A Perennial Life – Life Lessons from the Garden

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

51qZttaFqmLI love annual flowers. They’re quite impressive, blooming continuously throughout summer, providing lots of color and garden interest. They grow quickly, mature fast and provide nearly instant gratification. They’re attractive, eye-catching and beautiful. However, they are fragile. Annuals will perish easily at autumn’s first frost. They’re also more high maintenance, preferring lots of water, care and fertilizer to perform best.

Perennials, on the other hand, are unfazed by harsh winters and months of lying dormant beneath a blanket of snow. Many can tolerate drought, prairie fires, withstand storms, heat, wind, cold and other environmental abuses. The ups and downs of life make them stronger and they persevere. They aren’t concerned with a momentary display of beauty to impress passers by; they’re concerned with sustaining a life that’s in it for the long haul.

I want a perennial life. I want to live a life that withstands the harsh realities, the cold winters, the storms, the droughts, the abuses of this world. I want my roots to go down deep and to hold on tightly to a foundation that can sustain me through tough times. I want to live my life so that its impact continues on for generations, not just for a season. I want to be reliable, strong, determined, unfazed by death or darkness.

I don’t want to be like an annual; a flash in the pan, a brilliant display for a moment in time, high maintenance. I don’t want to merely impress with my outward appearance, knowing that it will all fade away at the first sign of opposition or hardship. I don’t want to be constantly screaming for more – more nourishment, more water, more attention. More, more, more!

But here’s the problem … I want the results of a perennial life, but I don’t want to endure the painful, tedious and difficult process. I would just as soon not go through all the hardships. I’d much prefer an easier life, a prettier life. Admittedly, my human nature wants to be known as beautiful, alluring and desirable, and for people to not notice my character flaws and selfish ambitions. My human nature wants be impressive, colorful and noticed. See me. Notice me. Tell me what I want to hear. But an annual life is a selfish life.

But there’s another side of me … a side that longs to put aside and not care what other people think of me. I long to be known as a person of integrity, reliability, humble confidence and unwavering character. I want to be known as someone whose life impacts future generations and the world. Even more than just to be known as those things … I want to be those things. I don’t want to exist just for my own selfish ambition or glorification … for more, more, more, shriveling when opposition comes my way. I prefer a perennial life, lived one painful season at a time.


Spring Has Just Begun – Life Lessons from the Garden

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

This article originally appeared in the winter 2009 OCMGA newsletter 

In summer, the trees in front of my home shelter me from the view of the road, and I don’t even notice the cars passing by. But now, only a few stubborn leaves remain tethered to a maze of branches and twigs. Not only can I see the road, but I can see beyond the hay field across the street, all the way to the neighbor’s house a half mile away, a neighbor I’ve never even met. The dark silhouettes of tree trunks are a stark contrast against the gray winter sky beyond. It leaves me feeling somewhat exposed to the outside world. I much prefer my sanctuary in the heat of summer when passers-by have a difficult time even realizing a house exists beyond the expanse of maple, hickory and oak trees.

The long afternoon strolls through my yard have long since been a thing of the past. From my window I can see that the once glorious bed of hostas and Japanese painted ferns has faded into the landscape, now covered with a thick layer of fallen leaves. The only sign of a garden ever existing there are the random plant markers that occasionally pop up through the leaves, but those will soon be covered up by snow. Next to my driveway, I’ve cleared away the beautiful zinnias that drew so many compliments from visitors only a few months ago. All that remains is plain earth with a smattering of mulch.

Winter is here; another season has passed. All that once seemed so vibrant and full of life feels only like a memory now. The earth seems to have fallen asleep. As winter continues, I know I’ll start to forget what green grass even looks like, or what the scent of a fresh rain smells like. I must confess that as autumn turns to winter I feel a sense of loss, almost mourning and grieving the beauty that no longer can be seen. All I can feel is an absence of what used to fill my life with so much joy. Winter reminds me that things of this earth are only temporary. Life is temporary. Or is it? It seems that way, doesn’t it, and especially in the midst of winter when everything is still and a shroud of darkness covers the earth? But we know that in the natural world there are seasons, and we’ve come to trust that there will always be spring, and that with it will come new life, and that life will be more beautiful and more magnificent than the season before. Despite the struggle to watch those things we love fade away and die… there’s hope. It’s that hope that sustains us through winter. But there’s not only hope, but a belief and trust that when spring arrives, we’ll see life again, and it will be more beautiful than before.

