Hope in horticulture: Watching for some good in dark times

On a dead-quiet pandemic Tuesday morning last spring, my husband, Paul, and I regarded our trim New Jersey colonial. It’s startling to view one’s home from the street. At a safe remove, you see it as just another house. 

It was with those eyes that we considered it and talked about selling – for real this time – and all that we had to do to prepare for that. Pandemic upheaval had distanced us from the life that was. It made change considerably less daunting.

“When did those hollies get so huge? They completely hide the house,” Paul said. I nodded. While living our big, loud, busy life – two boys, a dog, two careers – we never considered the hollies’ stealth dynamism. The moist, acidic soil that had yielded years of fruitless tomatoes was oddly perfect for two ignored hollies, silently and industriously sending out boughs, leaves, and berries aplenty.

We called landscapers. The news wasn’t good. Regular pruning would have kept the trees tame. But now, 20-plus years of neglect left us with only two options: Let ’em be or tear ’em out.

Paul and I have never owned any green thing that thrived, save for those crazy hollies. The idea of cutting off all that life, all that growth and pluck, just for a better view of clapboard, sickened us. But practicality prevailed. We signed a contract and scheduled the removal.

Over the two-week countdown to holly-cide, though, the trees taunted me. So I emailed one last landscaper. “Beautiful, sustainable landscaping,” said the website. I pinned my hopes to that.

Daria bounded onto our front lawn sporting an oversize baby-blue T-shirt, with black leggings tucked into mud-caked high-tops. She greeted each hitherto anonymous plant on our lawn by name. “Hey Ginkgo, someone had a Japanese theme going when they chose you,” she cooed. “What are you doing here, Viburnum? Oh, I get it. Your mom’s over there,” she said to a shaggy bush that apparently has kin all over the property. Thumbing a pebbly-green nub on a tree I’d never noticed, Daria broke into a smile. “Hey, lucky you!” she said. “A female mulberry. Do you eat the fruit?” 

Now she stood before the hollies, chin tipping up, then dropping slowly downward as she took stock. 

“These can’t be trimmed,” she said. “The trunks are too mature. They’d look like their tops were lopped off. You can leave ’em be …” she said, another option obviously brewing. “Or I can cut them down to about 2 feet of trunk and see if they’ll grow.”

See if they’ll grow? As stumps? I know even less about plants than I do about plumbing, but that’s not how trees grow, is it? And even if they could come back, how long would it take? Months? Years?

Paul and I said nothing, but Daria could read our skepticism. “If nothing happens,” she said, “we’ll get you some new ones.” We gave her the green light.

Without the hollies’ deep green cover, harsh sunlight gushed into our first floor, highlighting 22 years of chipped paint, frayed rugs, and lofted dust. Neighboring bushes had ferocious bites left in them where the hollies had nudged them aside. And, oh, the stumps! I could barely look at those gray stubs.

We stayed the course. Periodically, we’d peer over the front railing, hoping to see signs of life. Nothing. If anything, the stumps began looking worse. 

In mid-August we emailed Daria: time to tear out the hollies and start over. She was amenable, but it was too hot to plant. She’d get back in touch in the fall. 

Once again, those hollies, or what was left of them, faded back into invisibility.

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But as I climbed the front steps after a long run weeks later, I glanced over at the front bed. There they were: three or four clusters of tiny dusky-red leaves emerging from one trunk. I bolted over to its mate. It was flaunting even more little clusters. I texted Paul, who came bounding down from his makeshift office. To describe our excitement is to realize the ridiculousness of it. But it was the joy of small, good things arriving in dark times. 

Now we could barely wait to check on the hollies. Each day, they made us smile. Each day, they reminded us to have patience. Each day, they gave us hope that not only the Earth, but all of us have the potential to heal. For that, we thank those quiet, sturdy hollies, now awakening to the spring – and to Daria, as we edge our way out of the darkness and look forward to starting fresh.


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