Weeds: Planting for posterity

I know a lot about corn and soybeans. Not so much about flowers. But I’m learning.

I’ve always appreciated flowers. What a gift from God they are. A palate of color splashed on a green background. Some of it is meticulously planned and ordered by humans. Others just show up in a ditch or meadow like a surprise guest at a party.

We’ve kept a vegetable garden with varying degrees of success since we were married. Beyond the green beans and tomatoes, Pam has always had annuals potted around. Marigolds, petunias, and geraniums give our home a few months of colorful adornment.

The last few years Pam has developed an interest in perennials. It’s coincided with more time available now that kids are gone. She does the planning and I do the digging. It’s a perfect partnership: she thinks and I don’t.

Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m putting in the ground. I asked Pam what all has come to live on our farm in beds and along fences. Here we go: phlox, allium, hydrangea, hollyhocks, daylilies, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and probably a few that slipped her mind.

They arrive in buckets with damp roots. We got a batch from Lora Rahe, whose thumb is so green it shimmers. Pam’s sister, Gwen of Gibbon has shared from her bounteous backyard. We’ve gotten hostas from Pam’s brother Doug who dabbles in breeding them. Doug has several cultivars registered with the American Hosta Society. We’re more than willing to take some of his “rejects.”

Perennials are different than annuals in that you are planting them for a summer in the future, not necessarily this one. They must put their energy into roots if they are to survive our prairie winter and be, in fact, perennial. A petunia will reward your effort with an explosion of color immediately. Unfortunately for the petunia, they are like the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable who doesn’t fare well come winter. The perennials are like the ant, tediously storing away sustenance in their roots.

There is a saying among hosta growers. In year one, they sleep. In year two, they creep. In year three, they leap. That is more or less true for perennials in general. In that way they are an investment intended for later returns.

When I was young, I remember flower gardens here that my mother Alyce sculpted. I can picture peonies with buxom flower heads. There was a bed of lilies of the valley, which delicately announced a new growing season. There were borders of lilacs and honeysuckles that I remember playing in and around.

As time passed, the yard shifted to make room for bigger machinery and the pastures gave way to fields. Now my mom’s flowers exist only in black and white photos, the background of first communion and graduation pictures. I realize I still see those flowers in my mind sort of in black and white. Sixty years ago, our photos lacked color; my memory is similarly shaded.

It’s natural that a farmyard would morph and change as succeeding generations come to be there. But there are farmyards that aren’t so fortunate. There are scattered through the countryside abandoned farm sites where there is no succeeding generation.

I have a part time job inspecting fields in the summer. In that, I get to walk around and through abandoned farm sites through southern Minnesota. There are a surprising number I come across. There’s always a tinge of sadness for me, a farmer, to wander across a farm-that-used-to-be. If I linger a moment near the old barn with sagging roof or home with windows gone, I wonder about the family whose lives spun there.

Sometimes there are flowers along the grove or up by the house. Day lilies or coneflowers planted decades ago. A spade went in the ground to put those roots in sometime in the past. It could have been the farmer or the farmwife, in between chores. Maybe it was in the evening after chores. Maybe there were kids running around playing.

The flowers remain, the people are gone. It’s kind of eerie.

Now I’m the one putting the spade in the ground, kneeling while I spread the roots into the black prairie dirt. I suppose these plants could be sending out bright flowers long into a distant future when I am gone. If they’re properly hardy and get a good start, that’s possible.

Hopefully Pam and I have some years left here, but we’re at an age where that is not to be taken for granted. As for the future of this place, there are possibilities. The house is in good shape with a good location and some useful buildings. It’s unlikely to be abandoned, but who knows?

Given some care now, watering and weeding for a few years while they establish their roots, there should be colors here many summers to come. Perennials call one to look ahead, peering into an unknown future.

There is a saying that goes, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they will never sit under.” There is debate whether it is an ancient Greek proverb or from a Quaker writer of more recent vintage. Regardless, the sentiment is good. The notion that we consider doing good work for people who are to follow rings true and important.

Similarly, in the song “See the World” by folk singer Brett Dennen, a father is talking to his son about how fast he grew and offers advice. At the end, he reflects on his own short time left.

“Go up the mountain top and shine.

I’ll reflect it on my long decline.

I’ve gathered sunsets in my prime.

Now, I’m planting trees I’ll never climb”

My little planting of hostas and daisies is not quite the same as planting a sapling that will grow to be a giant spreading oak tree someday. But it makes me to think beyond this summer. Most of my attention has always been on this crop and this year.

Of course, we all of us should think and plan and care for the Earth we are leaving our great-grandchildren. That asks of us to consider beyond our needs in the here and now to the needs of the there and then. It pushes out selfishness if that is honored. Of course, we know the Earth my generation is leaving behind has problems. Species endangered, ecosystems threatened, and global warming mean challenges lie ahead for next generations.

That can seem overwhelming. Maybe I’ll plant a tree this fall.


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