out I’m more like a caretaker than a homeowner. Planning a garden makes this abundantly clear. I may fantasize about sitting at a picnic table under a voluptuous, grape-vine-draped pergola enjoying leisurely al fresco meals on a hot summer’s day, but it’s more likely I’ll sit below a skinny, adolescent vine only partly shaded from the sun. It’s the next owner who will reap the real benefits. Ditto with the dogwood tree, and many of the other things I haven’t yet planted or even dreamed of.

But I guess that’s OK. After all, I’m only dancing on this earth for a short while. There are worse things to leave behind than a garden. I like to think that in another 100 years, the current resident will find a faded photo of my garden and get a kick out of how tiny the dogwood tree was and admire the blueberry hedge that for now exists only on paper.

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