Celebrating the Roots of our North Carolina Garden

A Lesson in Patience

I’ve had a quietly satisfying epiphany! After listening to gardeners across the country I began to see how place — geography, environment, climate, soil — defines the character of a garden — and sets the limits.

I’m not always the culprit when things die. Or malinger. Or grow so out of bounds that guests have to machete their way to the front door by midsummer. Blame it on the elements, I say. Not on me.

Where there had been empty spaces and shrubs that behaved, by July there is a jungle in front of the house

My eureka moment probably sounds pretty ho hum to you. Isn’t it obvious that desert plants won’t grow in bogs and reindeer moss won’t grow in the tropics? Yes, but I’ve learned that there are fine-tuned elements that make growing shasta daisies, for instance, easy to grow in one garden but impossible in another, and rarely do we understand why.

Special shasta daisies from friends bloomed for a season, then disappeared

My absolution has been years in coming. It probably began sub rosa during warrior days as an environmental steward advocating for clean water in eastern North Carolina — and delighting in the special dance between land and water here.

Exploring canoe trails and byways, wildlife refuges and historic sites put me in closer touch with how this dance shaped life throughout centuries. These were quiet times spent paddling creeks and ambling trails and moseying main streets of small towns. (Note: Good ice cream cones in these small towns around Albemarle Sound.)

A quiet afternoon on a creek that flows into the Alligator River

You meet a lot of people during all this advocating and meandering. Some were living in old family homes with a long history. These modern tillers of the soil had deep and abiding love for the land that nurtured generations. Rough treatment by the elements some years, and maybe famine. Or cornucopias of crops other years. It didn’t seem to matter. Their reverence for the land was rooted in faith and acceptance.

The 1786 Pendleton House in Pasquotank County surrounded by a cotton crop. Photo by Melissa Dawn

They accepted the unexpected and the unwanted. I had not encountered this depth of contentment-in-place anywhere else, and it touched me, and I began to delve deeper, even develop roots here.

Not the deep tap roots of time and family, but thready, wandery roots that pulled me into exploring past dynamics of this special place.

For me, it was a voyage through time and change on a landscape governed by wind and water.

Not so long ago, mighty trees once grew here in rich lowlands bathed by clear, tannin-stained black-water creeks and rivers that supported abundant wildlife.

The upper Chowan River calls to mind the bottomlands that once covered much of northeast North Carolina

Our garden is not founded on rich bottomlands that once nourished farms. Instead, it is rooted in another typical eastern Carolina soil: gray clay. Our garden sits where quiet waters once lapped a shore, surrendering fine suspended sediments, laying them down in beds eons ago.

An example of gray clay in wetlands

Clay doesn’t tame easily, I learned. Even today, after modifications, it asserts itself. In the beginning, even weeds would not grow. I am responsible for the weeds. I brought in truckloads of topsoil that was supposed to bury the clay. The weeds were hitchhikers.

So I began to look at the garden through a set of long lenses that took me back through centuries-old time capsules of drought and flood, storm, and sea level rise and fall.

I began to understand that what was happening in my garden was a reflection in miniature of a greater landscape. Weather and climate toy with my plants just as they destroyed or nurtured corn crops of yesteryear, dispensing famine or feast on a whim of the wind.

Camellia shoa noa saki thrived for twenty-five years but finally succumbed after several rainy seasons super-saturated its moorings

I don’t have to worry about famine, but storms have torn trees from their moorings. During droughty years, ferns droop and plants shrivel and the clay cracks. Rainy years may bring great blooms in spring, but as summer slides away, plants tire of struggling in saturated soil. Or they are cut down by prolonged seasonal dry spells. Or, if I am lucky, during a good summer they thrive.

Hurricanes can erase a garden. View of our back yard after Isabel. The storm did not stop the hummingbirds

It took us a long time to gracefully, or not so gracefully, accept that today’s conditions would not necessarily apply to tomorrow’s seasons, that fickle clay was beholden to weather, morphing from muck to concrete as rains soaked or sun dried.

That compost lovingly laid down disappears in clay that floats to the surface after torrential rains. That it is pointless to wrestle shovels in muck that sucks all things into its maw. That we can neither depend on nor predict what the sky above will bring us.

We learned patience. Dynamic, living systems are not built in a month or a year or a decade. They are the results of millennia of change. (Yet they can be destroyed in a bulldozer-moment.) We are only ciphers in time on the land.

A prime example of patience! Here is a bald cypress, almost three thousand years old, among several growing in the Three Sisters Swamp of the Black River in southeastern  North Carolina. They are the oldest living trees east of the Rocky Mountains. The swamp is protected by The Nature Conservancy. istock photo by Earle Liason

Our property was a dark hole when we bought it, a runty mob of pines smothered by catbrier, vine and pine battling for light. An odd-looking skeleton lay on soft pine needles, a few scattered bones permeated by drifts of sea fragrance from a midden of mussel shells tossed by otters. (Lots of chiggers, too, we would discover.)

Not a particularly inviting canvas for a garden, but we were up for challenges we didn’t expect.

Dark woods were the backdrop for our first gardens, until storms toppled trees and brought light

It would take time to understand the singular contributions of earth, sky and water to this place and learn to play off them to grow a garden.

And even more time to accept that our land will never grow those shasta daisies, gifts multiple times over from good friends, divisions freely shared from their gardens growing on a river bank only a few miles away. But we can have fun with hydrangeas — and camellias and azaleas!

Two ‘Ayesha’ hydrangeas back ‘Lemon Zest’ not yet in bloom

And so I learned to celebrate the special gifts from our patch of land. I came to understand all this and write it down a month or so before we left the garden for good.

This entry was posted in Climate Change, Creating a Garden, Environment, Northeast North Carolina, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Celebrating the Roots of our North Carolina Garden

  1. Linda says:

    So happy to see the heronsgarden back. Before you left the garden for good you say? Hmm. A cliff hanger.

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