When you picture a garden, what comes to mind? Rolling acres of manicured lawn and formal topiary? A painter's palette of blooms untouched by weeds, bugs, or seasonal droop?
Or do you see a few bachelor buttons poking their blue heads above the backyard's wild grass? A small but promising native pine where once there was only the bare ground of a housing development? Three pots of cheery pepperomia on a windowsill?
Too often, our image of what's acceptable as a bare minimum is based on the grandest scenario imaginable. Glossy gardening magazines and catalogs don't help. Many a novice gardener has thrown in the trowel after "failing" to produce the lush and weedless copy of a retouched photo spread.
Am I suggesting that you limit your dream garden? Not at all. If you want to grow sunflowers in the snow or re-create the Boboli Gardens on your balcony, go ahead. But don't let the garden of your dreams close the gate on the garden that you have.
I once knew a man who said he longed to learn piano. So why didn't he? I asked. Because, he explained, the only thing he wanted to play was Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," a work many virtuosos might consider a challenge. What about the basics? I asked. Even Gershwin must have put in his share of five-finger exercises. "No way," my friend responded seriously. "I don't want to fool around. It's 'Rhapsody in Blue' or nothing." So he chose nothing. His very goal kept him both from achieving the goal and from experiencing smaller joys along the way--hearing two notes merge into a chord, playing a melody line by heart.
We risk stunting our own growth as gardeners when we intimidate ourselves with extravagant notions of what a garden "should" be. So let's take a closer look at some of those glossy gardens. They aren't what they seem.
Take the magazine cover depicting a certain celebrity out "working" in her garden. Clad in a pearl-gray skirt and a white silk blouse with billowing sleeves, she is holding a delicate seedling and a small ceramic pot in her immaculately groomed hands. In the background, a lavish rose garden attests to her apparent ability to maintain a floral paradise without breaking her long nails, tripping on her hem, or tearing the heck out of those sheer and copious sleeves.
Then there's the photo essay about the family in the American Southwest whose garden looks like something straight out of "Brideshead Revisited." There's not a cactus, a cottonwood, or a hint of that quintessentially southwestern red soil in sight. Nothing, in fact, to locate the viewer in that unique and magnificent bioregion--a region where the rainfall is considerably lower than the water level required to maintain such fussy blooms.
Perhaps the worst insult to a gardener's intelligence are those articles in which a single gardener--again, dressed more for a state dinner or high tea than for scrabbling around in gooseweed--is credited with the work of achieving a garden on a par with the grounds at Versailles. Tucked discreetly into a caption or at the end of the commentary will be a cursory reference to the professional gardeners and crew who "provided encouragement." One pictures this anonymous team cheering on Mr. or Mrs. Mulchwell from behind the shrubbery.
The simple truth is this: A garden is whatever you can raise. It is that place of conscious relationship with nature in which one becomes apprentice and steward to what grows.
What grows, ideally, will have less to do with fixed models on the gardener's part than with a gradually honed perceptiveness of the garden's own intentions--with the inherent longing of the land--based on a careful reading of soil, microclimate, size, direction of sunlight, history, and other clues.
The word "garden" comes from the Old English verb gardyn
, meaning "to enclose." On one hand, then, we derive the stereotype of the garden as one's own private Eden, a site of order and beauty, closed off from the chaos and brutalities of the outside world.
Yet there is another way to look at it. When you bring daily attention to what blossoms, dies, and returns to the earth, you soon discover that the smallest aspect of the garden holds within it the vast store of nature's wisdom. Seen from this perspective, the cosmos flower is well named, because like any organism, it encloses the greater cosmos, right down to the planetlike electrons that orbit the brilliant suns of its nuclei.
At the same time, intimate involvement with a particular garden increases one's own sense of belonging to nature, of being lovingly enclosed within the unlimited mystery.
By extension, even such an enclosure as the margin of dirt between an apartment block and a sidewalk can, by gardening, be brought back into nature's continuum. I know of a woman who turned just such an unpromising ribbon of soil into a dazzling forest of sunflowers, each one of which was the joy and responsibility of the young people who lived in her apartment complex. Passersby stopped to admire the flowers. Birds came for the seeds. Butterflies were seen for the first summer that anyone could remember. And within the hearts of the younger tenants, the seeds of nature were given room to grow.
Even on the busiest days, I pass through gardens of extraordinary beauty and in unlikely places. Here in our little town, there is a doughnut shop. A few years ago, this shop underwent a change in owners and its business soared. How to explain it? After all, the old owners were pleasant enough, and, no, the cost of doughnuts wasn't slashed. Indeed, the new owner makes them same old way, and the simple furnishings are set up just as before. But the woman who owns the bakery now radiates so much joy that it draws people in like a magnet. I have watched as the grouchiest, grizzled old truck drivers shamble in there, only to emerge wearing smiles they probably haven't used since they were 9 years old.
