Lately, I have found myself telling people that my gardens finally look the way I’ve wanted them to. If it sounds like I’m boasting, it’s because I am. And it’s only taken me ten years to get them just so!
We bought our house ten years ago from a widow who had maintained her property, but her landscaping was lacking. Bordering the house was a row of yew trees and the backyard had a field of ivy by the fence. I was young and foolish and, like any new homeowner in this era, dutifully watched my share of HGTV shows like Weekend Warriors, Curb Appeal, and Yard Crashers. Armed with such gusto, I went about creating garden, after garden, after garden. I hacked away at dozens of yews. I even stood on a ladder wielding a chainsaw to destroy those bastards. It did not take me long to realize that I HATE yews–I really do. Next, I ripped up a perfectly happy bed of ivy to plant hostas and liatrope. I pulverized forty year old tree roots to establish gardens on both sides of my patio. I hacked and I hoed in the side yard, the front yard, around the house, beside the house, around the mailbox… In all, I created 10–count ’em, T-E-N gardens where there were none. Suffice to say, I was out of my f***ing mind.
Around this time of my maniacal meanderings in the yard, I remember visiting my in-laws home in the New Jersey suburbs. Their house was very pretty, but I remember feeling sorry for them because most of their yard was grass, and the few garden spots they had were wasted spaces of ground cover. I thought to myself, “What a shame. These gardens have such possibility.” I look back on that moment and laugh–hard. They did not have such gardens because they were smart. They enjoyed something known as the weekend, rather than spend countless hours mulching and digging. They were older, and wiser. And now, so am I. Don’t get me wrong, I love my gardens, but now I see the wisdom in the adage “Less is more.” Such a thought is counter-culture here in America, but God I wish I knew the beauty in that phrase ten years ago.
Yet, just as my shrubs and perennials have grown, so have I. I find a lot of meaning in working in the garden, and it can be a great place to till the soil of one’s thoughts. Some of life’s most profound lessons can be made in one’s attempts to garden.
First off, a garden teaches one patience. I remember planting tulip bulbs one fall, annoyed that I had to wait a whole six months to enjoy them. Yet, with each passing year, my impatiens (pardon the pun) has subsided. I have planted seeds and saplings that are now flourishing shrubs and towering trees. Today, rather than feel petulant when burying bulbs and young plants, I am comforted by the fact that all things need time to grow, just like people. Rather than be annoyed at the time I must spend waiting, I enjoy other features in the meantime. There is always something to captivate one’s eye in the garden.
Gardens are also a great cure for perfectionism. We live in a world of Martha Stewart Madness, but if you compare yourself to these Marthas, you’ll never be happy. I can recall when I finally realized that my gardening was more of an obsession than a hobby. I was miserable, and I was constantly complaining to my wife. “I can’t do this alone,” I would lament. I was seriously overwhelmed and wanted her to help. I joked with her how all I was trying to do was “create a showplace” for her–I know, I’m cringing at my word choice there, too. She looked at me and said, “You’re not doing this for me.” Then, it dawned on me–I wasn’t. I had to find out why I was doing this–and so much of it. For one, we live on 3/4 of an acre. It’s a lot of property (too much really) but it allows us a buffer from a busier thoroughfare. We are the corner house on a well-traveled street. Secretly, I wanted to be the envy of others. I imagined people slowing down as they passed my house and asking themselves, “Who lives there, Martha Stewart’s younger, cuter brother?”
I was also doing it as a way to celebrate having more than I did as a child. We lived in a twin house, and seven kids did some serious damage to the plants and shrubs my father attempted to maintain–we laid in the arborvitae bushes that he took such pride in as if they were nature’s hammocks, we yanked leaves off of trees just because we wanted something to do with our hands. In short, we had no respect for what he was trying to accomplish. There was not enough space for gardens and playing areas. Eventually , he gave up. And my mother! She had a brown thumb when it came to the outdoors. Every azalea or hydrangea that she received for Mother’s Day would be dead by Memorial Day. I swear, the woman thought that watering was optional. In later years, after everyone had moved out, she remarked to me how her black-eyed Susans were thriving in the front garden. I pointed out to her that those flowers were right under her window air conditioning unit which steadily dripped water into her garden. “Oh, you think that’s why?” “Yes, mom. Watering helps things live.” “Hmph,” she replied.
And so my gardens were well watered, and I marvelled as things grew and came back year after year. “I did this,” I’d think, “and it looks pretty amazing.” But the moments of joy were fleeting. Things would bloom and whither so quickly. Some plants would bully others out of existence. Others needed more sun, some more shade. Plant. Replant. Dig up. Replace. And then there was the issue of the weeds–those damn weeds. I would no sooner weed a bed, then the earth would sprout more. I referred to countless articles–which were oh-so-helpful: Pull the weed at the root…Really? Thank you, Captain Obvious. Yes, weeding is indeed an exercise in futility. There is no way to see how far down the root is, and try as I may, a tip of root always remains underground. But again, life lessons can be gleaned from this: the trick to pulling a weed is to be very gentle. Ripping out weeds is the most ineffective way to attempt to get rid of them. A gentle tug is all you need. There is something very Zen about pulling a weed properly. The release from the ground is euphoric.
I have grown accustomed to weeds. I know now that try as I may, there will always be weeds, and just as one of my gardens may look weed free, there is another beckoning for some maintenance. Who cares? Not me– anymore. Like debt, or those extra few pounds, weeds are simply part of the experience-a fact of life. To rid your world of them is nothing more than hubris–our arrogance as human beings.
Once, I was involved with a community flower garden at our high school. This garden barely looked alive. But what was surviving were the weeds. While we were attempting to beautify the space, a friend of mine, an art teacher, remarked, “You know, a weed is just a flower without a press agent.” Her words were so profound, and they’ve served me well in the garden for years since. Whose to say this purple spiky thing can be called a “flower” but this purple spiky thing cannot. Now, when I look at “weeds” I try to see the beauty in the “ugly”. Also, when I admire a garden, I try not to search for weeds or other flaws, but to see past them at the aspects that are pastoral and pleasing. I bring this attitude into more of my daily life. Look for the beauty and it will surface.
I am a much happier gardener these days. I’m not out there toiling every day, and even when I am, it is not for hours on end. I set more realistic goals–weed for fifteen minutes a night, water while the kids are running through the hose. I even shut down a few gardens because I had too little time. Ahh, the power of grass seed. I’ve also had the opportunity to watch a number of young couples, newly married homeowners, move in to our neighborhood and begin to hack away at their American Dream. I see myself in their attempts at doing it all. I smile knowingly, and I nod in agreement–yes, I recognize you.
Gardening has taught me so much: what is beauty, how to enjoy it, what I want in a hobby, and that if I am not feeling happy doing it, then don’t. My jobs in the garden will never be finished. There are weeds sprouting up as I write this. Some I will pull, many I will miss, and none of it matters in the end. Such are life’s reminders one can find while working in the garden–if only you’re willing to dig deep enough.