happy accident: a garden for 365 days
EACH FALL, GARDENING FRIENDS CAN BE HEARD swapping tales of garden cleanup and whatever the year’s aberrant weather brought, while also sounding their annual lament: “The season’s almost over,” they say, the level of their voiced despair growing louder as each week passes. “Another year gone.” Maybe I am just stubborn—not a bad quality to have when you work a steep hillside in Zone 5B—but such talk rankles me. I see no evidence that the garden is ever really out of season.
I mean, it doesn’t close up shop or shut it doors on me or to visual enjoyment. The garden centers may need to stand idle a portion of each year, but not the landscape itself. And so, stubbornly and defiantly over a period of 25 years, at first accidentally and lately more intentionally as my knowledge has grown, I suppose I have made a garden for 365 days. Good thing I did, since I now live in it year-round, having left my career and the city in late 2007 after more than 20 years as a weekender in the Hudson Valley-Berkshires area of New York and Massachusetts.
TO MAKE A YEAR-ROUND GARDEN was not my plan, or at least not a conscious one I could have explained when I began digging holes on an overgrown, bramble-infested bit of Columbia County, New York, land with little more to recommend it horticulturally beyond a half-dozen very old apples and a pair of ancient lilacs. My 365-day garden style was actually a happy side effect—a total serendipity—precipitated by my love of birds.
Because birds’ needs vary at different times of year, I unintentionally fell in love with plants that do more than flower momentarily. The genus Viburnum, for instance, became one of my original loves, as I sought summer, fall and even winter fruit to sustain avian visitors who were raising families, traveling onward, or staying warm—and got good fall foliage and springtime flowers, too. It was from plants like these that I learned that the garden was willing to show off all year round—and also attract the maximum number of birds—if only I helped it a little with some strategic decisions.
THE OTHER IMPORTANT THING I know about garden design I learned inadvertently as well, simply because I never sit down in the garden long enough to really view it from outdoors. If I am outside, I am typically doing something—weeding, dragging hoses, mowing. It’s from indoors that I do most of my garden viewing—including long hours staring wistfully in the colder-weather months, a fact that motivated me to make the “offseason” scenery more inviting with massed winterberry hollies or twig willows and dogwoods, or special conifers, on distant axes from my favorite writing seat, for instance.
Making any garden, but especially one for more than a momentary splash in spring or summer, requires a combination of tactics, not all of them horticultural. Yes, you must select good plants with a range of features and peak moments, and site them well—easiest to accomplish if you start by going inside and looking out the window first, imagining what you want as your view before digging any holes—but that’s the intellectual part, the “how-to.”
IBELIEVE TO ACHIEVE a 365-day garden you must also learn how to see—to see beyond the big blue Hydrangea and other obvious showoffs, right down to the shapes of buds and textural complexity of bark, and the way the play of light and shadow, sounds and scents contribute to the living pictures. This critical cultivation of the senses forges a deeper intimacy between garden and gardener, and recognition of the one life cycle “it” and we are both part of.
And that is where what I call the “woo-woo” portion of the gardening equation comes into play: when that connection is made. A dose of “woo-woo” definitely helps, particularly when you are staring out the window into the dead quiet of an old-fashioned snowy winter—quite a different image from the one in May, or even October. That’s what I talk about at the lectures I give: how I made that shift in perception, and at the botanical stars of my 365-day garden. Or just keep logging on here; it’s a 365-day garden, too (and online, we don’t even go dark overnight).