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.

Categoriesessays woo woo
  1. Anne says:

    Happy Birthday, Margaret!

    Years ago, in the summer of my 35th year, while riding the Underground in London I looked up to see a poem posted on the strip where ads usually are. It was T. E. Hulme’s Fantasia of a Fallen Gentleman on a Cold, Bitter Night. Do you know it? I loved it immediately and wrote it into my travel journal, which was, filled with musings about my professional and personal in-betweenness, lack of partner and the strangeness of living the life of a student. I had packed in my career to go back to school and was feeling discombobulated!

    Here it is, with best wishes… it has travelled well across the years, to my beginning gardening place on the remnant of an old farm, from which I see the ever-changing sky and it captures the connectedness I feel there.

    Once found I ecstasy
    In the flash of gold heels on the cold pavement
    Now see I
    That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy
    Oh God make small
    The old star-eaten blanket of the sky
    That I may wrap round me
    And in comfort lie.

    Thank you for making learning about gardening less technical and more lyrical. Thank you for your friendliness to your readers… and thank you (and Andre) for your humour! Your blog is a wonderful gift to your readers. I hope we are all reading it in our 90s and 100s!

  2. Terryk says:

    Happy Birthday Margaret from one old gal to another! I love the photo, you remind me of my sister with those braids and smile.

  3. winterlude says:

    Oh dear, I’m 37 and have only been gardening seriously for 6 years with no progeny of my own.
    There are no Frog Boys, only Chicken Lady’s, and they won’t be able o carry on without me.
    This is a truly touching essay, thanks so much for sharing and guilting me into reading your birthday post. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I always learn something from you, in addition to being entertained. Keep up the good gardening work Margaret and Happy Birthday!

  4. Kimberly Reilly says:

    To Margaret,

    Enjoy the sunshine,
    Enjoy the rain.
    Take time to smell the flowers (and prune them, when needed).
    Enjoy the bounty of your labors,
    And give thanks for every day you can do the above!

    Happy Birthday…wishing you MANY more years of gardening adventures!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jgaughran. The only risk to my gardening is the computer, I think, where I spend entirely too much time at the expense of outdoor activities. Have to work on that… Thanks for your sweet note.

      Welcome, Winterlude. Chicken Ladies aren’t bad company (though definitely more demanding than Frogboys). I always wanted a flock and a henhouse, but the wild animals here are quite the challenge — all of them loving a good chicken dinner. :)

      Welcome, Kimberly. You are right: give thanks for every day you can do those things…exactly! Carpe diem.

      Hope to see you all again soon; and thanks to all you other friends for the sweet greetings, too.

  5. Moni says:

    Happy birthday, and thank you for all you do! Your newsletters are always wonderful. Three cheers and a wonderful photo, those were the days of simple, creative, joy in the garden, just as it ought to be! Bravo!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Moni, and thank you for the well-wishes. Yesterday brought the gift of much-needed rain, and today the sun is bright and the sky is blue. Nice. See you soon again here, I hope.

  6. Joyce says:

    Thank You for a beautifully written Essay, and a Big Happy Belated Birthday to you.

    When I read your essay I’m right there with you, feeling every emotion about you and your garden and life. What a blessing to have such great memories. And just think you will be given more of these to come.
    Enjoy your life and garden and let the other stuff take care of itself!!! I never thought I would have children and one winter day I woke up fell down the stairs and was laid up for months and well, the rest is history.
    Make your own history and take it by the hand!!!!
    Thanks for all your garden knowledge and musings, I love it……….

  7. Lisa-St. Marys ON says:

    Happy Birthday Margaret!

    My birthday was on Monday, what a glorious time of the year to have a gardener’s birthday! Peonies every year for your birthday, honestly life just doesn’t get better than that. I love my progeny, but if I hadn’t had them my life would be just as full with my dog, cat and plants. My hairdresser and I have had these chats for many years (we have been together for 20 odd years). I had children a little later in life, and have gone through 2 husbands, currently have a wonderful boyfriend, but am relieved that he is a long haul trucker so I can have “my” time. I think life just keeps getting better as I age. I have finally found what makes me happy, (I’ve known for years) but now make time for it. It doesn’t hurt that my boyfriend likes gardens either. But friends, whether male or female are always better.


  8. Karla says:

    A belated happy birthday and thanks for the lovely, if poignant, essay. It almost makes me glad for a birthday in January. I too turned 50 this year and your essay makes me look wistfully back at 35 when I was adding a garden bed a year to my property. Now I’m converting them mostly to shrub borders to deal with the maintenance! Ad molto anno (I believe is the wish!)

  9. TexasDeb says:

    Oh how I respect the grin on that young face. I recall those days, dimly at times, when Nature was a friend to be played with rather than a force to be reckoned with and/or partially controlled.

    As a recovering perfectionist gardening is a constant reminder of my need to let go, to enjoy what is rather than perpetually wish for what could have been…

    Happy days beyond your birthday Ms. Margaret and please understand in many significant ways we followers here are all your progeny. I’ll add my wish and observation to the others that you might have many (MANY) more than those projected 30 more years in the sun.

