Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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My husband and I bought this house because it had a big lawn for kids to play in, but two years ago I started digging it up and expanding all the flowerbeds, so now we have a big garden. Well, I suppose I have a big garden. I don’t let my husband touch it.

I need to get out there, but I have to check something on the computer first. I spend every minute in the dirt as soon as the snowdrops come out in March, and I’m still out there every day even though it’s November now and most of the flowers are done. There are some chrysanthemums hanging in there, giving a bit of bright pink and yellow, but they’re little more than filler as far as I'm concerned. Almost everything else is yellowing and withering. I'm going to have to start planting bulbs soon, maybe even today, but first I need to figure out how I'm going to deal with the squirrels, or tree-rats as I call them. They dig up my tulips and eat them. It's horrible. There's no way to protect them. I've tried everything. The worst was when I tried planting daffodils on top of the tulips. The little buggers took a bite out of the bad-tasting daffodils and tossed them away, and then snacked on the tasty tulip treats underneath, so I lost everything all at once. I cried for three days and couldn't get out of bed for over a week. My husband thought I was starting all over again, but eventually I picked myself back up because I knew the other flowers needed me.

Michelle Dzema.,

See more of Michelle's work at

Still, somewhere on the Internet, there's got to be a way to keep them safe in the ground, where they can root and grow until they're ready to push their way out. I have blue and white ones from Breck’s Bulbs this year sitting in the bulb fridge next to my husband's fancy beers. They were my little treat to myself and I don't want to lose them. It will be a tense winter waiting to see which ones survive the tree-rat onslaught and the frost, and take root to sprout and bloom in the spring, but there's always hope.

My husband's friends saw the garden for the first time last Canada Day. My husband thought we should have people over again. They told me, Oh, you are so lucky that you started gardening as a hobby; it must be so relaxing. For them, the garden was a lovely thing to look at while sitting on the back deck on that warm summer evening. They took a moment to watch the flowers perk up slightly in the cooling breeze after the long hot day, breathe in the sweet, heavy scent of the stargazer lilies and allow the many blooms to blur into a Monet for them, before they poured another drink and resumed chatting over the sounds of tinkling ice.

I didn't contradict them. I said I would get some fresh mint for their lemonade, and left the deck to pluck a few leaves from the stony side yard. Very little grows in that yard, but mint likes a challenge, so I let it be. Now and then I wonder about renovating the soil, adding layers of compost and coffee grounds and damp newsprint to transform the side yard from rocks to loamy soil, but then what would the mint do? It'd go from my challenge-overcoming pal to a conquering intruder to be eradicated. I'd have to find other strong plants so they could fight it out for territory and hope they find equilibrium.

While I was pinching off leaves, I heard a voice behind me: You’re missed at the office.

I stood and turned. A woman I knew was standing there, her wedge sandals precariously balanced on the stony yard. We had worked together. Sarah.

The new office manager is no good, she said. She has no sense of humor.

I nodded so she would go away, and turned back to the mint. I wondered if lily-of-the-valley would work.

If you wanted to come back, though, I know they’d work something out. Even part-time? Might be good for you. Good for both of you.

I wasn’t sure how the fragrances would mix in early spring when the shy white bells emerged, and it's so hard to control lily-of-the-valley once it establishes itself. The mint wouldn't like that at all.

He worries about you, you know. We all worry about you, but it’s hard on him.

I stepped around Sarah and walked back to the deck. I gave the leaves to my husband, and went into the house. I heard him say, Honey, did you talk to Sarah? But I went straight to the front garden and stayed there until everyone left. I couldn’t talk to him about the mint.

My husband kept inviting people over all summer, but I wouldn’t see them. Everyone sees how pretty the garden is, but they don’t see how much there is to worry about. Not even my husband. He asks to help, but I say no. He has no idea what I go through. I have to watch the weather for rainy days so I can get out there and weed while the soil is still wet because then I can pull out the taproots without leaving any runners behind. But then I have to watch for slugs before they turn the hostas to lace. I lay out dishes of beer. I had to buy my own beer for the slugs, since my husband started wondering why we were running out of the Belgian stuff he bought for his friends. What’s beer when you have slugs? I'm not overfond of hostas, truth be told, but their big wide, blue-green-yellow-white leaves do cover over the boggy part of the back garden. They make great institutional plants, but I don't think plants are happy in an institutional garden. They stop being plants; they’re just greenery added paint-by-number style among concrete blocks and planters. Well, maybe the hostas don’t mind. There are no slugs in the concrete. They must find it nice and safe, nothing nibbling and chewing and gnawing at them. They can just grow.

Anyway, I was on the Gardenweb Bulbs forum researching the tree-rat problem when my husband asked me if I wanted to go for a coffee with him.

I was puzzled by the request, but I asked him if we could go to Starbucks. I had to pick up coffee grounds at the Starbucks. They make the best mulch as long as you don’t spread them on too thick. Slightly acidic and composts down into beautiful soil.

He said fine, do you want to change first?

What for? I said, and got my bucket for the used grounds. He shrugged, but I caught him looking at the soil stains on my knees. There'd really be no point in changing though. All my clothes have soil stains on the knees.

I took a Breck's Bulbs and a TulipWorld catalog with me. I'd already bought my fall bulbs, but I like to look. The Starbucks staff had a filled bucket for me―they know me pretty well―and so I just traded them the empty bucket while my husband ordered a couple of foamy coffees.

