‘I LAY NO CLAIM either to literal ability, or to botanical knowledge, or even to the best practical methods of cultivation,” a woman of great gardening wisdom once began an essay, and that was fine for her to say because it was humility, pure and simple. But if I tell you that in my case these same claims do indeed hold true, you can trust it. I mean, a painting of modest Gertrude Jekyll’s well-worn gardening boots hangs in the upper-crusty Tate Gallery in London; somehow I doubt that my sorry L.L. Bean specials will ever make their way to anywhere but the local dump.
But what I do share with Jekyll—the person regarded as most responsible for the renaissance of classic garden design in the last century, whose writings I could read and read again—and I trust with you, too, is a wonder at the very existence of plants.
How can it be that they have such intricate beauty: have you ever seen the clever paintings that live inside a flower? How is it that so many garden plants can disappear come winter and then, from nowhere, reappear in spring, unbeaten by having “lived” like Bird’s Eye vegetables in the earth’s own freezer, month after frozen month?
How can it be that a border of daffodils blooms each spring in the woods above my rural home, though the people whose house they once adorned are decades gone? And why does a tomato smell great, and its foliage just smell, and why aren’t every plant’s leaves—the centers of photosynthesis—the color green? It is this natural curiosity, coupled with the need to touch and smell and otherwise get to know these living things that counts first and foremost, all manner of scientific degrees notwithstanding.
I want to tell you where this instinct of botanical wonder came from, at least in my case, about the zinnias my Grandma Marion cut and stuffed into the Fiestaware bowls of water, flowers that picked up the brightest flecks in the old linoleum of that kitchen painted, walls and ceiling and cabinets, in yellow high-gloss.
I want to tell you everything, to talk to you about the image of the iron padded chaise beneath the old, contorted wisteria at Grandma’s, too. They plopped me on it for my birthday photo, while all around me wisteria pods fell to the upholstery canvas and the slate floor beneath. Manna from heaven. Happy birthday, Margaret. Welcome to the garden.
Digging down deeper into the psychological subsoil will take some time. All I can tell you now are fragments like that one; flashes of memory, moments of recognition. All I can say for certain is that it is gardening that I love more than anything else I’ve ever found, and here is a simple example of the reason why:
Just the other night I reached into the freezer for a Rubbermaid container of “tomato junk,” a hodgepodge I use as the stock of my winter diet. It is a commingling of whatever edible was still standing and producing when frost closed the last season down, tomatoes, beans, parsley, kale and squash. There, like a reddish brick of ice in my hand, and then a few hours later in its next incarnation as the base of lentil soup, my garden was with me again.
Gertrude Jekyll, in uncharacteristic immodesty, called herself a “garden-artist,” but do not look in this place for any such lofty figure. Simply, I like two things very much: the smell of freshly washed laundry, and the smell of warming earth that is hit by a rain shower. Hence down deep I am part washerwoman, part ditchdigger, and thankfully it is a true symbiosis. The former helps undo the filthiness the latter wreaks on the hands.
No, neither my garden boots nor my garden are the stuff that art is made of, a fact for which I am only partly apologetic. My garden is where I can be myself—perhaps the only place besides the pay-by-the-hour couch that invites me to be so, in fact. This is where I think big, where I overdo it, where I don’t turn inward and downward but really stretch myself—damn the insecurities.
In the untidy maze of garden this wintry weekend, the zinnias will be waiting, dried and shrunken to a dilapidated state of brown, as contorted by months of cold days and nights as Grandma’s wisteria was by age. I did not cut my zinnias to fill the bowls my ancestor did, at least not in the season’s final month. In my kitchen, the bowls hold shallots and garlic, a ‘Blue Hubbard’ and a ‘Buttercup’ squash, all destined for the winter kettle. My zinnias, doornail dead, and nearby the coneflowers and rudbeckias and all, have a higher final purpose.
To the birds, each dried seed head is a mini-feeder, and as the sun comes up upon these frigid mornings I am content to sit and watch the goldfinches having at it, bursting from one botanical snack bar to another with zeal such as I only feel when…to tell the truth, I never get quite that energetic anymore.
My bird feeding, next to my gardening, is what amuses my friends most, though frankly I see nothing funny in it. I know, when other gardeners’ checking balances are finally spared the growing season’s near-daily drains for pots and plants and seeds, there I am in my woolens, hurtling up to the Agway farm store, possessed by a mantra of “seed sale…seed sale…seed sale.” When others are clipping supermarket coupons to spare the household budget, I am urging the birds to “eat, eat, eat,” in hopes of moving one hole closer on the Birdseed Club punch-card to that as-yet-elusive free 20-pound bag.
“We are building a habitat,” an old friend used to needle, impersonating my voice and using my very words, as we’d dig yet another hole for a berry-bearing shrub or a drive yet another feeder pole into the good earth. But underneath the kidding he knew that it is the magical intertwining of things that gets to me—we feed the birds in the lean times, they eat our bad bugs and thus there is a harvest.
And bottom line is that is what I am doing when I am gardening: building a habitat. It is a place for me, and for my friends, and for our friends the birds and bugs, and yes, even the blubbery woodchuck who rambles down the hillside from time to time in fairer months, in search of a refill for his sagging belly.
Lately, it has been the place for a hungry stray farm cat, too, a truly wild creature, and when I throw a little stone nearby to chase him from beneath my sacred feeders, I feel a twinge of sorrow, for after all, he is just trying to join in the cycle, too.—Margaret Roach, circa 1988