When we moved into Bastubacka two years ago, I wrote a hopeful and enthusiastic post about my return to gardening. That return has had its ups and downs, and a lot of learning has happened in the meantime. Here is what's happened.
Getting to know you, getting to know all about you
I grew up in an arid, high desert: the Great Basin Desert that stretches from the western part of Utah into Nevada. My mother made gardening there look easy. Or, that is, it didn't look easy, but somehow she managed. She started from nothing, and over the years created beautiful flower gardens filled to the brim with all sorts of blossoms and plants that bloomed all summer long. As I have noted elsewhere, her care of the garden often superseded that of our actual house, not to mention, well, the children. I understand her better now -- or at least I sort of do. The satisfaction I get from time spent in my garden is incomparable. I start every morning at the cottage with a cup of coffee in my hands, circling around the the garden with my dog, Edie, to see what has happened since the previous day.
But here is the rub: I wasn't prepared for gardening in Finland, and especially not here on a woodland coast. There are three main factors to contend with: extremely poor soil, wind, and deer. The wind I was used to; this was the same in the Great Basin Desert. There, a hot, driving wind was relentless. Here, it is a cold, sea wind. The plants don't grow very well, because they struggle to survive. The soil, too, was poor in the Great Basin Desert, but for different reasons. There it was strong alkali. Here it is silt and clay, and notoriously poor for crops of any kind. And the deer. Oh, the deer. I have been trying to learn what deer eat and what they don't eat, but, as our neighbor pointed out from the outset: they eat everything. We leave for a few days with a garden full of promising leaves and flowers, only to return to an expanse of gnawed off stalks. And that's with a fence!
I have tried planting many, many different things during the past two years. Some have succeeded, most not. Potatoes. Peppers. Cone flowers. Rose mallow. Hollyhocks. Irises. Tulips. Snapdragons. Pansies. Sunflowers (oh, the deer LOVE those). Daisies. Geraniums. Dahlias. Alliums. Radishes. Nasturtiums. Lilies. The list goes on. Of these, perhaps one out of every five, succeed, and almost never from seed; the growing season is simply too short. Even starts bought at the gardening store are hit and miss. If the starts do manage to grow, it is only a matter of time before a deer wanders into the garden and decides to eat them. Or, as happened this summer, a flock of crows suddenly descended into the garden and decided to pluck every leave and petal in sight.
So, the learning curve has been tremendous. I have been forced to be patient, and patience, if I am quite honest, has never been my best virtue.
The most exciting part is getting to know the flora and fauna of a new region, through the seasons, literally from the ground up.
There are smells and sights and wonders I never even knew existed. Getting to know the wildlife of our coastal, wooded area, has been immensely rewarding. I spend a lot of time photographing leaves and flowers, trying to determine on botany apps just what they are. Friend or foe? Deer proof or not? Poisonous for dogs? The greatest challenge, of course, is trying to figure out if a budding plant is a flower that should be nurtured, or a weed that should be vanquished.
I have learned that no two seasons are alike. Last spring, I noticed an abundance of wild lilies growing in the marsh. This spring, the star of spring was the fragrant bird cherries, which barely put in a showing last spring. Last year, in peak summer, the rhododendron flowers stole the show. This year, the white peonies were the most beautiful.
It has been exciting to see the flowers and plants that grow wild here in this part of Finland. That's part of the story. Another part is living in a setting where many other people, a family spanning several generations, have planted and cared for every manner of vegetation over the decades. Their handiwork still emerges from the soil at various times of the year. How much of it is nature, doing its thing, and how much of it was laid there by someone's hands, at some point in years past, is anyone's guess.
Phase 1: spring
Spring comes late to these parts. The ice in our bay finally subsided around Easter, and it was wonderful to bid it farewell. The first smattering of wildflowers appear not long after, first the little delicate snowdrops, then crocuses, then the first signs of my very own rhubarb (!), then the buttercups/daffodils, then the tulips, and then an explosion of wildflowers that lasts through mid-June.
I didn't plant the crocuses or daffodils, but I assume someone did, at some point. Daffodils were never my favorite flower, but the deer seem to leave them alone, so I have learned to like them. My tulips were planted, with some effort, in wire cages to keep the rodents out. That seems to have worked, but of course there is no guarantee the deer won't eat them the second the flowers emerge. In fact, the yellow tulips you see in the photo above came and went rather quickly. I returned to our house one day to find a series of shorn off stems -- this despite the fact that there was a bar of Irish Spring soap tucked in amongst the stems, a smell that is supposed to ward the deer away.
The bottom row of the spring flowers in the series above is all wildflowers, nature's blessing. They emerge all over in our lawn, along the fence, in the woods, everywhere. These are a riot of sweet william, bird cherry, forget-me-nots, and lots of other things that I actually don't know. Their collective smell is wondrous.
Phase 2: early summer
The next phase of the blooming season is the best, in my opinion. The time around midsummer, which people in the Nordic countries celebrate around June 21 or so, is full blossom peak.
Such beautiful things emerge in our garden around midsummer, and I can't take credit for any of them. The blue flowers that serve as ground cover only required that I saved them from the encroaching nettle and pine cones. The allium (onion) flower was the only to come up of the 10 or so bulbs that I planted last autumn. It looked quite strange, suddenly emerging like some sort of misguided sun dial in the middle of my pathetic little flower bed. In the same small flower bed, I have tried to plant ever manner of flower, but nothing seems to flourish. I was feeling especially discouraged that none of the gazillion iris bulbs I planted ever emerge, but a friend told me they take at least two years to take hold. So let's see what happens. Again, patience.
We had a smattering of white midsummer roses, but they came and went so quickly that I never had time to photograph them. It was an especially hot and windy June, and the rose petals all blew away within two days.
The red Siberian poppies, too, came and went quickly, or at least their delicate petals. The pods remain. The flowers look like little dinosaurs or some kind of alien when they start to bloom. Their blossoms last only a few days in the strong wind, and I was lucky to see them in full glory this year.
For me, the stars of this summer season were the lilacs and the peonies. Last year I was away during the lilac season, so this summer was actually the first that I got to witness the bounty of our decades-old lilac trees. They are amazing! It's a proper lilac refuge. And the
white peonies were exquisite.
Now it's the final phase of the summer, and the suspense is killing me. Will my rose mallow flowers bloom while I am here to see them? What about the hollyhocks that I have planted around nearly every perimeter? Will the lilies bloom again, or will deer succeed in pulling them all up? Will anything ever manage to grow in my tiny back garden plot? I have so many questions, and hopefully many years to learn the answers. It turns out that gardening has become a very useful exercise on patience.