  10. melinda says:

    very sweet thoughts. and I love the photo. you are so much more well adjusted that I am…I plan to just ignore my birthday. however, I am a bit older than you so maybe that counts! first time I have commented on your blog. love to read it though. you probably get tons of requests like this….but I am a pretty new blogger and I’d love it if you would check out my space sometime. I, too am a gardener….not quite like on your level however.

    happy day!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Melinda…and I did visit! I am experimenting with the camera, too, so it is interesting to see what others are doing. Thanks for your kind wishes, and hope I see you here (and there) again soon.

  11. Andrea Verberkmoes says:

    Margaret- I add my (belated) birthday wishes to you.~ I did not find your wonderful essay sad at all—it was intense and alive and spoke to that drive we have to create, complete with all the conflicting emotions. Your essay is really an analogy for life! Beautiful!
    TexasDeb-I, too, am a recovering perfectionist…..so glad to find you!
    Best, Andrea

  12. Rae Koberna says:

    A belated Happy Birthday. I enjoyed all the well-wishers comments who often phrased what I would like to say in so many beautiful words. Now my own frailties slow me down, but in my mind I will always be looking for and planting JUST ONE MORE lovely plant, even if it takes me longer to place it on these old knees.

    Here’s a toast to all the gardeners I have read about in your blog. Many more days of dreams and realities.

  13. D says:

    Joy on your special day (a little late, I realize). What a treasure you have in that essay – a chance to review your life with something tangible each year. To see where you’ve been, where you are, and how you got there too. Savor it…

  14. Carole Clarin says:

    Happy birthday a little late! What a lovely essay and memorable photo-an umbrella like that wouldn’t have been very helpful with the downpours of the past couple of days but it does add to the charm of that moment in time past. As a gardner past of 66, I’m sure you have more than the years you had anticipated on your 35th birthday. Continue to enjoy the birthdays ahead and your beautiful garden!

  15. Marty says:

    Happy Birthday Margaret. i do love the photo. Adorable. It made me think about a favorite photo of me as a child in which I am wearing a lampshade as a skirt.
    Blessings on your day.

  16. Margie Orr says:

    Happy Birthday! Celebrated mine the day before you did. Got a lot of years on you. Continue to enjoy yours. Love hearing about your gardening.

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Margie, and welcome. So nice of you to send along greetings (even if you are ONE WHOLE DAY older than I am, tee hee).

  17. Doris Matthews says:

    Happy Birthday! (better late than never) Mine was June 2nd. Another Gemini, I knew there was a reason I liked you so much-actually, I haven’t met you yet but hope to soon. I loved your book and enjoy your website so I guess that qualifies!

  18. fran schulenberg says:

    Happy belated !
    Good essay, I never have to be ‘forced’ to read anything you write.
    Hope to visit your site for many years to come. Thanks to you, my garden is now full of produce as well as flowers, shrubs & trees. First time for snow peas and they are looking great. Unfortunately, several days ago, at least 1 deer had a dinner party in my yard. First time in the 30 years I’ve lived in this older suburb of Detroit. Poor things have been pushed out of their territory r/t over development.

    Hope your day (as well as days to come) are rich in every good way.

    P.S. Also happy that you & Demon Jack have found each other.

  19. Carole says:

    What a wonderful piece of time to have frozen. It causes me to reflect, as it must for you, on how well my time has been spent.

  20. Leigh says:

    Good morning Margaret, Mid-January brought to me a birthday I have long dreaded and I have admitted, only to myself, how hard this “half-century” occassion has hit me where I live. It seemed as if overnight the occurence of ugly age spots, wrinkles, fragile skin, hot flashes and night sweats grew to epic proportions; these and other “old woman” signs have brought me down. Then in the middle of the night, by total accident, I found this website and read this essay. Suddenly I realize how close the the chest I’ve been playing this aging hand and in doing so I risk missing out on the rest of my life. Blessings to you for sharing this beautiful site and your beautiful words. I am thankful.

    1. Margaret says:

      How sweet of you, Leigh, to say so. And happy belated birthday. :) You might like my recent book, too, which is a lot about this age. I do appreciate your saying hello, and especially the kind words about this piece of my writing. Thanks.

  21. Lisa says:

    I picked up your book again this morning, after some worries had me thinking about what might happen in the future (or not). I was reminded of it, because your book was next to another couple of others that I was looking for. I’m trying to (find the courage) to make the leap towards ‘graduation’ after going half-time last year.

    I’m a newsletter subscriber, but came back to your website today, and was so glad to happen on this post. Gardening, nature, and love of plants has been a constant and grounding thread in my life. A lovely essay, and I hope that you have MANY more years of gardening ahead of you than you envisioned then. We’re close to the same age, I think, and even if we change how we garden in the future, there’s lots of time ahead.

    1. margaret says:

      Nice to see you, Lisa, and thanks for all the kind words. Glad to reconnect. I hope you will stay in touch and maybe even visit someday… :)

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