The art of being in a garden

“She loved . . . tending to her plants. She was outside any chance she got.”

I don’t know the woman described in this excerpt from an obituary I happened to read this week, but as a gardener, I recognized her as a kindred spirit.

Although gardeners are as varied as any group, I suspect we all share a love for the peaceful ambience of our little plots of ground and the refuge they become when we are in them. There is something about sinking our hands into the dirt while we listen to bird song or spy a dragonfly nearby that soothes the spirit and settles our thoughts.  And so, regardless of whether our gardens are exotic or ordinary, we simply revel in being in them.

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Bare branches of Butterfly Bush with Bee Balm and Fallopia in background.

I have learned the value of this anew after a prolonged, brutal winter that ravaged my own green space in places, leaving it bereft of several mainstays, including two nearly decade-old bushes that previously had attracted butterflies and hummingbirds.  Initially, I felt disappointment at the loss of these faithful producers. But as I’ve worked under and around them after deciding to leave them in place for now, I’ve realized that the essence of being in a garden remains even when the landscape changes.  Much as I have grieved the absence of foliage on these old faithful producers, it hasn’t diminished the quiet beauty of being in a place teeming with life.

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Remains of ‘Big Silver,’ now a shelter and food source for wildlife

Further, as I considered my losses, I was reminded of the year we had to fell “Big Silver,” a grand old beloved tree that stood at one end of the garden. When it succumbed and had to be cut down lest it fall on the house, we decided to leave parts of it in place so that it now shelters all kinds of wildlife, giving the space around it a different dimension. Just so, the frames of my dead shrubs are functioning as perches in the garden for dragonflies and birds, all seen more easily because of the bare branches.

In looking past what didn’t survive, I also have seen gains. Some Siberian Irises that were transplanted two years ago bloomed beautifully this spring, as did the Brunera and Solomon’s Seal. The Elderberry bush, which was just starting to form leaf buds in March, is now lush with foliage and buds.  Daylilies given to me by a gardener friend who was dividing hers in the summer of 2012 look like they may be destined for their best year since being relocated, and the Fallopia has accomplished its annual miracle of growing into a leafy bush from the ground up after the previous year’s stems were cut away.

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Plants in the flagstone walk

By taking the losses with acceptance and the gains with gratitude, I also am reminding myself that, like the farmers who sow the fields around me, I’m not in charge of the growth cycle, the weather, and the seasons.  I am merely a cooperator who takes her cues from the soil and surroundings by working with both and planting what grows well here. For me, that means choosing Butterfly Weed over a showy Hibiscus when browsing the perennials at the greenhouse and allowing native Violets and Spotted Touch-Me-Not to grow here and there along with offshoots of plants from the garden that have simply appeared between the spaces of the flagstone walk.

Truly, a garden is all gift and grace. Whether I’m working in the one that has been given to me or merely looking upon it, what is most important is the sense of peace it provides and its connection to a natural world that was here before I arrived. No matter how this garden looks because of a harsh winter, it is less about achieving an ideal than about being in a place that shelters spirit and life.

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Keeping faith when spring is late

Image Spring is here, or so the keepers of time tell us.  We have passed that notch in the calendar when light and darkness are given us in equal measure. Winter is past and we can breathe a collective sigh of relief and begin to enjoy longer days and the sight and smell of things getting about the business of growing. For now, though, that is only a hope, and what we see is not quite what we’ve been awaiting. The landscape is little more than a palette of various hues of brown. The remaining snow has lost its brilliance and is tinged with dirt. And the ground, whether covered with matted leaves or heaving up in a kind of awakening, is, well, muddy. It would be tempting, after the long wait for spring, to sink into disappointment, especially when the weather warms briefly and then turns cold, or brings us more snow. Yet, a late-arriving spring like this one has something to offer and, if we’re smart, we will befriend it and let it walk us slowly into the richness of the season. Now is a time of preparation for what is to come, to gaze on the stark canvas around us before it begins to burst into color and growth. After all, when it does, life will get very busy, not only in the natural world, but in our lives. Activity will ramp up as schedules swell with graduations, weddings, and ball games. Homeowners will frantically pull out coolers and grills, uncover deck furniture, and fuel lawnmowers for the first of many cuts of the season. Gardeners will feel an urgency to ready their beds and plant even as the local greenhouses warn them to heed the frost-free date. Wildflower and bird enthusiasts, knowing they have a small window to see Dutchman’s Breeches and migrating warblers, will rush to converge on wildlife areas armed with guidebooks and cameras.Image So, much as I’m longing for sun, warmth, and the sight of a Swamp Buttercup or a Black-throated Blue warbler, I’m taking a pause on these chilly, doesn’t-feel-like-spring-yet days. I’m contemplating the mud, knowing it could be nesting mortar for Eastern Phoebes if they choose to stay again to raise a family. I’m watching the squirrels stuff their mouths with leaves and scurry up trees to prepare beds for new broods. I’m enjoying the cacophony of chatter from a flock of blackbirds or the song of a single robin as the sun amazes me with yet another spectacular rising or setting. I’m taking a closer look at what appears to be nothing and am noticing the winter feathers of the male Goldfinches start to turn yellow, buds on the branches of an Elderberry bush, and the first leaves of Bee Balm at the base of the brown stalks from last year’s growth. In the belief that anticipation is often the best part of a vacation or a happy event, I’m drinking in this time and appreciating it in its somewhat awkward adolescent phase because I know without seeing that it holds the promise of something quite wonderful that is yet to come.