When my husband and I first bought a small house on a tiny property in New Jersey 30-plus years ago I had two main objectives: To get my hands in the soil and plant tomatoes, and to raise a family. I did both. But over the years I lost touch with the soil.
When our three boys were little I spent hours in the backyard before cell phones and video games. The backyard was our refuge along with local parks; we had our own sand box and swing set and a glorious apple tree that succumbed to disease one year and a mulberry tree that fell over in a hurricane. The apple tree was the perfect place to search for a six-year-old who’d gone missing. I could always find him there or on the top of the two-car garage in the rear of the yard which we use to store junk since there is no pavement leading to it (now grown, this particular son likes indoor rock climbing).
Our yard is less than a quarter of an acre, but from the onset it was filled with treasures, not the least of which was an expansive blackberry patch. When we first moved in from New York City, I had no idea what that pile of bramble was, and considered digging it up. Come May however, it burst into bloom, and every July since the delight of fresh blackberry pie outweighs the aggravation of summer baking.
Our yard has been home to praying mantises (sadly, I don’t see them any more), cicadas, small snakes, slugs –particularly the year I planted zucchini—cardinals, bluejays, woodpeckers and many other birds. Woodchucks come and go, as does the occasional rabbit. My first year here I called my father wondering if there was a badger in the yard—he laughed at that idea. We’ve also had the occasional skunk and opossum. Deer have come to visit but only twice in 30 years.
Every year I planted tomatoes (until recently) and one summer I planted lettuce, eggplant, cucumbers, broccoli and a pumpkin or two. We spent hours in the sandbox until the boys grew too big for it and I had a modest deck built instead. We have lilies of the valley, lilacs, violets and wild roses (one would think I live on an estate!). We have four pear trees—each producing a slightly different kind of pear. (One variety is so tiny the squirrels feast on the fruit before fully ripened, mischievously throwing the chewed remnants onto the deck below.) When the kids were little they filled toy wagons with the larger pears to distribute to the neighbors (with the warning to watch out for worms as they were never sprayed).
For years this yard was my haven, our place to play and swim in a plastic pool, to shoot water guns, blow bubbles, and run through the sprinkler, to dig and get our hands in the earth. And then one day the kids got too big and cool to play outside and their mom—aka me—retreated to my computer…where I’m sad to say, I remained for many, many years, only venturing into the yard from time to time to sit on the deck and sip a coffee, or to pick a few flowering sprigs. My husband mowed the lawn and trimmed the hedges (a bit grudgingly, I might add, since I'd agreed the yard would be my realm and responsibility).
This year during the pandemic it all changed. I was called by some primal force to return to my yard. I’ve spent hours during this time getting to know this old friend again…lamenting the loss of some of my former companions (the phlox have completely disappeared, and I detected only one white violet this spring), but miraculously discovering things I didn’t realize were there, like five small wild cherry trees in a row that might have been mistaken for weeds had I been paying attention, but instead are now already three or four feet tall.
Because I was in my yard this spring, I noticed that the ivy was taking over the blackberries so I cut it back and now will have a bumper crop of berries. I cleared one neglected area behind the deck and ordered packets of wildflower seeds which are now sprouting due to attentive watering.
Because I’ve been home and not running about I noticed trees that needed pruning and called an arborist. The removal of dead branches gave way for new growth on the aging pear trees. The tiny sapling (a pine) I planted 30 years ago now towers high into the sky, and the ornamental plum tree I planted after the apple tree was felled has revived after a bout with some fungus.
This year, I’ve sat on my deck in the morning, in the afternoon, and in the early evening, listening to birds and watching the buds turn to leaves on the trees. My shoes have been caked with mud, my hands have been blistered from raking, and my back has ached each night as I’ve crawled into bed.
I’ve reunited with this yard as if it is a long, lost friend I haven’t seen in decades. Indeed, that’s exactly the case. And just like a dear old friend, my yard has welcomed me back into its arms, as if I’d never even left. I hope--as long as I'm on this earth--we will never be parted again.