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An imagination freed by a garden's birth

If you are a gardener, you will understand. If you are not, then you'll just think, "Oh, well, the old girl's gone over the edge. And better a gardening obsession than a drug habit. Or too much television. Or compulsive shopping."

Actually, all-consuming, obsessive-compulsive gardening has much in common with impulse spending -- the drive, in my case anyway, is always for more, more, MORE! More color, more form, more variety, a bigger harvest, more cut flowers on the table all summer long.

Last fall I moved into a lovely old house surrounded by bare patches of pounded dirt with a few pathetic strands of grass poking through. I spent the winter staring at it, figuring out where the sun hit at what time of day, trying to determine what I could grow. In March, I decided to eradicate what was left of the lawn and cover it all with rich layers of manure, compost and mulch. I threw on some organic fertilizer for luck. Next week, I plan to set loose about a thousand red worms to stir it all up.

Since March 23, when I started my new garden, I've kept a running log that looks like a shopping list for the Denver Botanic Gardens. Unable to afford mature plants to cover so much square footage, I opted to start from seed --flowers, vegetables and herbs would mingle on every square inch of my formerly decimated yard.

Catalogs of Southwestern and high-altitude seeds crowded the breakfast counter, the coffee table and every available square inch of my bed. I sowed the two squares in the front yard with clarkia, larkspur, arroyo lupine, blue flax, prickly white poppies, bachelor's buttons, prairie coneflower, rudbeckia, gypsophilia, Texas bluebonnets, penstemons, wild hyssop, cosmos -- every color and shape my heart desired.

Every morning and every night I watered the surface of my little mud patches. A curious neighbor walked by one Saturday as I hovered above a patch of bare dirt, staring through a magnifying glass looking for flecks of green.

"Growing some grass, huh?" he gently inquired.

"Nope, I killed it all."

He gave me a look that asked why I had to move onto his block.

"I'm growing flowers," I said.

"Mmmm hmmmm," he grunted and walked on.

Six weeks later, I have patches of seedlings emerging everywhere. My notes on what I planted where don't exactly match up to what actually transpired, so now I'm trying to identify everything that has come up by the shape of its leaf. Most of the time I fail.

Every morning, I slowly and methodically hand-water everything -- the lettuce and arugula patches mingled with borage and poppies and orange globeflower on the side strip, beets and kale next to the dwarf yarrow, the Siberian wheatgrass out back -- a pure act of faith, a sack of seed two years old sown in a moment of whimsy. If it germinates, then God is smiling on my garden.

It did. She is.

All along the fences I planted sugar snaps, English peas and sweet peas. I thought they'd never come up, but eventually they did. This morning, watering the patch next to the garage, I witnessed the first grasp of a tiny pea tendril, wrapped fiercely around the twine trellis. This green appendage hanging on for dear life seemed no less miraculous to me than a newborn baby's fingers, wrapping instinctively around the thumb of an awestruck parent.

Every morning, a little miracle like that makes my day. Gnarly old lamb's ears, transplanted from a friend's perennial garden, have put out new growth, soft, downy leaves as smooth and perfect as a swath of velvet. California poppies, the seeds sprinkled among the iris roots, emerged two days ago, silver-green and lance-leafed. Even in their bare infancy, they look strong.

This morning a neighbor walked over and introduced himself as I was watering. He asked me what I was growing and I introduced him to everything I could identify. We walked around back where I've just built the last bed, covering the last patch of lifeless dirt with a six-inch layer of compost, manure and mulch.

"What'll you put there?" he asked.

I hadn't really decided. But yesterday I'd noticed the strength of the afternoon sun in that spot -- scalding and direct with little shade.

"That'll be where I put tomatoes, peppers and eggplants," I said. "And a few hills of squash."

And so it will be. My imagination is set free. Pattypans, zucchini, crookneck, a hill of each. Some heirloom tomatoes. Those gorgeous lavendar-and-white striped eggplants, And the long, skinny Japanese type -- a regal, deep purple.

My neighbor leaves and I rush in to note the new plan in my garden journal. I'll need seeds, more seeds, and a few bedding plants. I always want more, and the garden always provides.

-- kathryn@csindy.com

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