When we first moved here, I didn’t know what a Hosta was. My new neighbor, Karen, told me. That first spring, still stunned by the loss of my career, I looked out at my new yard and felt helpless and stupid. I was lonely, bored and completely overwhelmed with all the little green shoots popping up, taunting me in their omnipresence. Karen, a serious gardener who is all about good dirt, came over in her rubber boots and started telling me what to do.
I couldn’t tell the difference between a plant and a weed, so she showed me. I went out and bought some cheap gardening gloves and started digging up weeds. I would spend hours bent over, yanking things out by the roots while my daughter, Elizabeth, serenaded me with little melodies. I started to relax.
At Karen’s urging, I watered the climbing roses regularly. I pruned the spiraea. I dug up old tulip bulbs that were planted in the wrong places. I tried unsuccessfully to rescue a dying rhododendron and in the process, learned some basics on pruning, placement and site conditions.
As the weather got warmer, Karen and I would go running together. She would point out different plants and why she liked them. We planned our routes around gardens we wanted to show each other. She gave me an extra copy of her favorite gardening book (Lois Hole’s “Perennial Favorites“). At the end of that first summer, I sat back and enjoyed the payoff: a few good blooms, a blossoming friendship and the beginning of a new education. It was official: I had a hobby.
The next spring, Karen and I sat down and planned out a whole new perennial garden by my back patio. My husband dug up four feet of soil, an event that rivaled an Amish barn-raising. Neighbors stopped by to watch the progress, marveling and laughing at the job we had undertaken. We were knee deep in heavy clay and cow manure. But in two days, we had gorgeous black soil and my new perennials oozed happily into their fertile home. We were exhausted and proud, having ceremoniously claimed the land as our own.
Each spring, I can hardly wait to get started. As soon as the first green leaves peak out from the warming earth, Karen and I begin making plans. With cups of coffee steaming in the morning air, we discuss what we have in mind for our gardens –and then we get to work.
With husbands and kids pitching in, we work outside for hours, stopping frequently to admire our progress. We usually end the work day about the same time and retreat into our respective homes to shower off the mud — only to meet outside again, open a few good bottles of wine and relax on each others patios. These are among my favorite days of living here.
Three years ago, Karen was diagnosed with breast cancer. She started chemo shortly after Christmas and finished in early June. On days when she felt strong enough, she put on her rubber boots and headed out to her garden. With a blanket beneath her and her daughters around her, she weeded and took naps in the sunshine, her bright, bald head resting on her outstretched arms. It was as if she needed to absorb the life around her.
I decided not to offer to weed or prune for her. I thought it would be stealing pleasure, reminding her even more of what the disease had taken. Her garden looked a little sad that summer. It seemed to be in a state of shock as well. The growth was quiet and slow, as if waiting for her return.
This is the third summer since her last treatment. Her scans are clean, and her garden is flourishing wildly. It is vibrant and defiant, almost messy from the rapid growth. She keeps planting more and more things in it. With the cancer weeded out, there’s no stopping her.
My garden is doing pretty well, too. When I sit outside with coffee and the paper, it keeps me company and gives me perspective. I look at it and think: well, yeah– there’s progress. I’ve done some good here.
Dostoevsky once said “At first, art imitates life. Then life will imitate art. Then life will find its very existence from the arts.” I think that’s the way it is with the garden.