I went back to my first garden a few weeks ago, and over the span of a few hot, sweaty hours, finally said my goodbyes. The exertion of taming a landscape I had shaped and formed and had been absent from for three years kept any emotions at bay until long after the sun set that evening. In my new house, and new garden, I reflected on a roiling clamor of bittersweet thoughts.
Gardening is in my blood – or at least, a very strong connection to the land. I come from a long line of farmers – and, also, a long line of folks who like to be their own boss. Despite a childhood on a farm, I always felt like I came late to gardening. My first foray was at 22, in my first apartment, when I realized the landlord would let me putter away in the small flower bed on my side of the building. For several years after that, I enthusiastically tackled small plots of land with divided plants from the farm, carving out my own small spot of peace wherever I moved, and then, as renters do, moving on again.
Coming back to Kentucky, and buying my first house, I also bought a yard devoid of anything remotely considering landscaping. Overgrown yew bushes menaced the front porch and two scraggly trees leaned over the back porch. The one redeeming plant life was a lovely dogwood tree in the front yard. Over the next seven years (the taxus and two trees were felled by professionals less than a month after I moved in), the shaping of my yard provided me with a constant, and a space in which I could experiment and grow and learn. The challenges of life sometimes left me desolate during that time, but there were also many years of ebullient joy.
I put in a raised bed, a border at the back of the yard, assisted with the building of a pergola, and even planted in the strip between the sidewalk and the street. I planted my first climbing rose, the very thorny New Dawn, as well as a climbing hydrangea. I embraced grapevines without fruit (Crimson Glory), clematis of assorted colors, and cross vine. A Japanese maple went into a new circular bed, and died…two butterfly bushes balanced another oval bed and thrived. A forsythia greeted spring loudly and beautifully. There were flowers everywhere.
I love English gardens, and there was perhaps a bit of that in my garden. Hollyhocks, lots of bulbs, and even more inherited plants formed the foundation of the first few years. Chaotic joy was my main theme – and it was a forgiving space. If something didn’t work in a particular place, I dug it up, and tried it somewhere else. I edged my main border with rocks from an old house site on our farm, spending hours (and miles) digging them up and transporting them back to the city.
There were a lot of parties in the summer, and lazing on the porch. Fireworks were set off, and I attempted to master the grill (that still hasn’t happened). I watched fireflies dance around until late in the night, and I found space for a hammock. Various found objects made their way into the garden and found new life as “garden art.” I carried my beloved first dog out into the garden on her bed when she could no longer move, and she lay in the sun beside me as I dug up lilies to plant on her grave. That was one of the saddest days I had, but the profusion of lilies that greet me whenever I go to the garden covering her final resting spot always make me think of my first gardening companion with a smile.
It was a small lot, you see, just fine for two people and two dogs. Two porches made the small bungalow seem larger, but when people are involved, so is change. So I sold my house and garden, because with the knowledge I had at the time, it was what I needed to do. It wasn’t easy, and as my life changed rather violently after that, I missed my garden with a palpable physical force. For over a year, I not only lived with most of my furniture in storage, and without a garden of any kind. I helped my sister with her yard, and tended to my mother’s many flower beds, but it wasn’t the same.
I’ve been in my new house for about a year and a half. The back yard is deeper than my old house, but it was a honeysuckle jungle. Once again, there wasn’t much existing landscaping, and there was a lot of deferred maintenance. I used a chain saw for the first time, and realized that for many people, the natural world is just a backdrop.
I started to wonder about my old garden, and how it was faring. Although I don’t live very far from it at all – maybe a mile? – I avoided driving by, because it hurt too much. Then I decided to stop and see if the new owners wanted some free labor, and in exchange, I could divide some of my perennials I hadn’t seen for a long time. This being said, I divided innumerable plants before I sold the house – but in the stress of moving and living life, there wasn’t enough time to let go. There wasn’t any time to say goodbye.
I increased the green space of the backyard by digging up the driveway that extended to a garage no modern car could utilize. It was slow and tedious, and one of my friends made countless references to “Shawshank Redemption”, as I hacked away at the blacktop and carried 5-gallon buckets of gravel to the farm to fill in potholes in the farm roads. In addition to the lilies, I planted hundreds of my favorite bulbs – jonquils. (Known also as daffodils, or by the genus name narcissus. My paternal grandmother called them jonquils, and when I say the name, or see them bloom, I think of her.)
Altruistic intentions in hand (and slightly self-centered intentions as well), I went back to my garden. I weeded, I wacked, I dug and I restored order. It was wonderful to see, 10 years later after I began, that my original untutored, perhaps unsophisticated garden design had good bones. Despite the forsythia taking over the raised bed and rooting itself wherever it could (they benefit from judicious pruning, which it had not experienced since I left), and the rose taking down a section of the fence (New Dawn is very aggressive in addition to having dangerous thorns. It also isn’t all that fragrant. I’m a Zephirine Drouhin girl now), my garden looked lovely, albeit a bit neglected.
I returned to my new house, and new garden, with a car full of plants. In the three hours I spent tending to my old garden, I also said goodbye. It will always be my first garden, and I will always treasure the time I spent there – but I don’t long for it anymore. Better gardens, tempered by experience (and budget), await me. I’ve added a few more power tools to my arsenal, and have started making my own trellis. Maybe I’ll build an even better pergola this time. I look forward to dreaming about what I will plant, and spending hours in the sun and in the rain creating what I see in my mind – and waiting to see how it will bloom.