The Flexible Gardener

The Flexible Gardener

Last night, there came a frost, which has done great damage to my garden…it is sad that nature will play such tricks on us poor mortals, inviting us with sunny smiles to confide in her, and then, when we are entirely within her power, striking us to the heart.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The American Notebooks

When I first started gardening, in my early twenties, I set out with the conviction that the natural order of the universe was for man to control the environment around him. And, since I was not a man but a woman, it would be even easier for me (I was in my twenties, remember, and full of vim and vinegar and one too many college courses on women’s literature).

I started by digging up the orange daylilies at my parent’s house. They clashed loudly with the Stargazer lilies that I had ordered from a catalog and planned on planting in that very bed.

Then I turned over grass to create new gardens, where the orange daylilies would work. I dug deep, crisp edges with a flat spade to show where the lawn should stop and the mulch would begin.

I was young, and failure and frustration did not slow me down.

When the daylilies came back (so I now had them stampeding like Sherman through two beds instead of one), and the grass crept stealthily back into the flowerbeds, I simply took it as an opportunity to re-exert my substantial power and dominion over nature. I pulled the daylilies out again. I smiled out at how hard they were to pull out; I was a new gardener, but I had already figured out that a strong root system indicate that the plant is a weed. If a plant pulls out easily, all the way to the teensy bottom roots, it was obviously a valuable plant and you should have never pulled it out in the first place.

I continued like this for years, not just in the garden, but in every part of my life. I wanted things the way I wanted things, and I was both naïve and energetic enough to think that I could make anything happen.

I appreciate the misunderstanding I have had with nature over my perennial border. I think it is a flower garden; she thinks it is a meadow lacking grass, and tries to correct the error.

Sara Stein

My Weeds

Did I wake one day and realize that life is easier when you accept the happy accident, learn to roll with the punches from your opponent…maybe even realize that my opponent was actually on the same side that I was on?

Of course not. I fought the lesson, just like I fought the daylilies, which snuck back into the pink flowerbed every time I went away for the weekend, or worked late at the office, or even just slept in past 8:00 on a weekend.

I fought everything in my garden.

It wasn’t until I moved to Baltimore, and began to garden with my neighbor across the street, that things started to make sense.

Helen was in her eighties; when I met her she had a pick axe in one hand and was trying to remove the stump from a tree that was twice as old as she was and three times as heavy. I offered to help swing the axe, and we became good neighbors and compatible gardeners soon after.

One spring, she found a small dogwood growing in her side yard. I asked her if she wanted me to move it to a corner where it could frame her well kept white house.

“Oh no,” she said to me. “You know, this isn’t my garden at all. I’m just watching it for Mother Nature. If she wants a dogwood in this side yard, I’m not going to argue. I’m just going to take care of it.”

Helen was right; there’s no way to fight the change in a garden. No single morning is like the morning before; no plant grows the same as it did last year. No matter what you bet on, the house always wins, and Mother Nature is always in charge.

I’ve learned to like to garden for just that reason.