Thursday, March 31, 2005

the garden I know


It probably started when I was a child. I liked to imagine that the sand under the big cedar tree was someplace else. Or the overhanging shrub and roses beside the house that formed a special cove where I could hide.

Gardening, for me, is about dreaming about something else, about taking an ordinary spot of land -- usually boring grass -- and turning it into nooks and crannies, winding paths, places to walk and to look. And to smell. Herbs in the garden spice up the most ordinary of jobs, weeding, when one can reach over and grab a twig of thyme or lavender or chives and smell this extraordinary gift.

Of course it is also about a relationship. Talk of a black thumb doesn't ever interest me. There is no lucky magic to gardening. Plants are living organisms. They need light, water, shelter, food, protection. Plants are very much unlike plastic flowers. Or rubber mulch.

As I imagine what a garden will look live, I improvise, plan, imagine, edit, and revise. I watch for signs of too little or too much light...or water...or signs of bad bugs. Sometimes I make big mistakes. And I either make a heroic effort to save the plant or I realize that the value for me or the plant is past, and I pull it out. Gardeners are often heartless about these things and unsentimental.

I watch for delight and surprise. There is something breathtaking about the short life of a bearded iris in bloom. Or a delicate, fragrant English rose. Sometimes I forget that I hastily planted this or that in a certain location, and then memory is jogged upon seeing the results from an action committed several months earlier.

So this personal garden where I work out my ideas is now four or five years in the making -- I always don't garden for the first year in a new place, particularly if that new place is a different zone or has a different soil quality (which has happened each time we have moved). It takes a year to learn what is growing in a specific place, and it can take that long to educate one on what grows in the new climate or soil.


I've probably written much of this in several different ways over the last year and a half. So, what's the point?

Last year, it looked like we would be possibly moving sometime in summer to another city. And in late summer and fall I began to push hard, trying to finish what I had planned. I wanted some completion, some sense of this is what I had imagined for this garden. I got much of it done in the front, and I got enough done -- not really, for me -- in the back.

And I also started trying to cut myself off emotionally from this particular site. Letting go of a garden is hard. Beatrix Farrand, the brilliant American garden designer, had a personal garden in Maine. Towards the end of her life, she realized that nobody wanted to commit to keeping this garden alive. This was particularly bitter for her, since her masterpiece in Washington, DC, Dumbarton Oaks, was eagerly given by her clients, the Bliss family, to Harvard, which eagerly received it. She had been close to Harvard since a child.

So she dismantled her garden. I don't think this was spiteful on her part. It was a clear-headed recognition that it would be dismantled more brutally if left to others. She sold and gave away the plants. It probably was very painful. But the idea of her garden was gone, ended by her own hand.

Gardens are fictional things, an extended performance rather than a permanent object, but that drive to care and tend and watch and feel and smell at one particular site is very hard to give up. I've been lucky that the gardens that I've created in our homes, have continued to be well-tended.

But each time, leaving one is quite hard. So this time, I began to also try to distance myself from my garden emotionally, to think it about it objectively, to let go of it. I thought about spring and early summer and how I would not see the garden through to fall.

Then what seemed imminent was postponed. And Lord-willing, we will be here for at least a year. And I have my garden back. But the weather was brutal in March and I have yet to really get a jumpstart on what is one of my favorite times to garden. I am betwixt and between. I would have thought I would be more eager to jump in, and I will be.


lemming said...

I admire the grace (albeit fierce grace) that you bring to gardening. So often it leave sme feeling overwhelmed and at a loss - there must be a way to do what I know needs doing, but how?

I've rescued two "volunteers" from my neighbors' children's sandbox. I don't know what they are - maybe daffodils? - little white bulbs and green poking out the top. They're in flowerpots for the moment. Small gardens are not nearly as overwhelming for a clueless one such as myself.

Don said...

A very simple suggestion. Get a copy of Barbara Damrosch's The Garden Primer. It is an excellent resource that provides information about gardening techniques as well information about specific plants. When I firsted started gardening, I found it very helpful and it is still in print (I believe). Very useful book.

Anonymous said...

Someone I know told me recently about an old friend, who'd had a beautiful garden that she had to leave for reasons that I don't remember. My friend said that she'd said something to her friend about how hard it must be to leave her garden, and her friend said, no, not particularly, because she'd done everything in that garden she wanted to; it's only hard to leave a garden where you still have unfinished business.

I can't imagine feeling that way about my own (terribly unfinished) garden, but it was interesting to hear about someone who did.

Bill said...

I enjoy reading your blog, I "started" my garden seven years ago. The thought of leaving it is scary--I'm sort of selfish, I want to grow old with the trees I planted and see the daffs naturalize in the yard and maybe try a white/grey knot garden. This spring is hard for me since I'm in Iraq, and homesick to see the daffs come up--I am lucky to have blogs like yours to read and friends to send pictures of things growing. Thanks Bill