TODAY I CELEBRATE MY BIRTHDAY: Born in 1954, I am 54 years old. When I was 35 and garden-writing fulltime, I wrote about what happens to gardeners of a certain age in the month of June, and to celebrate, I thought I’d share the essay with you. Nearly 20 years later, I’m still making lists…and living with the frogs and birds. Some things never change.
My Hill of Beans (published 1989)
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.