Our garden took pity on us this year. We needed some joy while stuck at home, and the garden perennials and shrubs took it upon themselves to provide a constant display of color and form.

I shared my first garden-flower photos on Facebook – iris reticulata and crocus – March 23 and have added more every couple of weeks since then.

Many gardening friends have done the same. Some agreed with me that the array of blossoms has been more beautiful than ever. Others said that they are always beautiful, and we’ve just had more time to appreciate them. It could be a bit of both.

One thing is certain, however. The drought that ran from May 16 to June 28 was great for the peonies. Peony blossoms are huge and lush, but a rainstorm will break them up, sending petals to the ground and putting brown spots on any petals that remain. This year, the blossoms stayed beautifully showy on each stem for weeks.

It was a cool drought, meaning all of the blossoms – not just the peonies – lasted a long time, and when we walked around the yard we could enjoy them all.

We didn’t just enjoy the plants we had. We added more, stopping at local nurseries when we could find a parking space and ordering native plants from Maine Audubon’s sale, which this year was limited to online ordering and touchless pickup. The sale is still on, and it is not too late to plant.

My wife Nancy and I for years had ignored a shady area on the north side of our house, mowing it twice a year simply to put a stop to small trees and bushes. About four years ago I let more of the area escape mowing and grow. It produced a variety of wildflowers including campanula and daisies as well as an occasional native Jack-in-the-pulpit, bloodroot and trout lilies. What I mow now is a path to the leaf-mold bins and a ledge leading into the wooded area.

If the areas we don’t mow produce nothing more exciting than grass, we will look for plants that we can add.

The fruits and vegetables have also been good to us – despite six weeks of almost no rain. I watered the entire property, hauling hose and giant metal sprinkler, three times and the vegetables a couple times in addition to that. It’s been worth it.

The leaf lettuce mix I planted in a cold frame March 15, when we first learned we would be stuck at home for the foreseeable future, produced its first offering for the table in late April. Because we are using a variety of types, including Red Salad Bowl and Flashy Trout Back (which I like as much for the name as its growing qualities) that are cut-and-come-again, the same patch is still producing good lettuce.

We had asparagus from about May 10 until late June. The strawberries came early, about June 9, but the crop was smaller than usual, partly because of the drought and partly because the overpopulation of chipmunks ate more than their share.

Raspberries are ripening in Atwell’s garden. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The other fruit looks good. Both the raspberries and high-bush blueberries have lots of healthy-looking green fruit, and I thinned the peaches on our tree so the developing fruit are about six inches apart.

I wrote in  a column in April that I had planned to buy our vegetable and annual flower seedlings at the Portland Farmers Market at Deering Oaks, as we have done in the past. That didn’t happen. Nancy and I were worried about the crowds, although I have since heard from several people that the market is handling social-distancing well.

Instead we got plants at three small operations in our hometown of Cape Elizabeth. Green Spark Farm had us order online and pick up on a Saturday. At The Farm run by the late Norm Jordan’s family and Dun Roamin’, a stand for annual flowers, we could look things over, pay and take them home.

We have produced three harvestable cucumbers from that planting. I think we will soon be harvesting tomatoes and summer squash, although the cool and foggy weather that followed the drought could slow things down.

Pea pods in Atwell’s garden. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The pea crop has been good. The Amish edible-pod peas that I planted in late March produced a full meal about June 20, while the Sugar Snaps, which I didn’t plant until mid-April, started producing about a week later, and our first crop of shelling peas – a mixture Knight from Allen, Sterling & Lothrop and Iona Petit Pois, a favorite that I had to order out-of-state because Fedco stopped carrying it – came about July 1 – in time for the holiday.

I’ve already given peas to family members, and I think I planted too many tomatoes, too. Giving away food, whether to neighbors or the local food pantry, will be one of the few pleasures I have this year.

And while I love both the food and flowers, the thrill of successfully growing them is much more important to my mental health.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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