Photograph from "Beginner Gardening." Happy News Vol. 1 No. 1, 2007.
I have become an obsessive gardener. Not that I am any good at it in fact, quite the opposite. Yet I persist in what's become an endless struggle to tame our jungle of odd trees, peculiar perennials and insistent alpine plants. I am fascinated not only by my own terrain but by everyone else's garden, too. And every roadside nursery, and every unsolicited seed catalog, and every passing article on the virtues of organic fertilizers and the wonders of homemade mulch, on planting tips and pruning tricks and the intricacies of successful weeding. I engage in purely illogical (though to me, enormously instructive) searches on various gardening websites and pore incessantly over the piles of gardening books I have gathered from used bookstores, borrowed from friends, and occasionally, bought for my own amateur library. Here, I draw site maps, scribbling unintelligible notes to myself in the margins. I mostly do this late at night before I go to sleep, and not surprisingly, I wake up having dreamt of mountain laurel and creeping phlox, of nepeta, euphorbia and campanula.
Gardening is its own infuriating design challenge. You fret and you rethink and you second-guess yourself constantly, and then for one delirious, thrilling moment something blooms and you feel utterly triumphant. And then it dies and you are back where you started. You feel like a failure, outwitted by nature. And by rain, or the lack of it. And by that ultimate conspiracy, weeds endless, unconquerable weeds like an army in perpetual attack mode. What once seemed a heavenly pursuit now seems beyond hopeless, and therein lies its magic: gardening is the most comprehensively satisfying of design challenges, because when it works you feel like God.
And when it doesn't work, you want to dig a hole in the garden and bury your head in it.
You can, of course, inherit a garden. If you are lucky it will be a garden that has been tended to, capably maintained and cultivated, over time, with great care. But even here, there are inexplicable factors beyond your control. Sixty years ago, long before my time, there were some 40,000 basil plants growing in my meadow: today, what remains of the herb garden is small but fertile, four perfect beds with superb soil karma. Everything grows there. Everything, that is, except for one thing.
I can't for the life of me grow basil.
Even given the most ideal conditions, a garden is not a place where you can cut corners. Growth happens slowly here, if at all. A garden thrives when treated as a choreographic concoction of height and color, fragrance and bloom. It is, in a sense, a quintessentially time-based medium: like a designer's orchestration of type and image, or paper and ink, or even sound and movement, a garden is a compendium of mixed, temperamental and essentially unruly phenomena. But gardening, unlike graphic design, subscribes to certain fundamental tenets, its success hinging on unarguable facts like cosmology and climate and soil type, inalterable conditions that preceded and will outlive you.
And then, on top of everything else, you come to realize that tending a garden requires a kind of ineffable patience, the very kind you lack. Abbreviations are not intended to speed one's experience, but instead are reserved for particular genus or to denote the peculiarities of hybridization. (Go figure.) Barring good fortune, better soil and a regular treatment of Miracle Gro, there's no technology to accelerate growth making gardening, as a practice, about as analogue as you can get. Plus it's hard work, and you have to ignore all those competitive instincts because, let's face it, there's always someone better at it than you. A bitter frost comes and annihilates all your lavender (yes, two years in a row now) and your shrubs flower only when you're out of town. It is, to put it simply, a humbling process.
And so, as I continue to struggle with how to pronounce Latin names with even the most marginal accuracy, as I water and weed and wonder why I am sitting in the dirt for hour upon hour, I am reminded of the ineffable bylaws that centuries have wrought. Some plants refuse to perennialize. Others take over your lawn. There's labeling, staking, transplanting, propagating, fertilizing, grafting, mulching, edging, and more watering than you ever believed imaginable. Success comes slowly, if at all. Praying doesn't help, nor does holding your breath or buying more plants. (I write this with some authority because I have tried them all.) It's a waiting game, a story with a loose narrative frame: you give it a beginning, but its middle is ambiguous, and its end, uncertain. And in the end, isn't everything? The poet May Sarton once wrote that a garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs like life itself. I lost all my lavender this spring. But maybe hope springs eternal after all: my peonies, great big gobs of fuchsia blossoms are just about to burst into flower. And I feel utterly triumphant.