It’s taken my entire life to grow into a gardener.
As kids we played outside. My friends and I dug holes and pinched herbs from the neighbor’s garden for feasts consisting of chives and rhubarb. In pursuit of pie, I carved trails in the blackberry underbrush, returning home bloodied but loaded with berries. In truth, I inflicted a fair amount of havoc on the landscape, stripping the leaves of the cotoneaster to make confetti or digging up my dad’s tidy lawn for a fleeting interest in growing corn.
Pleasantly tired and thoroughly filthy, I fought off dusk and parental calls to come indoors at the end of the day, begging for just a few more minutes in the outdoor kingdom that was my neighborhood. It should be noted that the only screens were the ones that slammed on every backdoor.
Today my garden remains a place of relative freedom provided I don’t try to resist zonal realities, or start too many seedlings in the rush of spring, or install a thirsty plant in my sandy soil, or… or… or… It’s a place where I can play with color, choreograph blooms, capture light in waving grasses, and even conjure food—although that last item is presently out for review.
But somewhere along the garden path, outdoor play turned to work. These days, responsibilities and deadlines barely leave time for keeping up with basic garden maintenance, like weeding or pruning the pleached crabapple hedge (again). I don’t really mind weeding, except for that red clover-like plant that loves to colonize beds and gravel pathways. But managing the shape of those crabapples is boring and tedious — I might as well be dusting or vacuuming.
Often, and hopefully with some degree of modesty, I tout the wonders of living in the Pacific Northwest. This land of fertile soil and a benign climate is home to more horticultural heroes and zealots than you can shake a choice hard-to-find, double-flowered, very expensive, (fill-in-the-blank) at. I was in good company during those years when I owned a small specialty nursery and any number of perennials, vines and sexy seasonal (read: tender) plants had a habit of following me home. Until it nearly killed me.
Along with my stint as a nursery proprietor, those halcyon days of horticultural acquisition are long buried and gone, as are most of those tender plants. It took a while, but I finally got it. There’s more to gardening than purchasing plants and renovating beds over and over trying to make it all fit. Much more.
I routinely fret about a planet on fire, poisons leaching into our water system, and waste — so much waste. When was the last time you tallied all those plastic pots our beloved plants are sold in. Or wondered what to do when yet another hose springs a leak and must be replaced. You can only patch a leaky hose so many times before your patches have patches.
Don’t even get me started on a world in which a new shovel costs less than the replacement handle for the one I already have. I know what you’re thinking: Upgrade the quality of your tools fair gardener and maybe they’ll last longer. It’s true, but—waste. So, I stick to my trusted battery of old digging and raking implements. Although, fed up with constantly losing hand tools, this year I splurged on a swanky leather holster that probably cost as much as replacing my favorite Felcos.
When did I grow tired, old, and more than a little bit cranky? And why won’t my perfectly healthy strawberries produce blossoms – let alone berries?
I tell myself that my garden needs me, at least my platonic ideal of a pleached hedge needs me— apparently at the top of a ladder wielding clippers. But more accurately, I need my garden. My garden reminds me to stop and pay attention. It gives me moments of beauty and a way to actively support the wellbeing of the environment around me. My garden wears me out, which is a signal to rest. The tending is reciprocal.
Finally, gardens are a relatively gentle way to measure time. Allowed to finally set down roots and establish, my beloved Eucryphia x ‘Nymansay’, installed as a lightweight youngster in a 5-gallon container more than 25 years ago, now towers above the roofline of my two-story house. Every summer beginning about now, thousands of white flowers cover the glossy evergreen foliage and the whole tree hums with the buzzing soundtrack of happy bees. Every year I wait for the moment when I can watch a summer snow as drifting petals fill the air and cover the ground. I’ll think about raking tomorrow.