Marty's Garden, Memorial Day weekend

In April my garden came back to life; in May, even with little rain, I watched how plants filled in bare spots. Being in the garden was a solace, a temporary escape from what was happening overseas. My sister, who was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer March of 2020, did chemo, had surgery, and was pronounced free of cancer in October 2020, relapsed and was given only a few more months to live. The first call after the final diagnosis was heartbreaking; we cried, but we also managed to laugh. Looking on the bright side, my sister said she was lucky to have gotten this far. Most people with a stage IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis do not make it past 90 days and here she was 12 months later.


My sister, born four years (and three weeks) ahead of me, was my only sibling. This past year, as we see-sawed between hope and despair, I frequently dove into photo albums reliving our past. We emailed, called, and each week I would send her a card. Because of Covid, international travel was difficult and with Truus’ immune systems suppressed by chemo, she could not have any visitors. The Netherlands required 10 days quarantine of any traveler from the US, so even when the end came closer, we were still unable to go. On May 14th she passed away and, as a sign of these (horrid) times, we attended the funeral online a week later.



Of all the pictures taken over 60+ years, it is probably one of the first pictures of the two of us, if not the very first picture, that I come back to time and time again. It perfectly pictures the relationship I had with my sister, safely in her arms. My sister always looked out for me. When we were growing up, we each had our chores; my sister did the grocery shopping, I mopped the floors of the kitchen and bathrooms. Later we got to do grocery shopping together. When we went to the newly opened supermarket in our town and I could not find something on our list, I would look for substitutes, rather than ask someone. You see, back in those days, I was rather shy (I know, that is hard to believe, but true).  Sis would come to the rescue, ask around for the required item on our list and back home we would go with everything our mother wanted us to get.


When my sister moved out of our home and moved in with our grandmother to help take care of her, I would come over for sleepovers. Later, with grandma gone, Truus invited me over for dinner and taught me to make kidney bean soup, or bruine bonen soep, a Dutch staple. It was so good; we ate bowl after bowl until we literally could not move anymore. To this day, it is one of my favorite foods.


Once I left for America, our relationship changed, although letters flew across the ocean back and forth. When my marriage disintegrated, I was lucky to go home for a month (good employer!) and once more not only my mom, but also my sister mothered me, something I needed at the time. Years after that, when I remarried, she welcomed my new husband into the family and treated him as the brother we never had. As first our father passed away and years later our mother, again, our relationship changed. Now we only had each other and while we did not see each other as often as when our parents were still alive, we re-forged the bond we had in childhood.

Our last visit to the Netherlands was in 2019, to celebrate Truus and Willem-Kees’ 40th wedding anniversary, together with their daughter Karin, and as many family, mostly cousins and their spouses as could be corralled that day. We had a wonderful day and never could have imagined it would be last time we would be together. A week later, when we got ready to fly back home, I gave my sister a big hug with the promise to see her again the following year in the fall. But Covid and cancer intervened, and it was not to be.


When my dad unexpectedly passed away in 1995, I took it hard. A friend gave me a book about handling grief and the stages of mourning. One part of that book stuck with me forever. It talked about grief being like a suitcase we carry with us wherever we go. Day in day out, we carry our grief with us. Then one day, we get up and without thinking go on with our day. We put our suitcase of grief down and forgot to pick it up again. We do not forget the person but think back with fondness and not just tears.


Dear sister, it will be quite a while before I can put down this suitcase full of grief, but I have many wonderful memories that will sustain me in all the years to come. You were loved and you will be missed.

Marty's Garden, April 25th, 2021

What a difference a month makes! Although it has not been very warm, or wet, the temperatures inched up and my plants noticed the difference. One day my magnolia opened its buds just a little and I rejoiced; expecting at least a week of glorious blooms. I was going to invite my friend to come over, just to see the spectacle, which is fleeting at best. The 98 blooms from last year would easily be surpassed as my – still young – tree was filled with buds. So, the buds cracked open on a nice sunny day and then DISASTER struck! The following morning, I noticed frost on the grass, but I still did not expect the worst. Only hours later when I made my way to the back garden, did I notice that each slightly opened bud was absolutely blasted by the frost and the buds had already turned brown. A handful of buds had not opened, and I hoped for at least a few blooms. Then we got another freeze warning and this time I was prepared – or so I thought. I took paper sandwich bags and put them – gingerly – over each opening bud and secured it with pieces of twine. The next day was windy and I left the bags on but removed all five of them the next morning. Did it work? Not really. Some opening flowers looked the worse for wear, but two buds are opening now into perfect flowers. After hoping for a tree festooned with yellow blooms, I must contend myself with two measly flowers. Since (most) gardeners are optimist – myself included - I will just hope for better next year. Oh, and I plan to keep a closer watch on opening buds on the magnolia and the weather forecast. I do have a frost blanket that might come in handy just in case temperatures dip when my magnolia wants to bloom.


Evaluating some parts of the garden, I move some plants around. The backside of the pond is home to three Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur’ and below their branches both Hellebores and Pulmonaria (Lungwort) have settled in. This spring I moved a handful of Hellebores from the back of the waterfall to this section. The Pulmonaria is busy reseeding itself in nooks and crannies around these plants and within a year or two at most I should have a spring spectacular rivaling displays at public gardens.



Meanwhile, wildlife around the pond has resurfaced. A variety of frogs and toads are claiming homes around the pond or in the garden while a big frog has reclaimed the exit of the pipe running from the downpipe to the side of the garden as its home. One rainy night it traveled through the garden, falling into the window well, where it patiently waited to be rescued. Rather than hopping around frantically in the window well trying to escape that scary human being who promised freedom, it quietly tucked its head between its front legs and allowed itself to be lifted out. Kind of, if I can’t see you, you can’t see me. I transported it back outside and put it on the edge of the pond. It sat there for a minute or so, before jumping back in the pond and safety. Whew, saved again.