It is winter, not only in the garden, but in many hearts that have experienced the loss of someone they love. Our hearts mourn what once was, and as time passes, we try to not forget the memories. But all too soon, we forget the sound of their laugh or the smell of their hair. The little quirks that once annoyed us are now what we sometimes miss the most, and we wish they were here to experience them together again with renewed appreciation and affection. But like watching a garden fade away, all we can feel is an absence of what used to fill our lives with so much joy. Our hearts feel exposed to the outside world that passes by, unaware of the ache inside our soul.

Winter seems to come early for some, as it did for our friend, Sally, who served faithfully as an Outagamie County Master Gardener volunteer for so many years. Sally’s winter came when she succumbed to Leukemia in early October at the age of 53. She brought joy to so many with her serving heart, her unending zeal for life and a beauty that went beyond what anyone could see on the outside. But I believe that in the midst of such sadness there is still hope. You see, I believe that for those who remain, the winter will pass and there will be a spring, and we will get to see those we love again, more beautiful than before. Let that hope sustain you through the winter. The time in between is difficult; waiting and wondering what the next season will bring. We will still go through the mourning and grieving that winter brings.

Meanwhile, we’ll wait with hope, trust and a belief that one day soon, our paths will cross again and we’ll enjoy new life together. But for me, I believe that for those who have gone on, a season of new life has already begun. Hmmm… maybe winter didn’t come early for Sally after all; maybe her spring has just begun.

Written in Loving Memory of Sally Jaeger-Altekruse

December 2009

Straight Scoop: A Clean Driveway is a Joy Forever

by OCMGA Master Gardener Lynne Finch

Hardly has the last leaf tumbled from the trees when my husband starts waiting for the snows. That wouldn’t be surprising if he liked skiing or other snow sports. It wouldn’t be surprising either if he owned a winter resort, a plowing business or a tow truck. Or even a riding snowblower. What he does have is a long driveway, a lot of sidewalk and an obsession with keeping them immaculate. His only tools are a batch of shovels and some strange inner drive that makes him glow with pride when he finally leans on the handle to survey his cleared domain.

After a recent blizzard, as we both leaned on our shovels, he turned to me and said, “There’s nothing like a shoveled driveway.” He swung his arm to include all the snow-blown driveways along the street. “Notice how a snowblower leaves an untidy surface.” He gazed dreamily down the 100-foot drive leading to our garage, “But a shoveled driveway is neat and clean. Definitely a thing of beauty, wouldn’t you say?” I failed to appreciate the esthetics of shoveling. I was glad it was done–he was glad it was beautiful.

In all other respects he’s quite a normal fellow. He growls in the morning, fusses about taking out the garbage, and complains that there are never enough apple pies in the house. He refuses to wash the ceiling and does windows only under protest. It’s when Mother Nature plays the flip side of summer that he goes berserk. I began to suspect something when he gently caressed the handle of our first snow shovel and leered at its broad, steel-reinforced edge. From there his habit progressed to pushers, then on to chippers and brooms.

The path to our door was always immaculate. When we lived in apartments, he cleared whole parking lots, single-shoveled. Now he commands a motley collection of snow equipment that includes a hand-made wooden pusher, a grain scoop and a manure scraper. The steel-edged pusher that came with our old house scrapes a path as wide as the sidewalk. The grain scoop is lightweight and swoops easily through deep snow at amazing speeds down our 100-foot driveway and 130 feet of sidewalk.

My husband also is not one to let a puddle lie. He disperses them quickly with a broom; if one freezes he approaches it, ice chipper in hand, and smashes it to bits. He works carefully, never overexerting himself. Before shoveling he does warm-up exercises in the house. His shoveling form is flawless. A perfected swing and follow-through produce a smooth, steady rhythm of lift and toss. Knees bent to a precise angle relieve stress on his back. When he returns to the house, he is refreshed of body and spirit, glowing with accomplishment.

