I learned to garden not as a lady of leisure, but as a writer who needed a source of income and who knew that it had to be in the realm of creative self-expression lest it suck the muse dry. So I worked at a flower shop in Harvard Sq., and later at a nursery in Seattle, and after that, at a landscaping operation. I learned a lot along the way, and little by little I began to play with my own garden dreams. I’d bowed at the altar of my childhood favorite illustrator, Tasha Tudor, in deeply spiritual groans over her lush tangle of flowers and barefoot ruddy-faced children, dogs and cats– a peaceable kingdom that I longed to one day create. I wanted to be this woman, so self-sufficient and Yankee, walking barefoot in her garden, pausing only for the rigors of afternoon tea and a sensible nap. I wanted to set up a writing table the way she did an easel, and use it all to inspire worlds from this small postage stamp of my creation in the physical world.
I planted small perennial gardens wherever I lived, even in rentals. Suffice it to say that there are a lot of perennial beds across the country, and I hope that they are still alive and well. Perennials are both good friends and traitors that way. The second I bought my first home, I planned out the garden, pouring through all the Tasha Tudor books I could find about her garden, and locked in on my vision: a cottage garden, dripping in structure that would over the years, take care of itself.
Honeysuckle would grow over grapevines, clematis would vine through ragosa roses barbed to antique metal trellices. There would be show after show, each star introducing the next from narcissus, to tulips, to forget-me-nots, to allium, to ladies mantle, to lupine, to poppies, to peonies, to roses, to delphinium, to mallow, to rudbeckia, to monarda, and the final autumn show stoppers– sunflowers, aster, sedum, done. And so much inbetween. It would be a fine mess of old friends that would return every year, and I would welcome them as such, praying away hail for the easily bruised poppies, high winds for the hollow-stalked delphinium, and praying for ants for the peonies.
We had little to choose from at our rural Montana nurseries in the way of perennials, and the catalogues were a let down– the bare root stubs that showed up in the mail nothing like what they promised in profusion on their pages that taunted you mid-February. So whenever I travelled, be it by car, train, or airplane, I would always bring home roots from friends’ gardens, wrapped in wet newspaper, and stored in plastic bags. To this day, old friends who have passed on, are still alive in my garden, reminding me of the power of roots. The power of vision. The power of creating your own postage stamp of perennial friends who for the most part, live, even through the most brutal winter.
My garden has been a room in our home, inspiring mudpies, bedside bud vases, Mother’s Day bouquets, teacher appreciation gifts, strawberry jam. No matter what, I try to have something from the garden in the house. Because it helps. In their exquisite and tender elegance, flowers remind us that we are all root, stalk and petal. And that we all bloom, fade, and grow again. Unless it’s time to move on like my honeysuckles decided this winter after a 20 year run, sometimes even growing in winter!
There have been years when I was ambitious, building a dry stack wall by myself, or binding willow trellices to support the sweet peas, or digging up day lillies and soaking them so that I could release them from the grass that bound their roots, divide them and replant. And years when I didn’t have the time or the back power to add even one bulb in the fall, or pull weeds in the spring, and there was one year when I didn’t have the energy to water them at all. Still, for 20 years, these friends have grown loyally and religiously. The garden then, is the outward and visible sign of my inward invisible truth.
May your garden grow whatever kind of day you are having!
Take a moment and meet these good old friends of mine:
Honeysuckle: May you rest in peace…
We bedeck you with crystals from my childhood lamp.