Last night we finally had some rain. Only 0.4 inches, but every little bit helps. This week the temperatures will soar into the 70s and maybe even low 80s, so my hydrated garden will push out greenery and flowers in record time. We also managed to spread 6 cubic yard of triple shredded hardwood mulch in three days and now I can wait and see what will bloom next. Will it be the bell like flowers of the Halesia Carolina (Carolina silver bell) or the fragrant lace like flowers from the Chionanthus Virginicus (American fringe tree). Whatever the case, it will be glorious, and that is only for starters!

Marty's Garden, Late March 2021

While early March was cool, eventually we got a few nice days and suddenly greenery started appearing in the garden. Iris cristata, or dwarf crested iris was first out of the gate with its diminutive, but bright blue flowers. The variety in my garden is called ‘Alida’ and I bought it because my mom’s first name was Alida. Although long gone, when Alida blooms in the garden, my mom is right there next to me.



As the irises fade, the Hellebores, or Lenten Rose, start unfolding buds and then stretching stems and unfurling blooms. During February I had removed the old foliage from these plants and now the flowers took center stage in a garden otherwise still devoid of life. Single flowers, doubles, creamy white with speckles, reds, pinks, and yellows with a touch of red at the edges. They will last for months on end but eventually will spill their seeds and in years to come I will get colonies of Hellebores.



Walking in the garden I can see signs of life everywhere; the red shoots of peonies, heucheras pushing out new leaves and all those primroses bought in supermarkets over the years and put in the garden are now showing their first flowers as well. Here and there a few noses of hostas are testing to see if it is time to push out new growth. All we need is a few warm days and puddles of greenery will appear everywhere.


Buds on trees are visually swelling and my Sambucus ‘Lemon Lace’ (Elderberry ‘Lemon Lace’) is breaking out in lacy yellow leaves. Spirea thunbergia ‘Ogon’ is unfolding tiny bright yellow leaves, while a new addition to the garden, Spirea ‘Double Play Candy Corn’ looks like it is on fire with bright red foliage. Each day will bring new flowers and it is hard to keep track of it all.

Within one week we also had several rainy days, and it was time to start checking window wells for amphibians. One window well contained a giant frog, which, very obligingly allowed itself to be lifted and transported to the pond. In the second window well, I found a decent size toad. Again, it was brought outside where it posed for pictures before hopping away.


Flowers, swelling buds, puddles of green, frogs AND a toad; my cup runneth over!

Marty's Garden, March 1st, 2021

Just as I was ready to breath a sigh of relief by the end of January for getting through that endless month without major snowfall, winter struck a wicked blow. A slow-moving storm covered our area and it snowed on and off for two days straight. We slowly dug out and as February rolled by it snowed, again and again. Temperatures remained below or at freezing and the snow just did not disappear. Enough already, I am tired of looking at this snow in varying shades of white to grey. I want to see my garden with skeletal shrubs poking out and bare earth hiding those wonderful perennials snoozing underground.


When I was a little kid my father built me a dollhouse. Three stories tall, with a “crawl space” for a basement, just tall enough to store stuff in. The top floor had a flat roof so I could also put out my little store with tiny little boxes and jars. There were no stairs connecting the floors, but my little dolls still managed to go from floor to floor with my help. Each room had wallpaper and there was a dining room, living room, bathrooms, kitchen, bedrooms and playrooms. For years I played with this dollhouse until one day in my mid-teens it was loved to death and then it was gone.


The first time I came across a she shed, it reminded me of my dollhouse. A cozy little place, just big enough for a chair, maybe two, a place for plants, a desk, maybe a potting bench. In my old garden there was no room for a she shed, but the thought was always there. One day I might just get one. Then we moved to Pennsylvania and we needed to get a pond built pronto so my fish could come home. It became the center piece of the garden and soon enough I started gardening around the edges of the pond and working my way out to the fence line. Because of the sloping backyard, there didn’t seem room for a she shed and soon enough I had landscaped so much there wasn’t room for one anywhere, even if I had found some level ground.


Then, I started landscaping outside of the fence; hesitantly at first. I planted some shrubs only to pull them out the following year. I replanted others and after three years I liked what I saw. Then I realized I had level ground right outside the fence where a she shed would fit like a glove. I needed to move a few plants, but nothing stood in the way of this little miniature playground. Approval from the HOA was received, permits applied for and received from the township and plans for the perfect shed were drawn up. Windows on three sides, a dormer for more light, electrical, a loft on either side for storage and a fancy door with glass inserts. I found the perfect lighting fixture and while the wait for my she shed to be build seemed endless, eventually it was delivered. The electrician came to run electrical out from the house to the shed and "then there was light". The contractor came to finish the inside, shiplap on the walls and ceiling, pale green paint on the walls and a cheery yellow above. Two Ikea cd shelves were repurposed as display shelves for my frog collection, started as a teenager in the Netherlands. I painted these shelves to match the wall and they were mounted horizontally, one below the others. While my frog collection spent nearly 40 years in a box, now they take a place of pride in the she shed. Once the linoleum was put down, it was time to move in the chairs. Now I have the perfect spot to relax when it is still too cold to sit outside. A place to read a book, to sit with The Spouse or with a friend. My little doll house, just big enough to sit and dream as I wait for the garden to come back to life.