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Front Porch: Growing deep appreciation for gardening

Thu., June 6, 2013, midnight

I used to work with a woman who would spend time in her garden at the end of the day, de-stressing. She called it dirt therapy.

I didn’t really get it. It seemed like just another group of chores to do – weed, till, plant, fertilize, prune and then back to weeding again. The never-ending cycle. But as I began to look – really look – at all the wonderful yards in Spokane, at the big fancy houses and the modest small-yard ones, and saw the color and the care that went into these green spaces, the more intriguing it all became. I still don’t have a particularly natural gift for grubbing in the dirt, for this business of getting lovely things to grow, but I’ve found it to be a lot more than just a list of stuff to do. It is – and consider my surprise at discovering this – actually enjoyable.

First, I had to learn what plants and flowers would thrive on my mostly shady, pine tree-laden lot. I began with some poor choices (gee, that plant looks pretty), but then some successes. How beautiful were all the splashes of color among the pines (and pine needles).

Second, dealing with deer, who appreciated my flowers even more than I do but for totally different reasons. I began to research deer-resistant plants and annuals. When I told someone at a nursery that I thought snapdragons might work well in my deer zone, she had all she could do to repress a smile. When properly motivated (see also: hungry), I was informed, deer will eat pretty close to anything and everything, with a tiny list of exceptions. And I had lots of bare stems in my yard to prove it so.

In my neck of the woods, deer go for the begonias first, followed by the geraniums. More research. I have found a home-made icky solution of eggs, milk and dish detergent which, when sprayed on the flowers throughout the season, seems to do a reasonable job as a deer repellant. By late September, the deer manage to hold their noses and dive in anyhow, but by then, I’m OK with my flowers becoming their supper. Bambi and friends need to ready themselves for the winter, so it’s all right to yield to their needs. I’ve enjoyed my flowers for many months. Time to share.

Still, I try to hold them off as long as possible. I’ve been advised that aromatic geraniums are annoying to deer, so I’ve put one in this year. I’m also trying snapdragons for the first time. We’ll see how that goes.

I make a point now to put shade-loving flowers in the appropriate locations, part-sun-appreciating flowers where they belong and, in those rare sunny spots I’ve got happy-to-be-in-the-sun flowers right where they belong. It’s taken some years to get the mix close to right (there are failures every year, but fewer ones as time goes by). And I’ve discovered that geraniums will grow practically everywhere.

Third, every year is different. Sure, the beds are the same, the shrubs needing pruning are the same and the ever-encroaching weeds are most annoyingly the same. But there’s always the selection of flowers to figure out, along with decisions about what I can plant that I haven’t planted before and where I can try putting them. I’ve put in some shrubs at the front of the house; some survived and some were bad choices (too shady). But I think I’ve got the mix right finally. And I’ve now got shrubs along the curbing at the side of my property. My husband’s handy shade-tree-mechanics watering system keeps them wet enough, though they’re not supposed to need much water. A few failures there, including the death of several bushes that required trips to master gardeners with cuttings, seeking answers. Fingers crossed but so far this year, so good in shrubland.

And fourth, I keep learning, which is not a bad thing. I’ve learned about gardens and gardening in general. I’ve realized that six rhubarb plants are five plants too many. I continue to learn new steps in the ongoing dance with deer. This year, I learned about moss, how to remove it and (mostly) keep it at bay. I learned how to grow a healthy tomato plant in a big old pot on my deck – where it thrives, as long as I keep it in just the right sunny place, and where it sits in the only truly deer-free zone on my property. I’ve just gotten a transplanted clump of chives from a neighbor and am going to see how that fares in a container on the deck. I am now reading gardening advice and Q&A columns in most newspapers and magazines I pick up.

But mostly I’ve learned that even a city girl can grow into a bit of a gardener, even at this later stage of life. The hair may be gray, but the thumbs are definitely getting greener.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@ Previous columns are available at columnists/

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