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Recreation for a Lifetime
I met a young horticulturist at a botanical garden recently, and we spent several minutes chatting about the plants she helped to tend. We were meeting on common ground-as two garden lovers-and we both chattered on excitedly, sharing ideas about culture and information about little-known species that we'd both learned to love. But when she mentioned that she grew one of these species on the windowsill of her parents' house, where she lives, and that she hoped someday to have a garden of her own, I suddenly felt every one of my fifty-plus years. I wondered how she viewed me, dreading the idea that she saw me as a contemporary of her father (which I was). I wanted to seem cool, but then I had an awful thought: Good God, I've got houseplants older than this girl!
I mentioned this encounter to my friend Jill Hagler, who is halfway in age between me and the young gardener. "It's just a state of mind," she assured me. "All gardeners are young at heart." And it's true: all the gardeners I know always seem to have one foot in the future, wondering what gifts they' ll get from the garden tomorrow, next week, and next year. Gardening truly is a lifetime recreation, one that can keep us fresh and on our toes (or on our knees) until the end of our days.
Among my older-than-the-young-gardener houseplants are twin specimens of the cycad Zamia furfuracea, which were probably five or ten years old when I bought them in 1975. They traveled with me from my first college apartment in Providence, Rhode Island, to Manhattan and then to Brooklyn. Now the twins live in New Jersey, and their longevity helps put our history of gardening together into perspective. Ancestors of these conifers populated the earth for millions of years before flowering plants evolved. The fact that this genus has been around for so long points out how very short thirty, forty, or fifty years is, and how my time on earth spent in the garden is really only an instant in the scheme of things.
I may call thirty years an instant, but in this age-which might be called the "Age of Impatience"-that span of time may as well be forever to most people. We get impatient if the car in front of us pauses imperceptibly at a red light. We watch the interminable seconds tick away on the microwave, and get irritated if the computer takes a few extra nanoseconds to accomplish a task that, even five years ago, would have seemed incomprehensible. Technology has compressed time so greatly that we have come to expect miracles to be over and done with almost before we even notice they have begun.
Gardening is an antidote to this manic pace. Gardens aren't created overnight; a good garden takes time to develop, and then can be made and remade, over the course of a lifetime and even into succeeding generations. Plants don't mature in nanoseconds. They follow the pace of the natural world, which for most of time has been the only measure of time: the passage of days and seasons, the annual cycle of death and rebirth. The late May Sarton, whose intimate journals are full of wisdom about life in the garden, wrote: "Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow cycles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace." Tending a garden can be a continual lesson in letting go, of accepting what is offered and appreciating the moment-because a moment later, what you see could disappear. How many times has some wonderful thing become a casualty of a thunderstorm or been decapitated in an unfortunate dog-walking incident? The list of possible accidents is endless, and even the plants themselves have a built-in brevity: Hemerocallis aren't called daylilies for nothing.
Unfortunately, many promoters of garden products hope to cash in on our cultural impatience, offering "new" ideas for instant color, instant effect, instant solutions. For many people, quick-kill herbicides in disposable spray bottles have replaced hand-weeding tools; the annoying whine of the electric- or gas-powered blower has largely obliterated the gentle "scccrick" of the rake. Gardening magazines try to be about "The Garden" without getting into the dirty business of "gardening," featuring articles with seductively impossible titles such as "101 Easy Ideas for a No-Maintenance Landscape." One Internet purveyor (now out of business) perhaps epitomized this attitude, offering pre-chilled daffodil and tulip bulbs to plant in the spring for "instant" bloom. The company claimed that this would allay the "sense of failure" gardeners feel when they plant bulbs in the autumn and have to wait months to see the rewards of their efforts.
This attitude devalues the appeal that gardening holds for many of us. It assumes that making a garden is as simple as putting up Christmas decorations: buy a few gewgaws, plug them in, turn them on, and then move on to the next activity. It promotes decorator gardens full of "colorful plant material," which are "installed" (as if they were appliances) to one-up the Joneses and then ignored until they need to be freshened up and dusted off for the next party. Yes, there will always be fashions, fads, and trends in gardening. We only need to look at a Victorian-era seed catalog to see all the plants that have come and gone and come back into favor again. But gardening itself will never be a fad, as the long-term involvement of so many of us makes amply clear.
While a beginning gardener might fall for these advertising gambits, anyone who has gardened for even a little while knows that good things don't come easily, and rarely in an instant. What so many jaded marketers fail to imagine is the rich relationship between the gardener and the garden, how dedicated we can be to our favorite pastime. They don't see that many of us actually like getting our hands in the dirt. They don't understand that looking ahead, anticipating future rewards that will sprout from our efforts of the moment, is part of the wonderment of gardening for us. We don't want to get out of the garden in less time. Most of us want more time to spend puttering in our beds. I'd like to ask those garden-product executives: Would you have bothered to learn how to play tennis, or golf, so you could play just one game and then retire your rackets and clubs to the attic?
Have you ever seen a garden trowel used only once?
Garden of the Mind
It is ironic that when the garden we dreamed of creating finally seems finished, the picture keeps changing. Other artists don't have this problem. A painting, a sculpture-these are worked until the creator decides the piece is finished, at which point it doesn't continue to mutate into something else. Displayed in a climate-controlled museum, such a work of art will remain basically unchanged for hundreds of years. But gardeners can't control the climate. On the contrary, it controls us, determining what we can do and how long we can stand to be out there doing it. A garden can't be protected from the elements, since those elements are what it needs to survive. A garden is alive, with plants in different stages of life. Some are growing old and senescent, some reaching a distinguished maturity, and some merely babes in the woods, just starting to spread their branches and roots.
