birthday tradition: an old essay from the old gal

THOSE OF YOU WHO HAVE CELEBRATED BIRTHDAYS with me here before on A Way to Garden each June 10 know the routine: I show you my favorite childhood photo (above), and then try to make you read an essay that I wrote to mark my 35th. The essay, called “My Hill of Beans,” is on the jump page…or you can skip it and just send me a new umbrella as a gift. (Truth be told, what I like about the snapshot is the optimism in it: Busted umbrella? No worry. To quote Leonard Cohen: There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.)

My Hill of Beans

(first published in 1989; proof positive how long I have been at this garden writing thing, friends)

LIKE A GRADUATING SENIOR in that pointless last week of school, I have lost all ability to concentrate. I hadn’t been sure, until I sat down to write this, exactly what was on my mind, but it is full, so very annoyingly full that I awaken every morning when it is still dark to the tape playing in my head. It is a droning, relentless list, with lots of static punctuating entry after entry of musts, to-do’s, and did-I-remember-to’s.

Probably it is partly the disease of gardening that does this to a person come June. At this time of year in my neighborhood, prime planting season is dwindling down to a precious few days, the only ones left before the relentless summer wilts all but the most vigorous transplant, and the most vigorous planter.

This is my gardening prime, I suppose, as I toil away alone, peacefully, on these late-spring weekends. This thought does not console me this year, though, because on one of these Saturdays very soon, any day now, I’ll turn 35 to the minute as I kneel to plant a hill of beans. With dirty fingernails and sunburnt shoulders, I’ll sit beside my hill of beans and smile, or maybe cry, at what my passion has amounted to.

I have no progeny but my plants, and the birds and toads and furry creatures who are welcome nesters in my garden. Three pairs of tree swallows are raising graceful families within my view, and while I work, the mothers poke their pointed faces out of their birdhouses’ holes and watch me suspiciously, hour after hour, week after week, never fully trusting that I am a friend. Or are they just amused at the kingdom I have created within the fence, or the fact that I built a fence at all? They are putting on a show for me, but despite the example of the birds, and the hassling from the people around me worried about my biological clock, I do not seem to hear it ticking. The sound I hear is the gardening clock—its insidious alarm is the one sounding in my ear before every dawn.

Thirty-five probably isn’t awful, except when I think about it the way I always do, like this: I have only 30 or so more summers to perfect my life’s only handiwork—to start the sturdiest seedlings, to train tomatoes that stand tall, to coax perennials to coexist in pleasing combinations, to prune the perfect tree, to arrange a bowl of flowers just so or pickle or otherwise make use of my whole harvest, down to the last disfigured, knobby cuke.

I need more time.

Gardening is the story of life and death and life again, sometimes miraculously emerging from where no life seems possible, and it is also the story of the seasons in between those scary start and finish lines. Plants, like us people, want to live. Just when I think I have killed the santolina or the lavender in the herb plot, up they pop again from the base, twice as thick and bushy, as if from their own ashes. The aged apple that a storm sheared to half its girth refuses to give it up, and even promises fruit this year. A new-fangled, water-filled cloche fell smack on top of the tomato it was supposed to be protecting, but so matter, the thing is growing mightily anyhow. Miracles.

These warm days in the garden are times of horticultural and spiritual bounty, of first harvests and of promises in all the growing things. But they are going too fast to suit me now, slipping away, and like the little toad who dug in beneath the baby heads of lettuce, I am trying hard to stand my ground against the stronger will, the one of passing time. Like the lettuce and the toad reclining in its shade, I am aging, and that is what I feel most these days as my spring of springs slips by.

To fight the forces, I am planting furiously, as many plants as I can place in the earth on each fair day. In went a berry patch, a second big perennial border, a separate bed for onions and garlic outside the protection of the vegetable-garden fence, and to soften the fence posts and wire, the contents of a dozen pots of flowering plants—rugosa roses, potentillas, caryopteris, buddleia—have made their way into the moist, soft ground outside the fence, too.

An early June birthday is a sweet one in the garden, where clumps of perfumed peonies seem to open just for me. With some fresh yellow roses and a bunch of the last lilacs, they will make heavenly bouquets, but who will have the heart to pitch them when they’re through? There are the first tiny sugar pea pods for the birthday dinner table—especially this year, an added birthday treat—plus so much in the way of tender salad fixings, and there is still time left before the spinach fades. And what flower is more beautiful than the purple globes perched above the chives, even if they do not smell so sweet?