He is not one to wait out a storm before swinging into action. While other driveways may wait quietly beneath eight inches of fresh snow, ours may have already undergone two or even three strippings. Sometimes he even shovels in the dark of night, tossing snow that reflects the silvery moonlight. As the snowy walls grow taller, he treats them to occasional trimmings, much as a summer man shapes leafy hedges. But eventually they begin to shrink and the snow he so valiantly conquered sneaks into the ground or runs down the street. After all is said and shoveled, he’s a handy man to have around in the winter. He doesn’t need gas and never has been delayed at the repair shop.

Now if I could only convince him that a well-kept yard is a beautiful as a shoveled driveway, I’d have it made in the shade.

– Reprinted with permission. Copyright Lynne L. Finch.



My Small Corner of the World – Life Lessons from the Garden

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

It was a perfect fall day in mid-November with a sunny sky and unusually high temperatures approaching 60 degrees. I walked along a road with majestic oaks bordering one side and a glassy lake on the other. It felt like I had the serene world to myself with only an occasional car passing by. As I continued on I came upon an older gentleman with pitch fork in hand standing near a pile of leaves that stretched to the edge of the woods. As I approached more closely I saw smoke rising from the dry leaves. He had set them on fire.

downloadSomewhat concerned, I stopped and exchanged pleasantries, then casually asked, “How will you keep it from spreading into the woods?” “I want it to go into the woods,” he said. Surprised, I asked why. His response: “Buckthorn. ” I had noticed the abundance of this invasive non-native plant and how it covered the entire forest understory. I had walked several miles on the trails of this particular property and it had clearly taken over. It was everywhere.

The gentleman began explaining how he had begun burning the forest edges and portions within the woods last year and had seen a marked improvement already. “It kills the young saplings and destroys some of the seeds and fruit,” he said. “Each year we’ll do a little more and hopefully one day we’ll get it under control. I suppose we’ll never get rid of it all, but that won’t stop me from trying. ” It seemed pretty overwhelming to me. The day I was there it looked like he had only burned a little less than an acre, and it bordered more than 500 acres beyond that.

It didn’t stop there; I had noticed on my drive to this little retreat that the unwanted undergrowth lined the forest edges for miles around. Appearing to be in his late 50’s, I imagined the day of no more buckthorn might not even happen in his lifetime at the rate he was going. Even if he could one day get a handle on his little corner of the world, the bordering landscape would continually press in and encroach on this beautiful place. Yet, as he plaintively leaned against his pitch fork watching the smoldering flames like a mesmerizing campfire, he spoke with a sense of hope and ambition. I admired him. He faced an impossible mission, yet he wasn’t discouraged or defeated. He wasn’t going to give up. He was determined to do what he could to impact his little part of the world.

I think of the times when I’ve faced what seemed like an impossibility in my own life and have been tempted to give up. Sometimes, without invitation, the outside world invades mine and I feel overwhelmed to do anything about it. There have been seasons when I’ve let things get too far out of control to the point of choking out all that’s good. And at other times when I’m faced with the needs and injustice in the world, I feel too insignificant to make an impact. This man’s determination reminded me that no matter how overwhelming a circumstance may seem, there’s always hope. I suppose I’ll never get rid of all the injustice in the world, but that won’t stop me from trying. I may not be able to change the whole world, but I can change the small part I call home. And maybe, just maybe … someone may stroll along someday and see me fanning the flames, only to realize they can change theirs too.

Pruning Isn’t Always Pretty – Life Lessons from the Garden

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

When my husband and I bought our first home, it needed some attention in the landscaping department. Among the items that needed particular help was an old grape vine that grew behind the garage. Needless to say, it had been neglected by the previous owners and was terribly overgrown. Next to the garage was a tall pine tree and the vine had actually began climbing the tree and had grown to the very top, nearly 50 feet in the air. From the earth below you could see one or two clusters of grapes way up in the tip of the tree. For all appearances, the vine looked really healthy and lush and it obviously was very vigorous. But for all practical purposes, it was useless. It wasn’t fulfilling the purpose for which it was created: to produce fruit.

Each of us has a purpose, but like that grapevine, sometimes our lives become too far reaching. We spread ourselves too thin, filling our schedules with more than we can handle, reaching for heights in a career that may very well take us to the top, but leave us unfulfilled. Or maybe we look impressive from a distance, but when someone gets close, they struggle to find the fruit and purpose. Maybe it’s time for some pruning.

