Why We Garden: Cultivating a Sense of Place

Why We Garden: Cultivating a Sense of Place

by Jim Nollman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466881945
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 09/23/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Jim Nollman is a gardener and author of two previous books. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Friday Harbor, Washington.

Jim Nollman is a gardener and author of two previous books. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Friday Harbor, Washington.

Read an Excerpt

Why We Garden

Cultivating a Sense of Place

By Jim Nollman

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1994 Jim Nollman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8194-5



The Lord made the heavens and Earth in six days. On the seventh day he rested. Jews, following God's example, also rest and pray on the last day of the week, although more precisely, the Hebrew Sabbath spans Friday dusk through Saturday dusk. Jews regard their Sabbath as both an end and a beginning.

Early Christians held their prayer meetings on Sunday morning. Today the church services of most Christian denominations are still held on the morning of the first day of the week. Some Christian scholars assert that their Sunday Sabbath conveys a new beginning. It celebrates the resurrection of Christ following the symbolic ending of the crucifixion.

The roots of Western religion, including a good deal of its rituals concerning death and rebirth, lie in ancient Middle Eastern ceremonies for sowing and the harvest. Passover and Easter both commemorate a time of pain leading to rebirth. And both coincide with the traditional sowing of seeds at the spring equinox. Yom Kippur and Sukkoth coincide with the harvest, each in its own way. Both Christmas and Chanukah invoke the winter solstice. Each offers the hope of light and the renewal of the Earth at the moment of greatest darkness.

Garden endings invoke garden beginnings. However, January is no more the first month of the gardening year than an American Saturday is precisely the last day of the Jewish week. The gardener's calendar is always a moving target, altering its face each year to satisfy the exigencies of weather. If a precise moment must be assigned, let it be a moment defined by darkness and light: the winter solstice.

The solstice marks the longest night. It is a time of rest, the Northern Hemisphere's Sabbath, the gardener's own Sabbath. There is nothing to plant, nothing to harvest. By the time of the solstice, a plant's living essence has completed its journey downward from leaf tip to stem to root, down and down into the nest of the soil toward the fulfillment of dormancy. The surface of the garden beds stares up at us empty, covered over with a blanket of hay or sawdust to better hold the topsoil through the incessant rains, blustery winds, and occasional blizzards of January. This void at ground level tends to guide the human senses upward. We find ourselves watching the skies. The heavens seem to acknowledge our attentions, providing us with some of the wildest storms of the year.

I especially cherish the bleak silence of cold, windless nights. Not a frog to be heard anywhere. The Irish junipers and the Ellwood cypresses rise tallest above the otherwise empty garden beds. Their presence illuminates neither beginnings nor endings, but rather the stark permanence of ongoing life amid the winter's void. A lone boulevard cypress seems to be at its most prepossessing at the moment its curlicue blue-gray needles lie bent down by a heavy hoarfrost. I appreciate anew the native Douglas firs and jack pines for their ability to redefine the architecture of the borderline where cultivated garden meets the wild forest. To this gardener, a Christmas tree seems the solstice's version of a vase full of summer roses. This year it is a living tree, a noble fir, possessed of a perfect radial symmetry. More often than not, I have bad luck transplanting a live tree back into the ground. Its presence in my living room offers a reminder about the gardening challenges of this new year.

Because the solstice marks a birth, the days that follow display the first subtle signs of a new gardening year. I have gazed longingly at witch hazels displaying their stringy, salmon flowers in mid-January at a local nursery. In my own garden, it is to the hellebore genus that I turn for the first glimmer of yearly renewal. Most of the species bloom consistently before the first of February. One species in particular, the Corsican hellebore, seems like a samurai warrior of a flowering perennial. The plants bear sharp saw blades all along the edges of their leathery evergreen leaves. And every part of the plant is deadly poisonous to human beings, which may also help explain why no insect holes ever mar the surface of its luminous leaves. Yet how could it be otherwise? In a winter garden stalked by desperately hungry plant eaters, it is only the hellebore's impenetrable armor of sharp barbs and deadly toxins that allows it to indulge its unorthodox devotion to the cold January sun. The greenish-creamish bloom of the hellebore is always the first flower of the year to open. It is almost always in flower on New Year's Day.

Attending any birth signifies a fresh recognition of all things tiny in the garden. My daily walk among the beds is primarily marked by a close observance of the buds. Camellias and star magnolias are already starting to swell, although neither bush will bloom before mid-March. The bloodred stalks of a favored herbaceous peony have already started to break ground. They will remain there, seemingly inert, paying no mind whatsoever to the hardest of freezes, peeking just above soil level right into March. I stare at them and smile, knowing that one day soon they will suddenly start to sprint upward toward the light. The plant eventually bears many bloodred flowers, although none before their time in late April.

