Maintaining a garden a long conversation with nature



I am a gardener. My front garden is semi-shaded and perennial. The one in the back (a gravel parking lot no more) is perhaps a little less mottled and just as perennial, although I’ve been given a chance to plant a sunflower or two, maybe a red pepper, because, how not to wish for a flower which knows the arc of the sun in the sky or to resist a plant which proposes to pass from green to red with time.

This desire to ripen sunflowers and red peppers is rarely rewarded; I am more amply rewarded with a “harvest” if I transport a potted cherry tomato plant from one sunspot to the next.

I am not a scientific gardener like the one who might live next door to you, saturated with expert knowledge of plants and their inclinations. I am rather uneducated, but as passionate as any gardener whose fingers itch to dig, who converses with plants, soil, humidity and the qualities of light.

I’m also keen to grasp what poet Emily Dickinson recommends as a gardener’s and gardener’s co-responsibility. Rather than encountering a flower “casually,” for example, she suggests encountering a deeper knowledge of the flower as an intricate sentinel in the natural world. Such a meeting includes both the flower’s profound responsibility to bud, to blossom, to “adapt” to changing conditions – “Great Nature must not disappoint” – and the gardener’s responsibility to collaborate in nurturing the growing ambition of the flower.

As spring begins (and how that long winter has sharpened the desire for such beginnings), I am enlivened (sometimes overwhelmed) by the tasks ahead of me as a garden keeper, just as I think the plants themselves must feel the rush of melting and the relentless thrust of the rising rod. (Of course, that’s the anthropomorphism in me.)

And always, I am surprised. A perennial garden, like the one I maintain, offers surprises: which plants will stay; who wander further; which multiply; and which persist as a single plant (even if I ardently wish for its replication).

I learn another surprise that has to do with the fact that I have a special gift for forgetting the names of plants that keep coming back. Maybe it’s the length of winter, maybe it’s a peculiarity of my particular nature, maybe it’s the expression of the life-death-life cycle of the seasons. But, in early spring, as the white snow gives way to black earth, I stutter, draw blanks.

Unhindered by this oversight, however, I point with boundless enthusiasm, relying on whatchamacallit and thingy as my way of naming. As whatchamacallits and gizmos take on more visible proportions, I’m reminded of “Aha, it’s the…”

Immersed in such a pointing, I reconnect with the first sharp articulation of a Hosta’s spear, catch the soft sky blue hidden in the first forget-me-nots that settle along the edges of a winding path – if I have any luck and that the forget-me-nots have decided to return for the May opening. Slowly and sometimes quietly, I am regaining my former fluency in the human languages ​​intended to name such fulfillment.

As the season passes, I regularly think of welcoming growth, becoming as attached to the end of any flower as I was to its beginning, as unwilling to curb any form of its expression.

If a rogue plant comes along, I’m amazed that the grounds around my house can accommodate the unexpected. My garden is thus an accomplice of gardeners of my ilk. I might remember the term ‘wild’ or ‘English’ for its character, although I know full well that wilderness is in the eye of the human beholder and English is not the first language in my garden. I don’t produce the remarkable haze of color and form that comes in an “English garden” like phlox and climbing rose, foxglove and Queen Anne’s lace. If there’s lace in my garden, it’s drip grass (never controllable, always eager to reproduce) and ferns (equally generous in their willingness to branch out).

This process of forgetting and memorizing names, patterns and possibilities reveals how my developing gardener self meets the plants that compose in my yard. I’m still learning that my garden is just begging to be nurtured, truly co-nurtured, supplementing what happens naturally like seed spreading and rooting, rain, wind and sunlight.

This gentle grip encourages me to be moved by the ingenuity of plants as they weave their way through cracks and crevices, to weed wisely, to make room for the creeping charlie, whose tiny mauve flowers echo the lilac blossoms, and to celebrate the bounty of native plants – mock sunflowers, giant hyssop, Jerusalem artichokes, sweet Joe-Pye grass.

I always relearn in this meeting and welcome that all living organisms have the same genes, a common point revealing remarkable biological relationships: it has been said that humans share 98% of their DNA with gladioli; 50 percent with trees; 45 percent with cabbage; 25 percent with daffodils.

As I become more and more fluid in these larger contexts – my conversation about gardening comes alive with understandings of reciprocity and interdependence – my garden also finds its unique expression more freely. I tend to think that in a time when life on the planet is in danger because humans have spoken evil and selfishly, thinking about flowering, talking about the collaborative reality of gardening – engaging with what nature offers unconditionally – has never been more important.


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