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.