Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Life and Death of It

For a long while, I possessed two rather simplistic notions of gardening: one biological, the other aesthetic. One may measure one's gardening success by whether a plant is alive or dead, and whether one's arrangement of plants pleases the eye.

(Snobbery side note: Viet and I took a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood and happened upon one garden that looked very much as if the owner merely sprinkled wild flower seeds across the bed and waited to see what would appear. All of them appeared. And the result is a dizzying array of florid vomit. Sure, I like my English cottage garden, the more random and piecemeal the better, just as much as I like my austere French and Zen gardens and everything in between. But this was a bit too much, too random. Hey, I told myself, at least they do something!)

Using those measures, if I may be so self-indulgent, I've been a fairly successful gardener.

Well, sort of. (Reader take note: no self-professed snob, if truly a snob, would ever publicize such failings, let alone post photos as evidence of such failings!)

Take this False Indigo and my back bed, for instance. Two weeks ago, my friend Erin so generously shared with me several specimens from her garden (a delightfully deep blue Delphinium, a dark purple Day Lily, a Spiderwort, and this False Indigo). The False Indigo, while drooping owing to the shock of being transplanted, certainly looked much better than it currently does. After a few days of unhappy existence, its leaves quite suddenly turned black. And now look at it. Maybe it hated the compost into which I dropped its roots. Perhaps he (why do I masculinize False Indigo?) is a misogynist, and reacted the way he did because I placed him behind the elegant, wispy Lena Scotch Broom. I thought he was man enough to stand proudly aside Lena, but obviously I was wrong.

I never planned the back bed; it was an accident that resulted after two days of non-stop, strenuous gardening activity last spring (including digging out the entire west-side bed--down a foot of nearly-impenetrable clay; heavy amendment of the soil; mass plantings; etc.). We had some "remainders" and so they went into an impromptu-created back bed. I did not amend the soil in that bed, failed to create an aesthetic plan, and ignored the needs of the plants themselves.

On my first, biological measure, one can say I have been successful. Giant Butterbur grows, not flourishes (though admittedly it receives too much sun--any sun is too much for what I thought was the venerable Petasites); the day lilies rapidly spread (as they are wont to do), and some even flowered. But the truth is that Petasites needs to be watered everyday--the 2 hours of broken sunshine render my hunky amor limp like Superman after being exposed to kyrptonite--and the day lilies (which I never planned on keeping) are beginning to brown (also, I surmise, due in part to some Gramsci-style watering and fertilizing). Very little rain--even during torrential downpours--infiltrate the maple tree's dense canopy, making the clay soil more impenetrable. And I'd rather not waste valuable water on what I think to be my weeds.

On my second, aesthetic measure, I am not successful. This bed fails to satisfy me; even my planting of Kerria japonica Golden Guinea has not excited my senses. The bed needs work--nay, a radical overhaul, including substantial amendment of the soil, construction of ramparts or some kind of border, and a reworking of the walkway. In due time.

Gardening is a process, ever a movement, a rethinking of the parts as well as the whole, a continual engagement with the life that surrounds--but never a destination. To treat it as such robs it of its vitality and its essence.

And that is what pleases me: gardening permits as much reinvention as one would like, not only of the beds, but importantly of the self and how the self engages with the world. 
Gardening is so much more than mere biology or aesthetic principles. Gardening is about care and cultivation. Sure, I can blame False Indigo for his sexism, or the weed-like orange day lily for its own browning, but the fact of the matter is that I have failed as a gardener, for I have neglected to ascertain or even care about the needs of the specimens themselves.

Learning evolves as much from failure as from success--and perhaps even more so as I am increasingly inclined to believe. For in failure, we learn that in death there is life, and in life there remains, inextricably and irrefutably, the reality of death. Neither is so simple, and neither can so readily be forgotten. 


  1. False indigo HATES to be moved, so don't feel badly. It may surprise you in the spring even though it will pout and sulk this year.

  2. I've heard that about False Indigo; I hope you are right about next spring! But right now, it is black, and so I wonder if it is even alive.