‘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
Oh, Margaret, this is why you’ll be missed at the magazine by us readers. But in a way you are better appreciated solo, like a single rose.
Your garden is absolutely, undoubtedly art. Do not be so modest!
I used to sketch my grandmother’s garden, which was similar in many ways to yours. There was a lot of bold, dark foliage, a lawn of creeping thyme, a bumpy patio of rugged stone, a bank of old lilacs masking firewood that was never used and became a mushroom and vine haven, a white wooden garage that had turned mossy. Spring was the season of fragrance there: lily of the valley, lilac blooms, honeysuckle, peonies, apple blossoms. The scents all wafted into the bedrooms at night and just lulled us into dreams. It was also a haven for neighbourhood cats and a one-legged robin who, emboldened by his encounter with a feline, refused to bathe anywhere but my grandmother’s bird bath because it was just so beautiful there. Gardens are magic zones, places where so many stories and paintings have been born throughout the centuries.
There are a million paintings and tableaux in your acres, Margaret – tens of millions. And each one is frame worthy.
Barely over 30, and so much yet to achieve, I can only look forward to having my own plot to experiment with one day.
Do not ever say that what you do is not artistic. It very surely is.
And thank goodness for this blog!
Welcome, Benjia, to A Way to Garden. So nice to hear from neighbors–I am minutes from Lakeville, so perhaps you will visit during Garden Conservancy Open Days.
I am thinking about nature books that you haven’t read…more later…but a novel I cannot recommend enough whose motif touches on birds because two of the characters are ornithologists cannot be missed: “Birds in Fall,” by Brad Kessler, who lives up the Hudson a little farther from here and has a deep relationship with the natural world. His book is a poignant tale of a plane crash and its aftermath, and I cannot recommend it enough. He has recently been honored for it a couple of times, finally. Much deserved.
This is a beautifully written essay on your thoughts on your garden.
last year, as a board memeber of The Miami Beach Botanical Garden, I started a bookclub. We read books on horticultural and/ or our natural environment…We recently read The Wild Braid, Stanley Kunitz…Oranges, John mcPhee…I am looking for suggestions from your readers. Please help!
I garden 5 months a year in Lakeville, Ct.and will look forward to your new newsletter. What a blessing…benjia
Like you I am an ‘old’ gardener, but a new blogger. Your post is beautiful and you inspire again, as you have always done in your other incarnations. I used to think I lived in zone 4, but these days it is feeling more and more 5-like. which is a good thing for me, although we do worry about what it means for our planet. I will look forward to stopping here often.
I wrote these many years ago, in the late 80s I think, when I was first incarnating myself as a garden writer. I am glad they still resonate with you today. My hope is that this blog stirs me to write again, more than just the daily posts! I think it might just be the ticket…
We who write in, are all soul mates or so it would seem, after reading this wonderful piece. Someone once said “we write to know we are not alone.” I know in reading this poetic garden ramble there are poeple who share my thoughts and feelings. It is so good to know we are not alone, but all connected by soil, insects, birds, plants and all manner of animals. It is a pleasure to read your epistles.
Hello Margaret, CONGRATS on your retirement!!! I would LOVE to be listed as a source as I produce most of the plants that you write about and it has been a pleasure to work with you in the past.
What is your direct email, I’s like to send you further info and some goodies to play with.
Welcome, Barry. Thanks for the kind words. You were one of the first sources in one of my earliest stories, on hellebores…and I will be in touch!
I have just read about your blog yesterday in the paper called The Gazette from Montreal Quebec. I have a little urban garden but am not too knowledgeable in this matter and hope to get tips from your newsletter, and all the fun that comes with it. I pruned a weigela yesterday, too late of course for pruning but it had gotten out of control and I had actually decided ealier this Summer to let it go that way until next Spring because it had not bloomed at all this year…. But then I got tired to see it too big… I hope I did not kill it….!
Welcome, Marie. I have not seen the Gazette article, but will track it down; thanks for the reminder. As for the late pruning, Weigela is pretty tough, but no, it’s not the right time as you say. The good news is that if it doesn’t cooperate, they are pretty fast-growing and not too pricey (at least here) so it won’t be as awful as losing a slow-growing tree you waited 20 years to see mature. Sometimes I just cannot stand the size of something here, too, and break the rules. :) See you soon again I hope.
DELICIOUS… FANTASTIC… THANK YOU…
This: “Happy birthday, Margaret. Welcome to the garden,” is just beautiful. Kindred spirits, all of us gardeners. Great essay that definitely stands the test of time!