During this coldest time of the year, the empty beds make me especially aware of a gardening constant: there is always more life below the soil surface than above it. Deep beneath my feet the soil remains a constant fifty-five degrees. 'Tis the season of root hairs, millipedes, grubs.

The One-Tree Garden

It caught my eye from fifty feet away. A two-foot-tall potted-up sequoia tree stuck away in the back of a display of ornamental conifers at a local nursery. The nursery's fall inventory sale was in full swing. Conifers in two-gallon pots were going for just about the same price as leftover perennials in four-inch pots. I'd already picked out three little ground-hugging trees to use as foundation plantings along the south face of my house. I hesitated in front of the sequoia, knew its identity without searching for the tag. I stared at it and conjured up a vision of the full-grown sequoias I'd once seen hiking through the southern Sierra in California. The largest of those wild giants grew as big around as my garage. Even the medium-sized trees had a base diameter of six to eight feet.

Now I stooped down to examine the tree a little more closely. I liked its color, a deep green with blue highlights. I admired the succulent droopiness of its scaly, bristly, barbed needles and wondered what botanists were looking at when they aligned this species with the very different-appearing coast redwood. Although sequoia and redwood certainly share a deeply gouged red bark as well as a potential for large size and great age, the giant sequoia's needles seem to have more in common with a cypress than with a redwood. They grow like scales, integral to the branch itself, whereas individual redwood needles are much more distinct, each one jutting from the wood of a branch like ribs off a fish's spine. Each coast redwood needle is soft, stubby, vaguely like a hemlock's. Or a more pliable version of a grand fir.

I picked up the peat pot and brought it back to the counter with the rest of my choices. Standing back a moment to study my little collection, the sequoia looked out of place — as if I'd gone ahead and stuck a baby brontosaurus in among all the cute toy poodles that pass these days for foundation plantings.

Back home again, the sequoia stayed in its peat pot while I quickly planted all the rest of the conifers near to the house. I placed the sequoia in a semishady spot on the front porch where I got to look at it every time I entered or exited the house. It was out of the rain. Two weeks passed. The weather was turning wet, cold. I needed to act on the tree. One afternoon I ventured out into a drizzle to deposit the tree, still in its peat pot, into a deep bed where the tree would grow to accent a nearby rose bed. A month passed. One night I read that giant sequoias grow slowly for a year or two but then start spurting five or six feet a season. The roses weren't going to be very happy about that. The next morning I got out my garden fork and levered the peat pot out of its hole. I placed it back on the porch, out of the rain and close to the front door. Now I felt a tinge of guilt every time I either entered or left the house. A week later the temperature dropped below freezing. I had to do something. I picked up the tree in its pot and started walking the property line. I found a spot along the west boundary of the property. It was at the edge of a forest, a bit south of a small apricot and cherry orchard. I dug a hole, dropped it inside, and then backfilled it.

I watched the tree from a chair by a window in my living room through November. December came and went. I realized one afternoon in January that the sequoia would definitely start cutting off the sun to the orchard within fifteen years. That duration may seem an eternity to some, but it's not such a long time for someone passionately growing fruit trees. The next day I dug up the potted sequoia and heeled it into an empty vegetable bed for the duration of the winter. If the tree was out of sight, it was never out of mind.

Two months passed. Spring was imminent. Buds started appearing on the willows. The little blue ground irises flowered first, as they always do. The daffodils and then the tulips broke ground. One afternoon in March I lifted the sequoia out of the ground. Its pot was soggy, deteriorating. I carefully placed the tree in a wheelbarrow and pushed it down the hill, far away from the house, through a section of fir forest undergrown with a dense thicket of salal. I stopped when I reached a rise next to a small pond located in the middle of an alder bottom.

The pond had been dug by a bulldozer in three noisy hours the previous September. It was twelve feet wide and long, just under eight feet deep. It served my family as a secondary water catchment and had, in fact, filled to the brim by January. I had planted the dug-up clay sides of the dam in clover to keep it from eroding. The only time I ever visited the pond was to turn on a water pump.

I positioned the pot on a low mound of topsoil skillfully shaped to look natural by the very fastidious bulldozer operator. The sequoia seemed a good choice for the site. Here was a tree quite capable of fending off any incursion from the rampant alders. It might even flourish, insinuating its roots deeply through the mounded topsoil, eventually drawing its water needs from the boggy alder grove that lay just twelve feet away.

I placed the sagging pot on the mound, walked back ten feet, and turned around to admire the tree. Unfortunately, however I looked at it, the site seemed as much a gulag as a garden. Despite the early spring growth of clover, the ground around the tree still looked ripped up. Bulldozer tracks crisscrossed the clay dam. I distinctly remember feeling that I was relegating the tree to that spot more than I was planting it there. But it had to go somewhere. I dug a hole eighteen inches deep and eighteen inches wide in the blue clay and backfilled it halfway again with the black-as-coal topsoil taken directly from the floor of the alder bottom. The peat pot was pushed unceremoniously into the hole and immediately fell apart. It was starting to rain; I noticed the pond was near to overflowing. No need to water anything anywhere on such a wet day in March.

