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The Southern Garden
By Lydia Longshore
Bulfinch PressCopyright © 2001 Southern Accents Magazine
All right reserved.
IntroductionRalph Waldo Emerson wrote: "A garden is like one of those pernicious machineries which catch a man's coat-skirt or his hand, draw in his arm, his leg and his whole body to irresistible destruction."
I don't know why I love gardening. There are so many perils along with the well documented rewards shown in the pages of Southern Accents. There are insects and disease and flood and drought. In fact, as I worked on this book in the summer of 2000, Alabama experienced its worst drought in years. It didn't rain from June until October. We were subject to water restrictions, and I and many others went to great lengths to water our gardens-saving my children's bathwater, for instance, and toting it downstairs to water my roses by the bucketful. I fear some of the summer's disappointment seeped into the text, even though I tried to focus on the images of perfect gardens we've shown in Southern Accents. Oddly enough, many of my plants survived, and I learned that they didn't need the daily watering I had treated them to prior to the drought. I know they are stronger now, with more vigorous roots and an ability to survive on their own.
Like all gardening lessons, this one had reverberations in my own life. When I went through a divorce, I threw myself into the garden, trying to bring order and beauty to the bleakest of domestic moments. In my new home, trying to create a stable family life for my children, I planted my tiny yard with only my favorite plants, setting down roots, trying to bloom. Some flourished, others faltered. My sedum, which had thrived in previous gardens, died altogether, something I found especially disheartening. And yet we survived the drought. My buddleia is gorgeous, roses fill vases in my house all summer long, and I can cook nearly anything with the herbs outside my kitchen door. I tended my garden, and my garden nourished me right back, reassuring me that I could rebuild my life, that I could establish structure, that I could provide.
I believe that cooking and gardening are closely connected and that if you love one, you probably love the other. I have always loved both, to an unreasonable degree. The thing I miss most about married life is having someone to cook for. Even in our darkest days, I prepared osso bucco for my husband, although we ate in stony silence. The advantage of gardening is that you can do it solely for your own pleasure. And by and large, gardening is a solitary pursuit.
I was an only child until I was seven years old. Growing up on a hillside in Birmingham, I saw few children in my neighborhood, and the houses didn't lend themselves to neighborly interaction. Instead, I lived in our big yard, ranging over three terraces carved into the hillside. On the upper level, azaleas and dogwoods made a woodland garden, where we buried a succession of beloved dogs, cats, and a few fish. At the street, English ivy covered a steep slope. But near the house, in the central section, I found a world of miniature miracles.
In the spring, the crocuses would appear suddenly, their juicy purple buds promising all sorts of robust flowering. I made it my mission to clear detritus from around the shoots, willing the buds open with all the fervent enthusiasm of a nascent gardener. A stash of oyster shells, probably from some previous owner's oyster roast, that I discovered under the ivy became homes for roly-polies when I lined them with moss. I always assumed the shells were left behind when the ocean receded from the land, a notion I did not question until I was embarrassingly old. With exacting scrutiny, I combed every inch of the garden, examining the plants in minute detail, filled with the marvelous immediacy of each branch and leaf.
I was possessed of a boundless enthusiasm for yard work, wearing my hands down to blisters and dismaying the few friends I invited over to share in the fun. I would help my father rake leaves wearing only my eyelet-edged underpants, in my view perfectly equivalent to Daddy's shirtless work attire. Though today I dress more appropriately for gardening, I still have an unreasonable fondness for the unpleasant tasks of maintenance. Weeding, raking, pruning-heaven.
Which is why I particularly admire the gardeners we feature in Southern Accents. They don't take shortcuts. They don't look for low-maintenance solutions to gardening's dilemmas. When a hurricane comes along and wipes out forty-five rosebushes, they go right out and buy sixty new ones. When one area of their vast estate is perfect, they turn to the next acre. They are especial]y hard to reach by phone, because they are always in the garden. And when they're in the house, I know exactly what they're doing-they're cooking.
The pleasures of home life come not through what we acquire and how we display it. Gratification comes rather through the tasks we've accomplished, the environment we've created, the drought endured.
Excerpted from The Southern Garden by Lydia Longshore Copyright © 2001 by Southern Accents Magazine. Excerpted by permission.
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