Pruning isn’t always pretty, and it’s not pretty in our lives either. Have you ever seen a freshly pruned grape vine? It’s bare and exposed, with only a few stems left to hold on. But it’s the only way you’ll get a full harvest of fruit. Pruning is a very painstaking and traumatic experience, requiring the removal of most of the growth and just leaving the best canes to focus their energy on fruit production. Bottom line: without proper pruning, you won’t get much fruit.

If we want to produce fruit in our lives, to truly have a life of purpose, of meaning beyond ourselves, beyond the outward appearance that may look good from a distance, we may need to be willing to allow things to get ugly too; to have those unnecessary things in our lives that we cling to be stripped away and be exposed for who we truly are underneath. We may need to cut away the branches so that the vine of our lives can spend its energy doing what it was created to do… to produce fruit and have a life of purpose and meaning. Often we think of the big things that need to be pruned… Maybe a violent temper, addictions, or overt stuff like stealing or cheating on your spouse. Yes, those things should be pruned away. But those are just behaviors, the symptoms of deeper underlying issues. To experience real life change, it requires deeper pruning of the stem of those problems. Maybe it’s a heart of resentment or pride, unforgiveness or a victim mentality. It could be any host of issues, but there’s only one solution to them all. Pruning.

Pruning is painful. It hurts. It exposes. It can shock us. But when things are cut away, take heart, because there’s still a foundation that’s deeply grounded that can carry us through and be the source of new life. I struggled with hatred and resentment for past offenses in my own life, and it left me reaching for more and more, yet feeling more and more empty and unfulfilled. I tried pruning away the dead wood and unproductive showy growth on my own, but always fell short. I couldn’t remove the hatred on my own. I couldn’t forgive on my own. I needed the help of others and a power greater than mine to do it with me. And I wish I could say that pruning is a one-time deal. But it’s not. With each season, it seems like something new crops up and needs attention once again.

But when we produce fruit for a purpose greater than our own, a life that impacts others and isn’t just in it to impress others with a showy display, we find that the pain of pruning… it’s worth it after all.


The Fruits of Orchard

by OCMGA Master Gardener Lynne Finch

After moving into our house with fruit trees in the backyard, I envisioned gently dropping ripe fruit into a basket while my smiling children danced around. Seductive aromas would drift from my kitchen as I baked magnificent pies and canned and froze our bounty. That was the dream.

In our first walk-through of our orchard, we saw an apple tree with a five-inch diameter trunk only a few feet away from a young cherry tree. A few steps away stood a pear tree. Nearby grew a plum tree partnered with another apple tree.pear-453828_960_720

These five small trees stood like a wee forest in the equally small backyard behind the kitchen. Even to a new gardener like me, they looked a bit too cozy. The cherry and plum trees were young enough to be transplanted to the big spacious side yard. The other apple tree had to go to make way for our vegetable garden. This gave the pear and apple trees some breathing room.

The cherry and plum staged their annual contest for best springtime bloom with the plum always coming in second. Not only were the plums not tasty, but a nasty winter killed the tree. As for the traditional Christmas dessert, did you know there are no plums in plum pudding?

The cherry tree looked good year round, the bark a smooth purplish-brown. Cherry blossoms in spring ripened like little red ornaments during the summer. The squirrels scampered on the branches, hanging upside down eating until their faces dripped red with juice.

With the abundant fruit on the tree, I filled my basket and started pitting. Alas, for each pit there was at least one worm. Never did make a cherry pie. A few seasons later half the tree died, then the year with no blossoms or buds. Cannot lie about it; we cut down the cherry tree. Sitting in front of the fireplace, the kids would wave glowing branch tips while cherry aroma filled the room.

Now we were down to two fruit trees. The pear tree produced for several years. Each fall I lined up the canned jars in the basement. Then the tree split and lingered a bit, the last year standing forlornly with a few pears dangling on a single branch.

apple-tree-1593216_960_720The lone survivor is a full-size mature apple tree, greeting us each morning through our bedroom window. Each spring the blossoms tell a different story. Many blossoms, few blossoms, early ones, late ones, fast petal drop, slow petal drop.