What does all this have to do with gardening, you ask? Well, it's a curious thing, but recently the owner began filling her shop with cuttings of indoor greenery. Nothing special, just the usual assortment of philodendrons, pepperomia, and so forth. Now you have to understand that the bakery, which is lit by the ubiquitous fluorescent overheads, has only two small windows in the front, and those are shaded by an overhanging arch, hardly an ideal setup for growing anything. Yet within weeks, those plants had, without benefit of chemicals, burgeoned into lush and massive manifestations of the life force. I'm convinced that they, like everyone else, responded to the owner's joy. Not surprisingly, the name of her place is The Sunshine Bakery.
Such, then, is a garden, a place where life bubbles forth like innocent laughter and where the sense of place reflects the essence of the gardener. The foyer of my poet friend Maude Meehan's house is a case in point. Ignoring gardening manuals that dictate which plants go with which, Maude has filled her mini-greenhouse with plants in precisely the manner that she has filled her heart with friends. They may be fussy or self-sufficient, extravagant or timid, so long as they have roots in the earth and a tendency toward the light. The crowning glory of this eclectic garden is a pair of elegant dracaenas. Set side by side, their regal, tapering stems began to entwine following the death of Maude's beloved husband. Sweethearts since Maude was 14, they had been married for 57 years. Of course, one could argue that the plants just happened to entwine, but standing there in that bower of wild harmony, one feels the embrace of a greater truth.
Come into the garden, Maud
For the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
And the musk of the roses blown."- Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Maud"
If a journey begins with a single step, then a garden begins with a single seed. That seed may be a spider plant bringing the energy of nature into an office; a mindfully dug patch of soil ready to receive the first segments of potato; petunias in a south-facing window box, taking the noontime blaze with easy grace; a sweet-pea seed forming itself into the vibrant surprise that will turn a battered trash can and gray fence into elements of beauty's composition. One of the most stunning gardens that ever caused me to catch my breath contained only a single tree. November had turned its leaves to a yellow as potent and dazzling as sudden sunlight in a cloudy sky. Leaves shimmered in the branches and piled in great golden snowdrifts across the lawn.
Whatever grows, evolves. A pot of mint today may lead eventually to that Shakespearean herb garden sought out by horticultural tourists. Yet in one sense, there is no ideal garden for the gardener, only the process of gardening itself. Just as Picasso experimented with new ideas even toward the end of his life, a gardener may follow an impulse toward the rare and exotic. Just as a Zen practitioner may clear away decades' worth of learning in order to return to the beginner's mind, a gardener may spend whole seasons observing the daily progress of a tomato plant.
Meanwhile, our lives are filled with gardens if only we would take the time to look.
For years, I managed to live in California without a car. Every day, I would walk with my son through a park, a town, and the beginnings of a forest to his school, then turn back and head east to the office. The hedgerows and ditches soon became our equivalent of Edith Holden's "Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady." The progress of wildflowers conferred a blessing on each and every weekday. Spring announced itself in the pungent aroma of sage. Even in winter, sparrows and starlings made it clear that thick brown brambles could be a haven.
Now, like most adults, I drive. But walking remains an essential part of the day. With the increasing number of cars and the ever-widening highways, it's been all too easy for nature to get blurred and cordoned off, its very existence threatened. In such a speed-driven culture, gardens themselves may become little more than décor, something to mark the perimeters of a shopping mall or fill in a property quickly to increase its market value. To spend time sitting in a garden, or to take a walk and look at the gardens in one's area, becomes an unthinkable luxury. Instead, we flip through magazines at the doctor's office, glance at scenes of pastoral grandiosity, and decide, "I could never achieve that."
But gardens are all around us. They include the flower that pokes up through an urban sidewalk. The massive tree kids love to climb that someone's great-great-great-grandparent set into the ground as a sapling. A cool grotto in, of all places, the courtyard of your dentist. The stand of "weeds" in your backyard that turns out to be mostly native herbs. A stubble of green moss on a concrete wall after the first spring rains. The bountiful outpouring of geraniums filling the balcony of a studio apartment. A whiff of orange blossom as you pass the post office.
This week, instead of just going about your usual routine, take a little time to notice whatever grows in your area. Harvest those secret gardens--from the daisy in the parking lot to the almond blossoms along the highway--
by making a home for them in your senses. Who knows what seeds of inspiration might spring from the earth of your expanded awareness?