Archive for the ‘gardening’ Category

springing to life

April 17, 2017

The cottonwoods in the bosque where I walk have leafed.  Their green reflects the sunlight like water.

Down there in the riverbottom, a few old ones appear unable to join this celebration of spring renewing.  They remind me of a dogwood tree I grew to know back in Charlottesville.  Just as with these wild cottonwoods, I had no idea how long this dogwood tree had been planted.  Many of the plants had found their way into this yard only at the gardener’s behest, but dogwoods being native in Virginia, this one might have been preserved from the original woods the owners had fashioned according to their tastes more than 60 years earlier.

When I first grew acquainted with this dogwood, I noticed the scars that told of how often it had been pruned, a sign someone had tended it carefully.  It stood alone, protected beneath the towering shade of a hemlock, some white pines, and tulip poplars, its base uncluttered by groupings of azaleas or rhododendrons or the vinca that had long slipped the gardener’s controlling hand.  That first spring, it bloomed later than the younger specimens, but eventually it offered a respectable number of four-petaled pink flowers to the general riot of color.  The next spring, however, it was looking less capable.  That was the spring my landlady, the wife of the long-deceased gardener, was no longer on the property.  As I anxiously checked its progress, I intertwined its efforts to push itself back to life with my landlady’s disappearance.  Eventually, from the seemingly dead tree, one slender branch produced a few blossoms, and I cheered for it and for Pam, now residing in an assisted nursing facility, both of them still determined to survive another season.  By the summer, however, it was clear that the tree was too weak to survive another year.  Last spring, no buds arose in answer to spring’s siren song; Pam would be gone as summer turned into fall.

Just last week, as the earth warmed and buds began bursting, I understood how that old dogwood and these old cottonwoods felt.  The strength to start again, to meet the resistance life offers every day with my own will, seemed beyond my capacity.  Watching the red willows late to leaf, I thought of what an affront it would be to my sadness to see leaves on those branches.  The place I’d taken to my heart as a refuge because it reflected an austerity that mirrored my own internal landscape was beginning to reflect a vigor and a joy I did not feel.  More than once, I returned home from my walk disoriented and confused, deeply worried about how no answering movement was occurring within me.

Seeing those cottonwoods this morning, I thought of how their energy isn’t gone.  It was never really theirs; they were simply expressing life’s vitality as a cottonwood does.  Now what was once their responsibility will be taken up somewhere else.  They played a part in the fabric of life, just as the dogwood, the gardener and his wife Pam played theirs.  And until the day I grow too exhausted to summon the strength to join the general chorus, I once again find myself able to step into my role of reflecting what has nurtured my spirit, hoping that my efforts are like the cottonwood’s new leaves, able to honor the energy I’m privileged to share at this moment in time with all the other amazing expressions of life on our Mother Earth.


November 3, 2016

On my morning walk, a wild aster caught my eye. Its insouciant yellow eye, its unapologetic purple reminded me of the year I first fell deeply in love with gardening. I was supposed to be writing my dissertation but instead grabbed a shovel and broke earth.

It was a dangerous time: I was physically restless, gardening catalogues were crowding my mailbox, and flowers were much more beautiful, and quicker to bloom, than a dissertation on Henry James. I had just enough money to keep persistently purchasing plants, and after each nursery trip, when I realized I had too many for my initial plot, I simply worked on expanding it.

That’s what stuck in mind this morning: the memory of the years when I’d gone over the top with my plant purchases, how I’d scramble to find or create new spots for the newest additions. Because I was renting, I knew one day my personal Eden would end, but until then, I told myself, I needed the therapy of digging in the earth and communing with the plants, the “other kingdom.” Ever since, the memory of that frenzied time, and of our sad parting, has kept my gardening lust within healthy bounds.  I’m more likely now to replant a flower that has sowed itself somewhere without the proper design sense than to purchase a new one, more willing to appreciate flowering weeds than to act on the impulse to tend my own plot. The world holds enough blooms without my assistance.

When I lived in Ivy, Virginia, I enjoyed 18 acres that had been lovingly landscaped by a gentleman who’d died long before I arrived. The grounds were so extensive, the plants’ needs so demanding, that much of it was no longer tended. However, its continuing beauty spoke to me of the man who’d loved it.  I could sense how he too had combed through gardening magazines in late summer and how he had haunted nurseries. I could feel the burst of his enthusiasm for spring-blooming crab apples, ornamental cherries, magnolias, and dogwoods, and experience his thrill at discovering the wide variety of fall- blooming camellias and osmanthus.

Until I moved to this property in October 2013, I’d never smelled a fragrance so heavenly as that released by an osmanthus.  In central Virginia, too often the flowers’ bloom is destroyed by autumn rain. This is what happened the second year I was there, and I  walked around the rain-dampened tree sadly, wondering if I’d have another year to enjoy its scent.

A few weeks later, I smelled another, similarly-entrancing fragrance, so distinctive when leaves are falling and days are shortening.  For a few days the scent kept teasing me and doggedly I searched, hacking through the areas where the original plantings were now tangled with obstinate bittersweet, wild grape, honeysuckle, and wisteria. When I found the scent’s source, I laughed out loud. “Oh Alexander,” I said to this long-deceased gardener. “What gifts you’ve left!”  This osmanthus was a different species than the one I’d adored, but apparently hardier, having reseeded itself.  Now growing in patches closer to the road, the bushes liberally shared their sweetness with anyone who took the time to stop and sniff the fall air.

Upon my recommendation, a friend is reading Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire.  This morning as I walked away from that self-planted aster, I recalled what was to me Pollan’s most persuasive argument:  that plants use people as much as we use plants.  Through their usefulness or their beauty, they have succeeded in convincing us to domesticate them, into transporting them from continent to continent.  I thought of what we sow  whenever we decide to plant, whether we nurture the soil, lend a book, behave with kindness, or share a smile.  If we do it right, what blooms outlasts our first efforts and blesses those we will never meet.