Because of this endless mutability, gardening-more than any other art-is as much about the process as the end result. It can be disconcerting to visit a garden deemed "historically significant" and fixed in that arbitrary time, as if gardeners of historic importance would not have continued to evolve-ripping up their beds and replanting them based on new knowledge, new plants, even new fashions. How a famous architect chose to arrange a living room might be insightful, but outdoors, the garden is a "living" room that never has a set moment in time.
"In a garden, you learn that nothing is static," says Juana Flagg, who has gardened on the same Connecticut property for nearly half a century. "There' s no such thing as instant landscaping. It's always changing, never ending."
When I began the Brooklyn garden described in my book The Natural Shade Garden, I thought I would design it, plant it, and enjoy it. I moved in too late in the fall to do anything outside, so I had all winter to plan and sketch and dream-and I dreamed big. I wanted a folly-a combination classical ruin and summer house. I needed a barbecue area, a dog run, a pond with a bridge. I wanted thousands of different plants-trees and shrubs, vines and groundcovers, annuals, perennials. I wanted it all-all in a backyard measuring 21 by 50 feet.
Eventually it didn't matter what I got or didn't get, because after ten years, I was still doing it-trying different plants, digging a larger pond, pruning, moving things around. The only thing that slowed down my delighted tinkering was starting another garden somewhere else, after which the one in Brooklyn became a somewhat neglected adolescent. But it was also the babysitter and parent of a number of plants for the new garden in New Jersey, some of which had earlier been part of my rooftop garden in Manhattan. Think of those Zamias, tagging along with me through four gardens.
Some people grow attached to a piece of land and could never dream of moving elsewhere. It is unlikely that landscape designer Tom Rooks will move from his acres in Michigan, or that Juana Flagg, nearing eighty, will be looking to start a new garden elsewhere. But other gardeners would happily move to a site that appealed to them more than the one they now tend. The longing is often for a garden that has whatever the present one lacks: more sun or more shade; more space, or, as we grow older, perhaps less space; a patch of woods, a meadow, a pond, a stream. Many of us have our "dream gardens," but if that dream ever materializes, the reality of it may not equal our fantasies, and we might begin to long for something else.
A friend once asked if I thought I would grow old in my New Jersey garden, and was surprised when I said that I didn't know. I love this place-the river, the island, my neighbors-but I am already dreaming of the next place. I've moved several times in my life, and I don't miss any of my former "gardens"-my menagerie of houseplants in Rhode Island and their summering place in the light well of a tenement building; the 80-by-100 foot rooftop in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood; the Brooklyn backyard.
One reason I don't miss these gardens is because I've learned, through the years, that my plants can come with me. That many plants, or pieces of them, can be uprooted and moved, either across the yard or across the country, is something that few beginners are taught, and few things in gardening terrify them more. As with pruning (which many beginners see as an act akin to mutilation), confidence in digging and moving plants comes with experience. As we have our first tentative success, and see the plant (which we once held in our hands, exposed roots dangling in the air) now thriving in its new location, we learn that plants are more resilient than we first thought, with a will to live that sometimes even overcomes our ignorance or mistakes.
I know many gardeners who, when selling their homes, have "dig rights" written into the sales contract. My friend Judy Glattstein had eighteen months to prepare for a move from Connecticut to western New Jersey, in which time she methodically lifted and potted thousands of woodland plants. "I'll be damned," Judy asserted, "if I'll let someone dig a swimming pool through my trillium!" For a while she and her husband owned houses in both places, and Judy made dozens of trips in a station wagon loaded down with plants and five-gallon buckets brimming with her homemade compost. When the Connecticut house was finally sold and moving day arrived, five wardrobe boxes holding shrubs too large to fit in the car were among the most precious cargo in the van.
Of course, a garden isn't a library of plants that can be transported, book by book, to be shelved in another location. A garden is the plants, the site, and all the interactions between them. But beyond this literal garden-beyond real time, real space, and real dirt-is a place we might call "the garden of the mind." The most transplantable parts of a garden are the memories, experience, and knowledge that we gleaned from it, all of which we carry with us in our hearts and souls, whether we move from place to place or stay planted in one garden all our lives.
Life Is Too Short
My wealthy gardening friend Helen Stoddard always planted little trees. She planted a stick of a magnolia when she was seventy-five, and her friends shook their heads in disbelief. "Oh Helen," they chided, "why plant a small tree!" They were inferring two things: that Helen was frugal, but more, that she would never live long enough to see this tree in its glory.
Helen always pretended not to hear them.
I visited Helen shortly before she died of the cancer she had lived with for decades. I found her sitting on a garden bench, in the shade of that magnolia tree.
What if she had listened to her friends?
Often, when I want to plant something in the garden and come up with a dozen reasons why I shouldn't-"It's too late! You're too old! You'll never live to see it mature! It won't work there! Why bother?"—I think of Helen, and I give myself permission to do it. Not long ago, I bought a tree I had long wanted, Sequoiadendron giganteum 'Hazel Smith'. This is definitely a plant for future generations: if it ever reaches maturity, it won't be until the year 3000. But given another thirty years or so, it might achieve some stature, and if I am as lucky as Helen Stoddard and can still get around the garden then, I'll pull up a chair and relax in its shade. But I don't even need to wait that long. Already, 'Hazel Smith' has grown twice as tall as the day I planted it, and that makes me happy, right now.
Life is too short. So if we do what we want, when we want to, and if what we do is right and good, the future, like the trees, will take care of itself.