21 June 2012

The Polish House on the Street-Part One

There is a phrase my parents once told me and which I have found to be true more times than not.


You can always spot the Polish house on the street.  Theirs has the yard that is loaded with flowers, birds, bees and Nature.

It's not an exaggeration.

I lived in several places before coming to the Midwest.  But, everywhere we lived, we had some sort of plants growing.

When we lived in our house outside of Baltimore, which was the place I lived the longest in my entire life, our yard was that yard.  The Polish yard.

When we moved to that unimpressive, average house, the yard was empty.  There was a green lawn which was regularly mowed, peonies, and a couple of rose bushes.  That was all.  The sun beat down on our shoulders and neighbors could see anything and everything we did.  The yard was boring and nothing to look out the window at from inside.

That was soon to change. 

We came to that house already armed with an inherited green thumb and a few plants.  We had a tangerine tree which we had tenderly grown from seeds inside a tangerine snack years before, a palm tree and ivy plants which had been cuttings from friends plants.

The green thumb that runs in my family is full of a long beautiful history.  To sum it up, we came from a country with gardens like this one everywhere you looked, whether in busy, crowded cities or tiny, quiet villages.

Ogród botaniczny w Poznaniu / Botanical garden, Poznan
Photo credit: 
Ogród botaniczny w Poznaniu
Botanical garden, Poznan, Poland.
More about Poland:
Fot. Mariusz Cieszewski

My parents poured over gardening catalogues, signing out books from the local library, writing notes, and stayed up late talking about what the yard lacked, where things should be planted, how it would affect the use of the yard.  And my brother and I went along doing our own thing, school work, trying to fit in-but listening.

I remember my mother and father going outside with a shovel, digging down into a couple of spots and holding clumps of dirt.  The neighbors probably thought we were crazy. 

What was that Polish family doing, just digging a couple of holes in the dirt without any plants to put in, just holding the dirt and talking in Polish while looking at it?
It turned out my parents knew what they were doing.  The ground was clay, unaccommodating to plants, a mess.  Bags and bags of peat moss were bought, lines for beds were drawn, shovels and spades were put to use, a wheelbarrow was my mother's best friend for a while as she worked under the hot sun mixing the soil with the peat moss.  The neighbors whispered because my mother was outside in shorts, tank tops and sandals, and she was thin, therefore up to no good.
At first, the neighbors assumed we were going to put in one or two neat little manicured flower beds that really did nothing for the yard.  They were wrong.

We planted a lilac bush for the fragrant smell, evergreen bushes that flower in front of our large window so that we could finally have privacy from their gossiping and staring eyes, a grape vine for shade and fruit so that we could sit out in the yard and not be burned by the sun. 

We planted a tree that reminded my mother and father of Poland and their childhoods-Brzoza or Birch tree.
We found wild strawberries and violets growing in a tiny patch of the lawn, every time mowed over and kept tiny.  My mother gently dug them out, found homes for them in our new flower beds and cared for them.  They took off, celebrating their new homes and gracing us with delicate blossoms and tiny berries.

My parents ordered bushes from a catalogue.  When the boxes came in, they were bare sticks.  My Tato went around the yard, following the line of the fence, sticking them into the ground and tying them to wood so that they would stay up.
My neighbors couldn't understand what we were up to.  They joked that the sticks were grave markers. 

They called "Hey, Polacks, why are you planting sticks in your yard?  That's not how you grow bushes!  Are you trying to grow more sticks?" 
My Tato smiled with what could have been a tint of darkness behind his mustache and quiet Polish accent and said something that I will always remember with gardening...

"Just wait." 

Now, our neighbors curse those leafed behemoths, because they "cut off the view across the street" (I was a teen at the time and I'm sure my parents partly planted those trees to give privacy to our yard so that grown men would not be able to stare at me throughout the day).
The yard grew and grew, plants sprang up everywhere, the sun stopped being our enemy and we played outdoors in the hottest of days under the shade of my parent's green thumb.  The wind didn't bear down on us in the winter, our gas and electric bills dropped substantially.

My Tato planted sunflowers that seemed to tower over our house.

Birds which previously had hardly anywhere to live in our neat little suburban neighborhood had nests in nearly every tree and bush.  A catbird moved in to the bush next to the fence and would sing all night long.  He would follow my children around that yard all the time when it was their turn to run in the shade of the trees.
Blue jays lived in one tree, harmoniously with countless robins, sparrows, squirrels, and others.  A chipmunk family and rabbit family moved in under our new shed.  Hummingbirds flitted across our yard and butterflies kissed our butterfly bush all day long.  My parents grew local wildflowers and flowers from Europe in flowerbeds spilling their color and fragrance throughout the street.

In the winter, the animals stayed.  We fed the birds and little tiny brown birds hid in the evergreen bushes outside our window, away from snow and freezing rain, and we would peek at them behind gauze curtains.
We grew blueberries, gooseberries, raspberries and blackberries and would daily go outside to see how much we could eat before the birds got the rest.  We always left them some on the bushes, since they were our neighbors now.

This was the Polish house on the block. 

When we gave directions to people, we would say, you will not be able to see the house, just a fenced yard filled with green.  That's us.  When people would come over after that first time, they would always agree that it was the perfect description to our yard.

I loved that yard.
My neighbors hated it, they hated the few leaves they would get in their yard once a year, they hated not being able to see into our yard, they hated the birds.  They tried to force the local Home Owners Association to get us to chop them down, they called the County to try to force us to cut it all down.  All we needed was some beautiful well manicured lawn and a couple of neat little flower beds, that's all.  The HOA and County told the neighbors to get a life and that nothing we did was wrong, that we were beautifying the neighborhood and preserving wildlife.

Our yard was full of life.

This is what I grew up with.  This is what I want to pass to my children-the love of growing and working with Nature.
Na razie...

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off kilter said...

This is lovely. Reminds me of my Polish grandmothers and their love of growing things, even the one who lived in an upstairs flat. In the backyard, tomatoes, zinnias...
A couple of summers ago, we went to Poland and were delighted at the wild colors in all the window boxes hanging from buildings, the lush public gardens. Thanks for this reminder of a colorful heritage!

Polish Mama on the Prairie said...

off kilter, I'm so glad you enjoyed this article! And it really is interesting to hear others say that this is common in their family as well.

Btw, you might find this article I wrote a while ago interesting:

Understanding Flower Traditions in Poland

Helps paint more of a picture of what the gardens/ogródy mean to Poles.