recalling a long-ago june birthday

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.

  1. Elaine says:

    Truly a wonderful birthday essay, Margaret. “I need more time” is a shared mantra. Have a wonderful, happy birthday!

  2. margaret says:

    @Scott: Welcome, and thanks for your nice b’day message. Hope Wave Hill is faring better in this heat and stormy weather than I am!

    @ All of You: Thanks for the good wishes…and sorry you temporarily go to spam when you comment right now. Our migration to a new server left us a few bits to tweak, but I mean no offense by having you go there temporarily…and pull you right out, between rounds of weeding outside.

  3. scott says:

    Dear Margaret,
    I miss you; and Happy Birthday. I hope your next 54 years are as wild and productive as the first, with a good measure of health and peace folded into the mix.

  4. boodely says:

    Happy, happy birthday.

    I scored a copy of your book at the Strand and read this essay just last week. I’m 37, without progeny, and about to own my first garden. It made me cry. Thank you.

  5. Karen T says:

    Happy birthday, Margaret. I think it’s the case that there are those who put their nurturing into children, those who are more interested in nurturing animals, and those like you (and me) who are here to nurture plants. And, ok, maybe a few animals. The world needs plants — and birds and bees and butterflies — at least as much as it needs children, right?

  6. Terri Clark says:

    Happy Birthday, Margaret, and I do hope you are surrounded by friends and family to raise a glass together today in your honour. Fear not, your progeny are your numerous gardening brothers and sisters,who so often express themselves here, and all that you have created around you.
    What better legacy than to love the earth and all nature’s bounty, whether weed or worm. All in its place, all as it should be (whether we like it or not at times.)
    I predict a long life for you with many more springs and all other seasons unfolding. Like all artists, those who are passionate about their work seem to get more time on earth, even though it is never enough.

  7. Layanee says:

    Margaret: Happy birthday! We were born the same year but, happily, you are older! LOL I will be 54 on 11/14 and I will celebrate with you today-the best is yet to come. My serious gardening started in my early 30’s. I enjoyed this essay and as I was walking around the garden this morning I could only see what was, as yet, unfinished. Tomorrow morning I am just going to glory in the beauty that surrounds so, thanks for that reminder!

  8. GardenGuyKenn says:

    Happy Birthday Margaret! We, your cyber family and friends raise our glass (or trowel..) to you in celebration of YOUR day. Thank you for sharing it with us!

  9. margaret says:

    Welcome, Marion. Be sure to say hello. (That’s my sister’s name, by the way, and spelled like that, with an “o”.)

  10. Marion says:

    Hi Margaret,
    Happy Happy Birthday! Greetings from NYC & Catskill. I’m looking forward to seeing your garden again at this weekend’s Open Days. Thank you for opening it to the public.

  11. chey says:

    Happy Birthday Margaret!! I love the shot at the beginning of your post, under the disheveled umbrella.Absolutely adorable:).

  12. Trish says:

    Hi Margaret, hope you had a great birthday! you still have lots of time! – I will be 65 next month, still going strong and plan to keep gardening. I have a 90 year old friend that is still in her garden every day. You still have a long time to garden! enjoy!

  13. Eddie From Tennessee says:

    Belated Wishes to our Birthday Girl from your adoring fan in Tennessee! Happy, Happy Birthday Margaret!

  14. Janet Hall says:

    Margaret: What a lovely piece. More time indeed! I never thought of it before, but my plants are also my only progeny.

    Two thoughts on being a gardener of “a certain age.” (and I’ve got a few years on you, Margaret.) Thomas Jefferson said “I am an old man but I am a young gardener.”

    And in the collection of Katherine White’s garden writing from the New Yorker, (“Onward and Upward in the Garden”) published after her death, her husband E. B. White described how in the last October of her life, she stood with paper and pencil making plans for the next season, or as he put it, “calmly plotting the resurrection.”

    Perhaps that’s what keeps us all going, the thought of another spring and new life in the garden.

    I have been heard to say my plans are to fall face forward in the poppies and turn to compost.

    Happy birthday and thank you for sharing with all of us.

    Janet Hall

  15. margaret says:

    All of your comments have really been touching, and I thank you all. What could a girl want other than good wishes, a sense of community and some literary inspiration to boot. You all made it a happy b’day to me.

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