From Blunder to Bloom
Here's one woman's story about how she learned to garden.
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by Dorothy Foltz-Gray
Fifteen years ago I bought a house from a gardener — an awful and awe-full thing. The first spring I ran around in the yard stunned by irises, burning pink azaleas, flirting clematis, daylilies, a luscious hydrangea. But I felt a terrible dread as well. Because I knew sooner or later I was going to kill them all. And sure enough, by summer No. 3 or so, the irises had stopped blooming, the hydrangea was growing into another tree, the azaleas were anemic, the daylilies had migrated into the woods and the clematis had vanished.
My response, of course, was to get some information, especially after a neighbor asked where the irises were (tacky but jolting). I had some old gardening books — the former owner's, I think — that smelled of mildew and basement and read to me a little bit like a computer manual. If I only understood the language — tuber, perennial, deciduous, peat moss — I might get somewhere. What I did glean, however, was that irises had to be dug up and replanted periodically to keep flowering. This was my first big project. The irises spread across one wall of the house and by the time I was done, iris bulbs lay heaped in the yard. So was I. I replanted a third, perhaps; it seemed there were hundreds. And never again did I see an iris bloom while I lived at that house.
This was my first inkling that gardening is a bit like cooking. You have to read the recipe — the whole thing — and you have to kind of know some basics, which I didn't. I also found out that most garden failures don't reveal themselves immediately. I had a year or two of great hopes for my irises — and hence for the entire plot in which they resided. What, I thought, if I bought a bunch of flowers, stuck them around the irises, and defined the whole area with mulch? That very afternoon, I stood, amazed. In a few short hours, I had turned my garden of iris humiliation into a lovely, albeit iris-less, spot.
The beauty lasted about a week. Some of the flowers thrived; some lay down dead. Had I paid a moment's attention to sun and shade, to soil, to watering? No, no, and no. This sounds funny to me now, almost unbelievable. But I knew nothing. I was at the equivalent, say, of learning to boil an egg.
Gradually, I noticed a change. I began to read the garden column in the newspaper. To ask questions at the farmer's market. To subscribe to a gardening magazine. And somehow I got on the list of several gardening catalogs. Although most of these read like gibberish to me and the photos caused aching bouts of jealousy — the plants so alive and thick — I began to garner some basics. And my flowers began to teach me themselves by dying, by multiplying, by doing better in one spot than another. I noticed, for instance, that the deeper, blacker and looser the soil, the better my charges did. And some things — like lantana — simply flourished with almost no care at all. My rosemary grew from a sprite to a foot-high bush. On November nights when I would clip a few sprigs for my roasting lamb, I'd bless my greening thumb for growing this Mediterranean glory in East Tennessee.
My prize, however, was my Russian sage, whose purple haze beat out Jimi Hendrix's. Captivated by its delicacy, I put one in a sunny spot. Each year it rewarded me by growing thicker and higher. By now I was cultivating, fertilizing, mulching. And I had acquired ambition, discovering to my parsimonious glee that many plants could be divided. What I'd paid for in the first place could be mine, over and over. Cocky with success, I plucked my sage from the ground and took a knife to its throat. Somehow I realized immediately that I'd killed it. I also knew I'd crossed into new gardening territory: grief. Every day, the sage's hole was a reproach.
But it was also a lesson. To become a better gardener — like becoming a better anything — requires failure, in fact turns failure to value. Will I ever try to divide a Russian sage again? Not likely. More important, the experience made me realize that gardening's thin-edged mortality is what draws me. Every single spring, I can't wait to see who made it over the winter, who's going to peek his head up — and alas, whom I've killed. I wouldn't part with gardening's melange of wild successes and bruising disasters.
Understanding what I love about gardening edged me away from my starting role of Killer. Because it set me free. If I could survive the death of my Russian sage, couldn't I also dare to set out two dried up rose-of-Sharon cast-offs, prune them close to the ground, and see what news they held for me next spring? Couldn't I divide the hosta root, and see what it did with itself in the next month or two? Couldn't I cut back my wisteria to train its embracing spread?
Discovering the answer was yes, yes, and yes was, well, both intoxicating and overwhelming. Now I had no end of things to dig up, to divide, to train, to prune. I had a hundred choices and a hundred new paths toward failure at all times.
But I also realized I was reaching a kind of peace — or maybe I should say acceptance — necessary to someone who nurtures rather than kills. My garden would never be perfect, in part because it would never be static or complete. It could develop any which way, and every choice I made affected every other choice. So it turns out that nobody else gardens — or could garden — quite like I do. Sometimes I hate my choices, dig them up, and move them to another spot — and another, and another — and finally to the crematorium. But other moments I feel a delivery room sits right there on my lawn. Either way I know whatever I set in motion is not about death but about what the earth is, and all that shifting.
Dorothy Foltz-Gray is a contributing editor forAlternative Medicineand Arthritis Today magazines. Illustrations by Steven Olexa
Illustrations by Steven Olexa