I admired my brand-new one-tree garden for a few seconds. But then, rather than dash back up the hill to a warm, dry house, the newly planted sequoia seemed to demand that I linger just a moment longer. I leaned on the long-handled spade and stared and stared at it, conjuring up images of that tree's momentous growth in twenty years, two hundred years, five hundred years, a thousand years, three thousand years. I guess that's what sequoia trees do to people. It comes with the size, the age, even the ostensible fact that one of the largest national parks in the entire United States was established to protect this one very special species of tree. Then and there I decided not to plant anything else around the pond. This would be a one-tree garden, a three-thousand-year-old garden whose birth I would midwife. It would be my private refuge. Certainly, no one else would visit it unless I led them there personally. Only then did I run back to the house. I was totally soaked.

I started visiting the pond about once every other week. During that first spring I was gratified to notice several new gray-green budding branches that quickly added two inches to the sequoia's height.

* * *

I commence a visit to the sequoia by examining the tree like a doctor giving a physical to a baby: taking a branch in my fingers and turning it this way and that just to reacquaint myself with some ephemeral temporal charisma I believe the tree possesses. Physical completed, I take a few steps back on the hard clay ground and find myself fantasizing about how this scene will transform as the baby sequoia matures. How big does it grow in a hundred and fifty years? Is it five feet wide? Is it a hundred and forty feet tall? I have found that my ability to imagine this future version of the tree depends, curiously, on how often I visit the tree, as if the image of the five-foot-wide tree progressively clarifies in my mind's eye through regular practice.

The sharpness of the futuristic image prompts another peculiar effect. The other nearby plants — the wild honeysuckles, the ferns, the wild roses, the red-osier dogwood, even the alders — always drop back into the shadows of my imagination. I am not certain why this occurs, although I sometimes attribute the difference in lucidity to the fact that individual ferns and vines and alders that surround me at this moment will be long gone in a hundred and fifty years. For much of the year it is also quite dark down here by the pond. The water is black from the alder tannin running in the creek that feeds it. The alder trunks themselves are charcoal gray. The alders grow tall and quite dense; their canopy sometimes seems as opaque as one found in a tropical rain forest. Even the ground is dark from a thick covering of blackened alder leaves. Only the sequoia and, to a lesser extent, the clay itself, seems to offer up much color.

My ability to project the tree — but not its surroundings — clearly into the future occasionally bothered me, implying that I had transformed the sequoia into a celebrity species much to the detriment of its noncelebrity extended environment. This realization caused me to visit that wet setting even more often than before. Now I employed the sequoia more as a beacon, a guide to help me envision the ecosystem within which the tree flourished as its most long-lived aspect. The evocative powers of that exquisite little sequoia tree cannot be underestimated. It metamorphosed in my mind as a kind of TV channel tuned to a sweeping panorama of the entire future ecosystem I call home.

The original old-growth forest of huge Douglas firs and red cedars that once wrapped my own land in silence was clear-cut to feed the local lime kilns back in the 1930s and early 1940s. Although almost none of these giants remain standing anywhere around here, giant stumps can be seen just about everywhere one walks in the woods. Some of the stumps are awe-inspiring in their breadth, and it can be quite terrifying to realize that an entire forest of these ancient beings was cut down in just two or three years.

Actually, referring to these monuments as stumps seems a bit of a misnomer. The vast majority of them are waist-high cylinders of still-intact bark that contain nothing but a bright orange powder, which is all that remains of the wood. I see that powder and imagine the termite feast that must have occurred all through this country during the years preceding World War II. Some of the so-called stumps also contain thirty-foot-tall living trees growing right out of the orange powder. Although I have always felt an indistinct sadness over the current lack of very large trees in this place called home, I feel contented to have built my house surrounded by the substantial architecture of a fifty-year-old second-growth forest already attaining heights well over a hundred feet with base diameters of two feet.

Neither the firs nor the cedars will grow where it's overly wet, and that is where the alders, the willows, and the occasional cottonwood flourish. These are deciduous trees, some of them also quite tall, sixteen inches thick, with their branches heavily draped in green stringy moss. Alders produce a lot of leaves, drop them each fall. The soil that grows around their roots is usually very black, acidic, and fertile. That is the same soil within which I planted the sequoia.


Excerpted from Why We Garden by Jim Nollman. Copyright © 1994 Jim Nollman. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Introduction: The Local Garden,
January The One-Tree Garden,
February The Nowhere Garden,
March The Soil Garden,
April The Sentient Garden,
May The How-To Garden,
June The Semi-Real Garden,
July The Remedy Garden,
August The Predator's Garden,
September The Sacred Garden,
October The Weed Garden,
November The Creative Garden,
December The Political Garden,
Also by Jim Nollman,

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