I went back to my first garden a
few weeks ago, and over the span of a few hot, sweaty hours, finally said my
goodbyes. The exertion of taming a landscape I had shaped and formed and had
been absent from for three years kept any emotions at bay until long after the
sun set that evening. In my new house, and new garden, I reflected on a roiling
clamor of bittersweet thoughts.
Gardening is in my blood – or at
least, a very strong connection to the land. I come from a long line of farmers
– and, also, a long line of folks who like to be their own boss. Despite a
childhood on a farm, I always felt like I came late to gardening. My first
foray was at 22, in my first apartment, when I realized the landlord would let
me putter away in the small flower bed on my side of the building. For several
years after that, I enthusiastically tackled small plots of land with divided
plants from the farm, carving out my own small spot of peace wherever I moved,
and then, as renters do, moving on again.
Coming back to Kentucky, and
buying my first house, I also bought a yard devoid of anything remotely considering
landscaping. Overgrown yew bushes menaced the front porch and two scraggly
trees leaned over the back porch. The one redeeming plant life was a lovely
dogwood tree in the front yard. Over the next seven years (the taxus and two
trees were felled by professionals less than a month after I moved in), the
shaping of my yard provided me with a constant, and a space in which I could
experiment and grow and learn. The challenges of life sometimes left me
desolate during that time, but there were also many years of ebullient joy.
I put in a raised bed, a border
at the back of the yard, assisted with the building of a pergola, and even
planted in the strip between the sidewalk and the street. I planted my first
climbing rose, the very thorny New Dawn, as well as a climbing hydrangea. I
embraced grapevines without fruit (Crimson Glory), clematis of assorted colors,
and cross vine. A Japanese maple went into a new circular bed, and died…two
butterfly bushes balanced another oval bed and thrived. A forsythia greeted
spring loudly and beautifully. There were flowers everywhere.
I love English gardens, and there
was perhaps a bit of that in my garden. Hollyhocks, lots of bulbs, and even
more inherited plants formed the foundation of the first few years. Chaotic joy
was my main theme – and it was a forgiving space. If something didn’t work in a
particular place, I dug it up, and tried it somewhere else. I edged my main
border with rocks from an old house site on our farm, spending hours (and
miles) digging them up and transporting them back to the city.
There were a lot of parties in
the summer, and lazing on the porch. Fireworks were set off, and I attempted to
master the grill (that still hasn’t happened). I watched fireflies dance around
until late in the night, and I found space for a hammock. Various found objects
made their way into the garden and found new life as “garden art.” I carried my
beloved first dog out into the garden on her bed when she could no longer move,
and she lay in the sun beside me as I dug up lilies to plant on her grave. That
was one of the saddest days I had, but the profusion of lilies that greet me
whenever I go to the garden covering her final resting spot always make me
think of my first gardening companion with a smile.
It was a small lot, you see, just fine for two
people and two dogs. Two porches made the small bungalow seem larger, but when
people are involved, so is change. So I sold my house and garden, because with
the knowledge I had at the time, it was what I needed to do. It wasn’t easy,
and as my life changed rather violently after that, I missed my garden with a
palpable physical force. For over a year, I not only lived with most of my
furniture in storage, and without a garden of any kind. I helped my sister with
her yard, and tended to my mother’s many flower beds, but it wasn’t the same.
I’ve been in my new house for
about a year and a half. The back yard is deeper than my old house, but it was
a honeysuckle jungle. Once again, there wasn’t much existing landscaping, and
there was a lot of deferred maintenance. I used a chain saw for the first time, and
realized that for many people, the natural world is just a backdrop.
I started to wonder about my old
garden, and how it was faring. Although I don’t live very far from it at all –
maybe a mile? – I avoided driving by, because it hurt too much. Then I decided
to stop and see if the new owners wanted some free labor, and in exchange, I
could divide some of my perennials I hadn’t seen for a long time. This being said,
I divided innumerable plants before I sold the house – but in the stress of
moving and living life, there wasn’t enough time to let go. There wasn’t any
time to say goodbye.
I increased the green space of
the backyard by digging up the driveway that extended to a garage no modern car
could utilize. It was slow and tedious, and one of my friends made countless references
to “Shawshank Redemption”, as I hacked away at the blacktop and carried
5-gallon buckets of gravel to the farm to fill in potholes in the farm roads.
In addition to the lilies, I planted hundreds of my favorite bulbs – jonquils.
(Known also as daffodils, or by the genus name narcissus. My paternal
grandmother called them jonquils, and when I say the name, or see them bloom, I
think of her.)
Altruistic intentions in hand
(and slightly self-centered intentions as well), I went back to my garden. I
weeded, I wacked, I dug and I restored order. It was wonderful to see, 10 years
later after I began, that my original untutored, perhaps unsophisticated garden
design had good bones. Despite the forsythia taking over the raised bed and
rooting itself wherever it could (they benefit from judicious pruning, which it
had not experienced since I left), and the rose taking down a section of the
fence (New Dawn is very aggressive in addition to having dangerous thorns. It
also isn’t all that fragrant. I’m a Zephirine Drouhin girl now), my garden
looked lovely, albeit a bit neglected.
I returned to my new house, and
new garden, with a car full of plants. In the three hours I spent tending to my
old garden, I also said goodbye. It will always be my first garden, and I will
always treasure the time I spent there – but I don’t long for it anymore.
Better gardens, tempered by experience (and budget), await me. I’ve added a few
more power tools to my arsenal, and have started making my own trellis. Maybe I’ll
build an even better pergola this time. I look forward to dreaming about what I will plant, and spending hours in the sun and in the rain creating what I see in my mind – and waiting to see how
it will bloom.