The really hot days ahead will bring their own special gifts—truckloads of squashes and tomatoes and oh, so many beans—but these more durable vegetables have less appeal than early summer’s specials. Because they grow so easily, no matter how we mistreat them, I do not hold them nearly as precious as their fleeting garden neighbors that last only a minute because they cannot take the heat. The asparagus, the peas, the peonies and lilacs—those are the ones we gardeners cherish in our memory as we approach the heat of summer, and in my mid-life crisis I worry that I have already had half my share.

no comments
June 10, 2010


  1. says

    So very sad! A birthday should be a celebration of life, happy that you have lived this long! Thirty five was not sad for ,but 25 was. I had no house, no kids, nothing that I thought was important at 25, and I cried. Now in my early 50’s, I see the sillliness of it. I have had those things and I can tell you that they are not important and pass away. Even the progeny go their own way after a very short time and you are left alone again. Life goes on.

    What is important are the day to day things in life that make us happy. WIthout gardening I would be sad. As long as I can dig in God’s Earth, plant and grow with the life around me, I am content.

  2. Amy says

    Beautiful essay !! And here you are —- 35+ a little —– creating stunning gardens and bringing joy to many.

    Happiest, happiest birthday!

  3. says

    Happy birthday! Love the photo — no need of a Gameboy or electronic toy for you — you look plenty happy with your brolly and boots!

  4. Elizabeth Brunner says

    Gorgeous essay. Brilliantly written, full of powerful images & emotions. I do not have children and certainly pour time, love, and money into my garden. But the plants give so much reward back for this investment (just as my dog gives double-return for every moment of affection). I think gardens are the perfect way to measure time passing and to put daily stress into perspective. Wishing you a very joyful birthday and thanking you for such an inspirational website. — Elizabeth

  5. Ellen Kirby says

    Your essay is very inspiring, Margaret. I share many of your sentiments. Happy Birthday!

    It is especially wonderful to me as well for it is my birthday. June 10 is a great time to celebrate, always just after school was out down here.. Since it’s my 65th and I’m in NC, I’m a bit ahead in the unfolding season of life and plants. With plants in your life, It just gets better so enjoy the ride.

  6. Charlene says

    Happy Birthday, Margaret! I love the photo and essay. My birthday was yesterday. Spent it mulching. Today I have to interrupt the gardening stuff to clean house. That darn maid always takes off when I’m gardening. Sigh. Hope your day is filled with love and a delightful surprise or two in your gardens.

    Happy Birthday to Ellen Kirby too!

    • says

      Welcome, Gardener on Sherlock Street, and thank you much for the kind wishes.

      Welcome also to Charlene, and hapy birthday (a day late). The surprise today was that we had the most violent downpours that yielded a half-inch of much-needed rain. Bring it on! See you both soon again, I hope.

  7. Dennis R says

    it looks like you’re wearing garden muck boots. did you know that early on
    where your life’s passion would take you? how prescient on your part….
    take time to have a glass of wine & let us know if jack
    brought you a gift wrapped weasel tail for your birthday present ;-D

  8. Laura Biegger says

    A very happy birthday to you, Margaret! Such a special picture. It’s perfectly clear where you were headed back then.

  9. ayo says

    Dear Margaret,

    I hope you have a wonderful day. Your 35th essay is a great way of measuring how far you’ve come–(spritually, I mean!) My birthday was Tuesday–and I was thirty-five—okay, with the digits reversed. Wishing you many many beautiful Junes to come–with chive petals sprinkled on your salads!

  10. Andrea from NC says

    Happy Birthday to Yooouuuu! (good thing you can’t actually hear me cuz you’d think it was one of your frogboys singing to you!)

    We all have those low points in our lives, don’t we? Yet it’s so hard to believe that you who are so philosophical and self-deprecating could ever get down in the dumps. I hope that’s not happening today! If it threathens, do like Andre’s Doodle and hold very still, don’t blink, and it will pass. Or just go have a nice glass of wine!!

    btw, I love that quote at the end… a great way to look at Life!


  11. Suzanne says

    How great to look back on that essay every year at the same time. I imagine your mindset has changed some, considering that was written 21 years ago.

    Beautiful words – and although we have no control over how fast our lives move, we can enjoy each moment.

  12. Janel says

    Happy birthday — what a lovely picture. Love the boots, and braids, and especially your smile. You should celebrate another wonderful year. You bring such blessings to all of us who depend on your writing every day to remind us of what’s important in the world and to transport us from our desks and computers into your garden with the birds, and frogs, and cats — and all that beauty you’ve gifted to the world. Indulge, enjoy!

  13. says

    Dear Margaret,
    I was going to write something befitting the occasion–beyond happy birthday–but Janel got it so right I’m speechless (no mean feat…ask my family!). Here’s to another 35. Gardening always insinuates the future, doesn’t it?

  14. says

    I picked ten pounds of strawberries this evening, and now I shall go eat a few in your honor! If I had some champagne, I’d drink a toast, but we’ll just pretend the bubbly is there and enjoy the sweetness of the berries, and the sweetness of another year gone by. Happy birthday, Margaret!

  15. jgaughran says

    Happy Birthday to You!

    I strongly suspect you’ll be gardening well past your 65th year . . . enjoy!

leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *