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Someone else's yard and garden

October 17, 2004|by Dorry Baird Norris

From Wellington, New Zealand, to Vancouver, British Columbia, from Oaxaca, Mexico, to London, England, or Provence, France - plunk me down in anyplace on this earth and the first thing I check out are the gardens.

(That's not quite true, I usually look for a good local restaurant first. Then, satisfactorily fortified, I head for the gardens.)

Public gardens are sometimes breathtaking and usually carefully tended. The collections of plants boggle the mind. As much as I enjoy the displays, there's part of me that wonders what the local weeds are like and yearn to feel how the soil would feel as I dug my trowel down into it. How many of those beautiful plants were wintered over in a greenhouse or raised to be planted anew each spring? Which beauties actually make it through the winter and how will they look when their blooming season is over?

It's not likely that caretakers in public gardens would take kindly to me tramping about the beds looking for weeds or spading up a plot of ground to check the tilth.

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In September, it was different. My partner Roy's daughter, Birdie Rizell, moved in June with her family from Paris to Malm, Sweden. Malm is located on the western side of Sweden's southern most part - just across the beautiful new Oresund bridge from Copenhagen, Denmark. Although it's much further north than we are, the climate is moderated by both the North and Bering Seas.

The Rizells' new house is sited on a large lot that is entirely enclosed by an ocher-colored brick wall. It keeps those strong sea winds from tearing everything to pieces. The simple, one-and-a-half-story, 19th-century house sits close to the street, as do most of the other homes in the area.

Step through the heavy wooden door in the wall and you discover a gardener's paradise. The whole perimeter of the yard is given over to five-foot wide borders of perennial plants. There is a sandstone terrace that divides the yard into two levels. The stonework wall for the raised terrace is cleverly laid so that every other layer of stone is indented, creating the effect of natural cliffs.

Fruit trees - plum and apple, raspberry and currant bushes - punctuate the beds. The late red raspberries were ready for picking and a few currants still clung to the bushes. We amused ourselves by waiting for the ripe plums to drop and then gorging ourselves on the warm, sweet fruit. Growing snugly against the walls and standing tall in the front of the terrace were exquisite roses, all sweetly fragrant.

Most of us start out gardening with a tiny bed, and as we learn, we add more. Birdie is a neophyte gardener who is confronted with the huge project of maintaining a major landscape. So the first order of the day was to identify plants - a tricky business when their flowers are long gone.

Without my usual collection of references to consult, I spent considerable time in Malm's elegant new library looking things up - botanical plant names are universal.

There were familiar plants in the borders - feverfew, chamomile, bell flowers, bleeding hearts and pearly everlasting. But it was the plants that were new to me that sparked my real interest. A low-growing flower with lacy leaves and tiny yellow flowers - tentatively identified as a corydalis - was used along the stone terrace as a border. It alternated with a specimens of a variety of small dianthus. These small plants were backed by small landscape roses - their blossoms looked like my 'Grootendorst' rose but smaller and pink. They needed major deadheading in order to display the new blooms ready to burst forth.

Dwarf English laurel (Prunus laurocerasus 'Otto Luyken',) a fine compact hedge plant with glossy, dark green leaves and black berries caught my eye. It's only hardy to zone 7 so probably couldn't survive here.

This was a garden created over a long period of time by someone who loved gardening and apparently had plenty of time (or help) to keep it up. Getting this neglected landscape in shape was going to be a chore for a young, working mother.

As I settled in to do a bit of weeding, I discovered the soil to be like a combination of coffee grounds and dark sand and it seemed to go down forever. It looked rich and made pulling weeds a joy.

I had finally gotten my wish, my hands were in the dirt of a garden an ocean away from my own. And I was getting up close and personal with some surprisingly familiar weeds. To top it off there were plenty of breaks to enjoy those sweet, ripe plums.

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