My dear garden,
You taught me to slow down and rejoice in “All Things Bright and Beautiful”—foliage in lime- and blue-greens. And back-lit blossoms glowing in butter yellows, shocking pinks and fire-engine reds. You taught me to glory too in soft pastels, delicate ephemerals and peach and periwinkle sunsets that frame you. And, my garden, you taught me to revel in the infinite shapes, sizes and growth habits of the thousands of plants that grace you.
You taught me to inhale deeply and savor your aroma of freshly-turned soil, lavender and basil by the kitchen door. You taught me to be still and patient to recognize the distinct buzz of bees and hummingbirds and the chorus of songs of other wild birds and coyotes. Your buds and sprouts have roused me every spring from winter’s lethargy, and you taught me to understand what it means to live in the moment.
You preach peace and harmony, and I learned that the beauty and truth in every little flower inoculates me from infection of life’s ugliness, hate and heartache.
A 22-Year Love Affair
I jumped into our relationship with all I had—decked out in my son Reid’s decades-old ratty camp shorts and tees, brandishing shovel and trowel. Armed with dreams, passion and a previous taste of success from restoring a historic garden, I was ready to repurpose a half-acre or so of trampled-down former cow pasture of good old Bedford County red clay to stir you to life.
My secret weapons were a strong body and will and a propensity for playing in dirt and mud with zero pride in fancy fingernails. (Was it Dennis the Menace who said, “Gardens are a chance for grown-ups to dig in the dirt?”) I chiseled into the brick-hard earth for a makeover into what you are today, our beloved country cottage garden.
And my husband Tim co-shouldered my vision, thankfully taking on roles I most dislike: chemical application (the very idea made my hair stand on end) and dragging away to the compost bins or burn pile the mountains of weeds and debris I cleared from your beds so you could breathe and grow and not be strangled or starved by interlopers.
We poured gallons of sweat-equity into bringing you to life, and we even became Master Gardeners and learned more about pesticides and herbicides and other “how to” tips about soil and plant location and care to be sure we were treating you right. And you thrived and became our joy.
Yin Yang Gardeners
At first, Tim and I discovered we’re Yin Yang gardeners. He’s a turf and trees kind of guy. I’m a flowers and more flowers kind of gal. He’s a formal symmetry with matching halves and 90-degree-angles kind of guy. I’m an organic, free-flowing, inspired-by-the-land and heaven-knows-what-will-strike-my-artistic-fancy sort of gal.
This difference could have spelled trouble for you (and us), dear garden. But that didn’t happen. Tim and I each had our half, and the welfare of the whole became our common ground. Over time I grew to enjoy the simple, uncomplicated order of his front yard plan, while he admired the creativity and excitement of my design in your sinuous, flower-laden beds and ever-changing borders and off-beat garden art in the back.
And you became a family affair with sons and their families pitching in to spruce up for granddaughter Jessica’s garden wedding and other times when needed. Thank you, dear garden, for helping us to grow in our family love and relationships—and arbitration skills.
Mother Nature Rules
The most important horticulture lesson I’ve learned from you is not to fight Mother Nature. She rules. No matter what we gardeners do to thwart her, Mother Nature wins in the long run, and we need to heed her lessons. (If you’ll indulge me in religious digression, this is a “Lord God Who Made Them All” thing.)
I’ve learned that it takes more time and effort than I can muster to force some varieties of exotic plants into our habitat. I confess I’m done with energy-draining drama queens, whether people or plants. If they’re still not happy after I’ve cajoled and catered to them, I know I don’t have the right stuff to pull it off, and I’m happy to concede them to more amenable environments and formidable friends.
Hence, although I tried mightily to feature antique roses in your midst, many of them sadly succumbed to raw winters on our windy hill, derecho or rose rosette disease. The inverse of this pain was Mother Nature’s inspiration to replace lost roses with native plants that don’t require amended soil or even watering.
My eyes opened to the beauty of pasture and roadside wildflowers and other natives in local nurseries; and, dear garden, I became a believer that a plant is no longer a weed when it’s where you want it. So we became a happily blended family of common Virginia natives (including Tim and me) co-existing with high-brow exotics.
Credit Where Credit’s Due
Dear garden, you know how I demur whenever someone flatters me by saying I have a green thumb or some sort of gift for gardening. It just ain’t so. Well… maybe I could claim 10 percent of a green thumb by default (i.e., paying attention to The Laws of Nature and the lessons of horticulture experts), but the other 90 percent is a combo of trial-and-error and a long list of fails and discouraging moments for every success and glorious blossom.
You taught me that gardeners must be resilient and adaptable. We’ve learned that plants aren’t pieces of furniture perfectly arranged according to little circles on a designer’s template. The landscape changes. Trees grow and sunny spots become shady. Borders are engulfed by larger plants behind them.
You taught me the heartbreak of seeing plants eaten by predators, falling to disease or disaster or dying for unknown reasons despite our best efforts. Remember when our chocolate vine shot up like Jack’s beanstalk and grew so heavy it took down the Purple Martin house along with its concrete-embedded pole—and squashed you?
I’ve learned from you that gardeners simply can’t be perfectionists. We are humble workers who learn as we go along, and you reward us with your bounty. And your blooms and produce keep us hooked despite deer damage and fear of tick-borne human disease. As for me, I know my place: I’m not the real gardener, I’m just your keeper, as poet Anne Spencer so eloquently reminds us.
Vexation and Nightgown Gardening
We have made sweet music together despite occasionally hitting a few sour notes. We’ve shared successes and failures from show-stopping blooms to ludicrous bloopers, heartwarming family reunions to sunflower-devouring groundhogs, pollinator paradise to freeze-killed hydrangeas. Throughout it all, we’ve grown together, and you’ve fed us as much as we’ve fed you.
While singing your praises, a couple of our unforgettable fails come to mind. Such as when I was invited to show you off to a Garden Club of Virginia group and discovered the morning of the tour that black spot had overtaken your roses (sort of like discovering your kid has head lice on the first day of kindergarten). And, of course, most other plants I expected to bloom that week were still in tight buds and postponed their show until the following week. Repeat: Mother Nature Rules.
And you seduced me into another embarrassing moment that’s indelibly stuck in my memory. Living on an isolated (or so I thought) farm without “drop-in company,” I fell into the habit of breakfast on the terrace in my nightgown, followed by a stroll around your beds over coffee to survey your beauty and weeding needs of the day. But, dear garden, once again you lured me under your spell as I leaned down to pluck an offending pokeberry, fell into the zone and weeded the whole bed. And then your next bed called my name.
Hours later, as my dirty hands swiped sweat from my brow and mud streaked across my face and gossamer gown, I looked up to see a mirage. Oh, no. It wasn’t. I locked eyes with two clean-cut young men in black suits, crisp white shirts and sincere ties with papers (religious tracts?) in their hands. With eyes big as saucers and mouths agape, even more mortified than I, they turned on their heels and ran back 100 yards to the end of our driveway and sped away. I’m sure our house now has a big “X–crazy lady” on their map. And I learned yet another lesson—to dress for al fresco breakfasts.
Everything in Its Season
Your lessons are both profound and mundane, dear garden, and we have learned them. We know full-well there’s a season for everything. And we know the time has come to prepare for your winter season as we move into town and prepare to face the winter of our lives. It’s now time to give someone else the privilege of being your keeper. I know you will once again bud up next spring and enrich their lives as brightly and beautifully as you have ours.
With joy, gratitude and a lump in my throat,
Words and Photos by Susan Timmons