I sat down and paged through the dog-eared catalogs while my husband sipped away. Kept going back to look at the crown imperials. Funny-looking flowers, but their bulbs were supposed to deter squirrels. Then again, so were the daffodil bulbs. They would add some height to the front bed, though, so maybe it would be worth trying.

Honey, said my husband. I thought we could talk a little.

Oh, okay. I held up the catalog and asked him, What do you think of these? They might keep the tree-rats away.

Pretty, he said. He put his hand on the catalog, his fingertips covering the odd red and yellow flowers, and gently pushed the catalog down. His cuticles were clear and spotless, no permanent black ring around them, no faint traces of dirt in the ridges of his fingerprints or under the nails.

I'm worried about the squirrels, I said.

I'm worried about us, he said. He toyed with the edge of his paper cup.

They just keep digging up the tulip bulbs.

We don't seem to talk much anymore.

We’re talking about the squirrels and the tulip bulbs right now. I got nice ones this year, blue and white. I'm thinking about trying the hardware cloth again this year. I don't think it was tacked down at the edges firmly enough.

It's not just the talking, though. He picked up a flower catalog and put it back down before speaking again. We don't really seem to do much together anymore. You're always in the garden. Even when our friends are over, you run away and disappear into the plants.

Someone has to worry about the flowers. They don't just grow themselves, you know. They don't just come out of the earth looking lovely without someone to take care of the weeding, the deadheading, the pruning, the dividing. . . .

Other people manage it without spending 24 hours a day there.

And the soil. You don't get a good garden without putting some work into the soil and we did not have good soil before I started working on it. You can't just throw down Miracle-Gro and expect it to magically fix your soil.

Yes, and you've done wonderful things with the garden . . . I love sitting out there, but. . . .

I mean, our soil was half rock and half clay before I started on it. Half slugs and half aphids too. Just keeping that properly controlled is a job.

Honey, would you just let me speak for a moment?

I sat back, and looked at his clean fingers outlined against the shiny green magazine fronds.

The garden is lovely, he said. And it was so good when you first started on the garden after, well, after. He looked down at his crumpled coffee cup and released the flower catalog so he could worry at the edges of the cup some more.

Then he spoke again: It was great to see you get up and leave the house and do something. I was happy that you had the garden then, but don't you think it's time? For something more?

I looked at the worn white edge of his coffee cup, and at his maroon shirt behind it. He was clean and pressed all the time, the way I used to be, before.

That was the time when the vast heavy sky pressed down on the house, the ceiling, and then on me, in my stone skin, weighing me down so that the effort of moving, eating, or even wanting to breathe was just too much. When my husband, his face tear-dampened, would try to put his arms around me, but accepting his comfort was too hard, and so I waited for the huge heavy world to crush me into thin dust.

Not to mention the squirrels, I said. The squirrels would eat everything, all the bulbs, all the flowers, they would just chew it all to bits and there would be nothing left. Nothing at all. Can we go to Home Depot? I need the hardware cloth.

I stood, scooped up my flower catalogs and bounced from foot to foot, waiting for him to get up.

Fine, he said. He flung his coffee cup on the table. Let's go.

Thank you, thank you, I said, grabbing the bucket of grounds. It will be worth it if the tulips survive the squirrels this year, just wait, you'll see, it will all be worth it in the end.

He stayed in the car while I picked up the hardware cloth and didn’t say a word on the drive home, so I could peruse my magazines in peace.

The next day, I was putting on my Crocs to go back out to the garden when he touched my shoulder and asked me to tell him again what kind of tulips I'd bought this year.

Blue and white ones, I said. They're special.

Special how? he asked.

Tulips don't usually come in blue, I said. Most flowers don't. Not true blue, anyway. Even these aren't really blue, they are kind of a purple-blue, but they look blue in the picture.

Sounds pretty, he said.

Yes. If I can keep them safe from the squirrels, they'll be really pretty. Special too. And if they survive the winter. Because sometimes they just die in there. They just die in the ground. Breck's is pretty good for bulbs but you never know what will happen to them between now and spring. You just plant them and take care of them and keep them safe and hope they will grow.

I see, he said. He touched my face for a second and said, Do you―I mean, can I help you keep them safe?

I was going to say no, but I could feel the spot on my face where his fingers had touched me. It felt like sun-warmed grass; it felt familiar and that confused me. I looked in my husband’s eyes, and they were soft like good loam. After a moment I said, Okay, could you cut the hardware cloth for me? He smiled and said sure, so I told him what size, and went out to the garden.

The fall sun hadn't warmed the soil at all; it was damp and cool and could be pinched together in clumps that would fall apart seconds later. I dug down with my spade and layered in my bulbs, the tulips and then the daffodils, and then the chionodoxa, generously sprinkling them with cayenne pepper from the tub I bought at Costco. My husband came out with the pieces of hardware cloth and laid them down over everything, holding them flat while I staked them and lightly covered them with soil. When the ground froze enough to keep the tulips safe, I would pull it up, but until then I hoped it would keep the squirrels out. The soil smelled tangy with good decay, the kind where used-up coffee grounds and old newspapers have broken down into the dirt that feeds the tulip bulbs I was so carefully protecting with cayenne and decoy bulbs and hard metal wires. Now they had a chance to blossom next spring. I could hang on through the dark, cold winter knowing that they had a chance.

Sonal Champsee is a writer and playwright. Her work appears in Ricepaper, Hippocampus Magazine, and the anthology Friend. Follow. Text. She is completing an MFA in Creative Writing through UBC. Sonal lives in Toronto and is pursuing treatment for infertility.

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