You must remember, garden catalogues are as big liars as house agents.
~Rumer Godden, China Court
My relationship with gardening has been a tumultuous affair from day one, fraught with all the heights and depths of a grande amour. Mainly self-taught, my earliest attempts were characterized by rapturous perusals of garden catalogues, advertising such wonders as heat-tolerant lilacs and humidity-resistant tea roses. As a teenager, I pored over Jackson & Perkins, Park Seed, and White Flower Farm with the avidity other girls my age brought to YM and Seventeen. The pictures and descriptions made my heart pound, and much of my hard-earned babysitting money went to seed packets, bulbs and bareroot crowns. I remember the agony of trying to decide between bleeding heart and lily of the valley, and the exquisite promise of the gardenia-like Rose of May daffodil. If it was old-fashioned, sweetly scented, and so much as mentioned in an L.M. Montgomery novel, I wanted to grow it. I sketched out a plan for a patch of uncultivated earth on the south side of a massive magnolia tree in my parents’ front yard, drawing and re-drawing the placement of my anticipated darlings. Some nights I was so excited about my garden I literally could not sleep.
In all my zeal it never occurred to me that silly things like hardiness zones and growing requirements really mattered all that much. Those charts and things were for other peoples’ gardens, not mine—my garden would be loved into existence, regional limitations be hanged!
Sadly, as may be imagined, a lot of that money would have been better spent as straight fodder for the compost bin (which I’d likewise saved up to buy). For the fact is, no matter how much I wished it otherwise—wished it to the point of believing—English primroses just don’t like Georgia’s early and generally brief springs, and sweet peas absolutely will not grow here unless you plant them in October, period. And nothing—nothing I was interested in growing, at least—was going to flourish in packed red clay. The weeds, on the other hand, seemed to get along just fine. By mid-June, what was left of my garden was completely drowned in chickweed and Johnsongrass.
Amazingly, I was undaunted by this early heartbreak. Quite the contrary, in fact. Which goes to show that even disasters have their metaphorically compostable value. The money I spent that first year made me all the more selective the next—and it also made me take another look at those dratted hardiness zones. I invited a dear friend of my mother’s, who happened to be an accomplished gardener, to advise me on soil amendments and plant recommendations, taking every word of advice most soberly to heart. I mixed topsoil, mushroom compost and sand to help drain that red clay, and I bought plants from a local nursery—special plants, like Strawberry Foxgloves and Veronica and blue Salvia, which also happen to thrive in our area. My friend gave me a slip of a Fairy Rose from her own garden to get things started, and it was the anchor of my planting design. When I married and moved here several years later, that rose came with me, to anchor a new perennial garden at my new home.
The years since have seen considerable extremes of triumph and tragedy in my garden career. Philip built me a kitchen plot soon after we were married, and I will never forget how the outer beds were ringed that second year with the nodding bells of foxgloves I had grown from seed, nursing them through a full three seasons in the basement and on the patio before they were ready for the garden. I had all-but named them, they were so dear to me. Then, of course, there was the summer I had surgery and let the chives go to seed—that was ten years ago, and I am still cursing that bit of oversight as I wrench volunteer chive plants out of the stacked-rock beds.
The spring we got our goats, I planted over a dozen red climbing roses along the pasture fence, burying eggs under them as Tasha Tudor suggested for a good, natural fertilizer. When Philip saw what I was doing, he could hardly stop laughing. “You’ve obviously never had goats,” he chortled.
Alas, I wish I could say I was less stubborn at 34 than I was at 17.
What I said at the time, however, has become a byword in our home.
“My goats won’t eat roses,” I declared loftily. “They have a whole pasture!”
What the raccoons didn’t dig up going after those eggs, Puck and Pansy made short work of. After a few weeks I quit running outside every time I saw their heads snake through the fence slats for a nibble.
“All right, you can have them,” I said in final defeat.
I loved my roses. But I loved my goats more.
Life has held some challenges in the past several years, and between that and extensive travel, my garden has fallen on hard times. The weed situation has become a joke between my teenaged neighbor and me: at least once or twice each summer I’ll hire him to help me bring order out of chaos in the kitchen plot, and we’ll whack and haul for hours at a time.
“You know,” I told him on the hottest day of last July, pausing to lean against the sagging picket gate and drawing a grimy arm across my forehead, “I’m thinking about putting in a swimming pool. Right. Here.”
We both laughed, and he speculated about ways I could turn a profit on noxious indigenous plants. I half-wondered if I should just toss a wildflower mix out there and be done with it.
The trouble with gardening, however, is that once you’re in love—and I mean really in love—it’s for keeps. No amount of discouragement is going to uproot that mysterious tangle of delight and desire from your heart. Like all the great loves in history, love persists, often in the face of impossible odds. At unlooked-for times, and in unlooked-for ways, the passion ignites, and you remember what you knew as a girl: even if the end result doesn’t live up to the promise—even if the promise is unattainable this side of heaven—the desire itself is sweet enough to make up for it.
What’s more, the thing the promise points to is real, and your effort to incarnate it in an orderly vegetable patch or a flowerbed of flaming color, is to claim a bit of Eden on a weed-choked, hard-crusted old earth still dreaming of a beautiful past and a redeemed future.
You rejoice to find that neither drought, nor busyness, nor squash vine borers have power to snuff out that original spark, and that a seed catalogue, or a fleck of green on an otherwise dead-looking hydrangea cutting can still summon a quick rush of tears. Of all things.
Back in January I found my love for gardening kindled once more amid the pages of Christie Purifoy’s quietly radiant book Roots and Sky. Christie’s journey to make a home out of an old house, and her efforts to embody truth with tangible beauty, were so close to my own heart and story it was like having an extended talk with a kindred spirit. I read more than half of it out-loud to Philip, and I’ve lost count how many friends have whipped out their iPhones and bought it on the spot at my enthusiastic recommendation.
I loved—savored—every single word. Midway through, however, I closed the covers and placed it on the bedside table with a sigh of resignation.
“What is it?” Philip wanted to know.
“I’m cleaning out my potting shed tomorrow,” I said. “Christie’s started talking about Brandywine tomatoes, and I just can’t bear it.”
The truth is, Christie’s gentle and joyous reflections on gardening, from seed catalogue to wealth of summer harvest, felt so familiar as to be painful. It had been years since I’d had my own little army of green under a lamp in the basement, years since I’d tasted an heirloom tomato I’d grown from seed. Years since I had enough produce to share with friends, and still enough to put up in the freezer. I knew I couldn’t continue reading her book until I had responded to the very personal and particular unction I had found in its pages.
Accordingly, I fell on the little above-ground basement beneath our sunroom which has served as my potting shed since I moved here, sweeping, tossing, unearthing and rearranging. I sterilized flats and trays, dropped seeds into ranks, wrote labels for herbs and flowers. And tomatoes, of course. Next to the name “Brandywine” I drew a little heart. Always my favorite, it means even more to me now. The memory of it, the promise of it, have tumbled me headlong back into gardening. Thank you, Christie.
Multiple times a day I venture down to the basement to talk to my seedlings, check water levels, re-route tendrils of moonvine. It is the beginnings of a garden, the promise of both nourishment and beauty, framed in a west-facing window. I’ve got my work cut out, there’s no denying it (see below for proof). But spring is gathering her skirts for an honest-to-goodness debut, and as dear old L.M. Montgomery so wisely said, “It is always safe to dream of spring. For it is sure to come; and if it be not just as we have pictured it, it will be infinitely sweeter.”