The trunk is now nearly 20 inches in diameter with strong branches reaching out like fingers on giant hands. My kids climbed in and sat like birds in a nest. Now my grandkids settle in an even bigger nest. A visitor once commented on the great bones of our apple tree. Indeed, it is a magnificent sculpture that spreads itself out to shade our porch.

The apple tree and I continue to travel through the seasons together; blossom time, petal drop and the progression of windfalls that I faithfully pick up. The tree peeks in through the kitchen window as I mix its tart, sweet flavor in pies and applesauce. When all other trees stand bare, the apple tree hangs on to its leaves, determined to be the last one to give up and settle down for the winter ahead.

The Best Laid Plans – Life Lessons from the Garden

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

I don’t know about you, but for me, the growing season in spring begins with a lot of ambition, enthusiasm and good intention. Similarly to a New Year’s resolution, I resolve to tend my gardens with the utmost care to make this year, the year when I’ll host that garden tour or send those prize winning photos to Better Homes & Gardens for publication. Pretty soon my notebook is filled with sketches of grandiose garden plans showing where I’ll transplant that Lamb’s Ear that’s overtaking my front bed, how I’ll construct and place that arbor with a climbing trumpet vine, add that shade garden, and fill each nook and cranny with colorful blooms. Ah… the hope of spring.

Now, September is here. The Lamb’s Ear is bigger than ever. The arbor still sits in my garage, cleverly displayed as a pile of wood. The new shade garden consists of a dozen hostas still sitting in their pots behind the house. But hey, those nooks and crannies are filled, albeit filled with weeds. No prize winning photos will be featured on the cover of next month’s gardening magazine. As I looked out across my yard, I contemplated what went wrong. I fondly recalled those glorious plans, wondering to myself, “Where is that notebook, anyway?”

I began to reason with myself, reciting in my head the excuses: a busy summer, the weather, those darn squirrels, the price of mulch, that sore shoulder, and the list goes on. I walked across the path, noticing the thistles that sprang up along the stepping stones. “Some master gardener you are,” I said to myself with condemning tones. I knelt down to pluck a weed. Just as I was about to go in for the kill, I noticed an insect. It wasn’t one of those scary bugs. It was a fly of some sort, one I’d never seen before, brilliantly colored in iridescent green, purple, pink and yellow. It stopped me in my tracks. The sun shone bright, making it look like a magnificent jewel resting among the thorns. It was so stunning that it distracted me from the weeds and I suddenly felt contented. As I stood up, I thought to myself, “I didn’t expect to find some thing so beautiful hidden among what seemed to be such a mess.”

There are other times I’ve made grandiose plans in my life – more important in the scheme of things than a well-manicured yard. I recall when I was younger and planning an education, a career, a marriage, a family … a life. Very few of them ever turned out the way I planned. I saw my thwarted plans as failures. Even more so, I saw myself as a failure. I wanted to be in control of every aspect of life, and when things didn’t turn out the way I wanted, I felt devastated, like a victim of circumstance. Soon, excuses began piling up, and I began blaming many family and friends for the reason my life was so miserable and unfulfilled. Life became a pity party, filled with damaged egos and emotions, and more importantly, damaged relationships.

Through the years, though, I’ve had many wise and wonderful people speak into my life – people whose stories are filled with tragedy and heartbreak more devastating than my own. Life had not been kind to them. Their plans were dashed by job loss, broken marriages, a stray son or daughter, an illness, financial struggles, and death of loved ones. Life and their plans seemed out of control. Yet, they shared their story with a profound sense of purpose and hope, and I longed to know their secret.

Their secret: control. Oh, not the pursuit of it, but the pursuit of letting it go and allowing life to unfold. It didn’t mean they didn’t plan. It didn’t mean they were irresponsible. It just meant they trusted in their heart that they would do what they reasonably could, yet understand that they couldn’t control every aspect of life. So, when life got difficult, their circumstances were no less painful, but they had learned to look for those magnificent jewels resting among the thorns. They searched for those jewels, and they distracted them from the weeds of life. And yes, no matter how out of control life felt, they found something beautiful hidden among what seemed to be such a mess.

It’s a paradox, but when we acknowledge how powerless we really are to control our lives, it’s then that we’re most empowered to live our lives to the fullest and seek out the beauty. Many plans are noble. Many are also unattainable. So, I’m determined to enjoy the beauty I discover along the way and not spend too much time mourning what could have been.