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Kelly Hansen Maher

Spring Cleaning, an Apology to Bulbs, and a Celebration of Forsythia

My favorite gardening chore of the entire year is spring cleaning. It is a laying-on of hands for the first time in many months—and in the northern Midwest, the wait is an especially long one. In my Minnesota garden, I had to wait until the beginning of April, often longer. By the time the late heaps of March snow were melted and the puddles soaked up, the ground mostly thawed, I was itching to pull back the leaf blankets and “wake up” the earth. The winter dominion had finally dissolved. All its deep magic, its carry of crow and sparrow as shape-shifter and messenger, its giving over to vastness, assembled into something recognizable and intimate again. A home. Ours was a small, three-person house and a corner yard—with street-side gardens and a hundred-year-old cedar at the back door—located on a slightly gritty, working-class block of Northeast Minneapolis. And, as winter retracted, some measure of keep was returned to me there. It is a unique pleasure to return to familiar labor. I was again the tender of grounds, the balance keeper, the worker in the garden. All this felt like putting on a glove. A ratty, mud-encrusted glove, to be specific, worn for the first time since November. I’d layer myself in flannel and fleece, slide on my wellies, fetch the small shrub rake and five-gallon bucket from the shed, and get to work. I wouldn’t remember to send out my gratitude or ask for guidance. I wouldn’t remember to make a blessing. But I’d approach my tasks with such a contented sense of purpose that the work felt casually prayerful. In this chore, I was a medium, a witch and magician in my own right, humble and true. I knelt on my green foam pad and gently cured the land of its half-death.

I’d begin with the bulbs, scooping the previous autumn’s over-wintered leaves into my bucket. Each spring, I sincerely wondered if the bulbs I’d planted in the fall would actually emerge as the blooms I wanted. And often, in that yard, they did not. I was ignorant about bulbs, and, as such, I never did well with them. I planted them in the wrong places and also, probably, at the wrong depths. I didn’t water them enough, I’m sure. I didn’t watch my daughter closely when she helped in the garden, so she might have planted them upside-down. And then there were the squirrels, unfazed by the cayenne we’d sprinkle, making off with my narcissus, thieving vermin that they were. Also, I never had enough money to buy bulbs in copious amounts the way one probably ought to. Next time, I’d tell myself, I will buy a hundred bulbs, not a dozen, and I won’t be stupid about it. Lack of success notwithstanding, I loved everything about winter bulbs. It was a besotted, college-girl kind of love, though, which meant that I was too impatient to handle them to bother with books or special tools. What little I knew, the tips I’d gleaned from packages and retailers, would be enough; I just needed to get them in the ground. It was even worse come spring. In the last week of March, I’d look out at the caked mess of a yard and devise a plan to redeem the bulbs. I would imagine them as suddenly, fiercely needing me. It wasn’t good gardening; I simply worked on romantic instinct. They would need to warm up. They would need the sun on the surface of their soil. They would need the drink of water and warmth. And out I’d go.

After seeing to the maybe-dud bulbs, I’d set about clearing the other beds. I’d created a set of three gardens on the east side of our yard. There was the “woodland garden” at the back path and around the cedar, which blended into a partly-shaded-to-full-sun “rain garden” that contoured the middle, and a Minnesotan’s version of an English “cottage garden” that wrapped the northeast corner. It would take me an entire day, or a few half-days, to clear them all. Starting with the woodland, I’d pull the dry leaves and top layer of wet rot away with my shrub rake, then comb with my fingers, grooming out the winter matter while feeling for anything stronger. Sometimes I had forgotten what grew where, and so the pleasure was in identifying the plant by its first strange points. The puckered lip of green, like the outside of a Brussels Sprout, was the wild ginger. Other times, I specifically felt for what I knew awaited me—the green tips, or “eyes” of hosta, or the red asparagus-like spears of peony. I’d unwrap each plant from its natural mulch like taking something precious out of its packaging, then run the edge of my hand over the ground in a final, affectionate sweep.

Clean-up in the cottage garden was more rigorous; this was where I’d left the “winter interest” plants. I’d prune down the hard stalks and spiny cones of the Echinacea, and then try to stuff them into yard bags without seeding the bed. I’d gather straw-like feather reed grass by the handful and saw through, until I had four neat, shorn mounds. I’d snip the dried mermaid hair of clematis away from its trellis. I’d primp the arctic willow and tease the creeping phlox. And, in doing all this, I was still raking and clearing to define space for the irises and coral bells, the astilbe and cranesbill, the foamflower and sea thrift. All these and more would receive their food and have their bloom; but first, the stage was tidied for a different performer. The forsythia.

Up until its first belt of color, the forsythia is quite unremarkable. A weedy assemblage of leafless sticks, a loose bundle of bent arrows, it nonetheless commands my admiration. At this stage, I don’t admire it for its form but because I know what it will do. I admire it for its motivation, I suppose. Maybe I even admire it because it mocks me. I’m like an eighteenth-century sailor’s wife watching the horizon for her mariner. I’m corseted in doubt. It’s undignified. But I keep watch nonetheless, checking from the window several times a day. And, like last year, I am certain, or tempted to be certain, that my forsythia really has died.  My gardening skills are, you’ll remember, fairly sophomoric. Plus, the forsythias down the block are full of pep, the forsythias in the park are a veritable parade. I’m about to call it. And then. Something. The reason I wanted it, the reason I planted it in my yard, then moved it to a prominent position in the corner bed. It was, is, meant for this. To announce, announce! Forsythia, the official flower of Brooklyn. The Walt Whitman of shrubs. With its yes and its ode, with its rhapsody of the incremental. This. The first few metallic-yellow blossoms signaling brightly that indeed, and very soon, the opera will begin, sounding color from dead luster. The forsythia will uphold its purpose. It will send out its gauche insistence, its gulping heartburn, its indulgent give. This! To skip the leaf, skip straight to radiance, and not make us wait anymore.

Kelly Hansen Maher is a garden writer, poet, and essayist from Northeast Minneapolis, and is a recent transplant to Grinnell, Iowa. She is the author of the website "A Garden and a Library." Kelly offers creative writing workshops in gardens, libraries, museums, and schools, and teaches with the Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.

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