After a decade and a half of apartment living, last year was my first as a gardener in earnest. My backyard, not much bigger than a picnic blanket, is flagstone except for an odd patch of earth off to one side. I planted what I could there and put the rest in containers. With each seedling, each handful of (borrowed) compost, I was certain I was doing everything wrong.

Sure enough, six bushy tomato plants produced exactly two knobby green fruit, good for a salad garnish at best; the basil grew woody-stemmed and tiny-leaved (forget homemade pesto); the sedum got trampled by the dog.

But when I stepped outside at night, the scented geranium infused the air with lemony smells, the sweet alyssum spilled from pots like sea foam, the moonflowers hovered on the fence as luminous as milk glass. I'd made mistakes, yes, but what thrived was enough to make opening the kitchen door a celebration.

Joyce McGreevy understands this journey from uncertainty to surprise. As she recounts in "Gardening by Heart: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Garden," she too has begun a garden with little more than some shaky self-confidence.

"Now and then," McGreevy recalls, "I would start a garden, with no clue as to what grew well where, enjoying a fortnight of ill-tended verdure before the brown reality set in. Invariably, I concluded that I was just not a gardener and had best leave the mysterious art to its natural-born initiates."

And then her mother--a gardener--died, and nothing was the same. An uncle suggested McGreevy take a cutting from one of her mother's plants. She chose rosemary, "the scent of which has, even now, the power to conjure up my mother's kitchen in vivid detail, right down to the feel of the Irish linen tablecloth and the companionable music of my parents' conversation."

Rosemary, she learned later, is traditionally the herb of remembrance. "The lessons of the garden," she writes of this discovery, "had begun."

It's lessons such as this--a plant can connect us with people as much as with the earth, indeed it can heal--that McGreevy passes along in her encouraging, humorous, and beautifully written tribute to the ability of a garden to transform perception, ground one's being, and offer solace and rejuvenation to the soul.

"A garden is whatever you can raise," she says in one of her gentle cheers. "It is that place of conscious relationship with nature in which one becomes apprentice and steward to what grows."

While McGreevy clearly knows her viburnum from her verbena by now, this isn't a how-to book in any sense that would make readers feel inadequate or overwhelmed. As far as she's concerned, if you don't know how to cut back a rose bush, you'll learn--by trial and error, taking a class, or reading another book. More important is that you get out in the garden, if you have one, or create one, if only on a windowsill or in a pot.

"The point of all this," she writes, "is that somewhere in your gardening repertoire, as in the wider garden of your life, lies the wonder plant whose magic precisely matches your ability to tend it. A friend of mine insists that she is not a gardener because the only things she can grow are petunias. But I guarantee you've never seen petunias until you've seen these petunias."

McGreevy doesn't push the "wider garden of your life" metaphor to the straining point. She's equally interested in practicalities--from recipes, enjoyed outdoors if possible ("When was the last time you heard someone reminiscing fondly about the magical evenings they spent eating take-out pizza in front of the TV?"), to suggestions for getting children interested in tending the earth, such as sending seed packets as gifts instead of money.

Gardening, McGreevy concludes, "speaks to a deep-seated (deep-seeded?) desire to experience the real, the essential, the astonishingly possible. To garden is gradually to give up control, to fall literally to one's knees and come into closer and closer contact with the tremendous and often bewildering beauty of the living world."

As good a definition of encountering the sacred as any I've seen.

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