A good friend abandoned

Garden: A little bit of paradise is lost when the gardener lets things go awry. But there's always next year.

November 07, 1999|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

I missed my garden this year. I missed picking beans while the butterflies flitted among the herbs. I missed the aroma of basil as I brushed along the paths, sipping wine amid the nicotiana, and watching the setting sun splash gold over the broad-leafed squash plants. I missed seeing the evening primroses open while my husband, Gary, and I weeded together, and I missed picking tomatoes, peppers and herbs to make spaghetti sauce.

But mostly, I missed the emotional sustenance the garden gives me.

The sad thing is: I was home. What's more, I planted a garden just as I have done for the past 24 years. But somewhere along the way, I completely lost it. Like most sensible Marylanders, I neglect the garden when our heat and humidity are more than mere mortals can bear. But this was not neglect. This was abandonment. If it were a child, the welfare people would have intervened.

The paths, overgrown with goldenrod and thistle, are indistinguishable from the beds. Pokeweed towers over the defunct cabbages. A mulberry tree sprouted in what was once the shallots. Wire grass threatens to conquer the artemisia, and the tomato-and-pepper patch is nonexistent.

It's no longer a garden. It's a jungle barely contained by the fence that was originally designed to stave off Gary's more-is-better mania. The thing is, it started off so well. The perennial herbs were lush. I tilled up the beds early and planted lettuce, cabbage, chard and leeks. I yanked out vast piles of thistles (courtesy of last year's straw mulch) to make way for the tomatoes, and carefully hilled up the leeks -- twice -- to blanch the stems, a job I often forget. I remulched the entryway, planted purple cathedral bells to twine up the pergola, and fed the raspberries. It was going just fine. But somewhere along the line, things went awry.

The tomato plants that I started inside were never repotted, so I stuffed spindly little things into the ground that critters promptly devoured without so much as a thank you. Likewise the peppers. The thistles grew back in record time -- chest high. Blistering heat and drought ensued. Work, family and the thousand four-minute daily chores that become whole days of nonstop maintenance conspired to rob me of whatever time I might have devoted to the garden. I gave up. Suddenly, gardening wasn't a pleasure any more. It was a chore.

But I missed it terribly. My garden is more than just a collection of flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruit. It's therapy, a listening ear, a place where I retreat from the maddening crowd to contemplate life. I don't just tend my garden, I commune with it.

Gardening roots me. Watching a carrot sprout and thicken until harvest is a reminder that our food is a collaboration with the elements, not a transaction at the supermarket. That understanding connects me with generations of people who nourished their families by the labor of their hands. Gardening also reminds me of my mother, who was composting before most people knew what compost was. She taught me to think for myself, and to treasure the small beauties of life -- an appreciation made manifest in growing things. Her wedding ring, shaped like a daisy with one small diamond in each petal, is an emblem not only of her iconoclasm, but of her devotion to gardening.

And gardening was a solace during my father's last illness. Returning from his bedside, I plunged my hands into the earth, planting seeds that would bring forth new life in a cycle that reaches back to the beginning of time -- and was restored.

The overgrown patch is a reproach. But looking around at the weedy abundance, I am reminded that the garden has its own life. Despite my abandonment, things grew. Lamb's-quarters, edible and mercifully easy to yank, sprouted near the winter squash that now swell on half-withered vines, revived by the first autumn rains. The basil soldiered on despite the engulfing weeds. Leeks still await the soup pot.

Like a trip to another country, the separation has brought new perspective. I see more clearly the beauty of the weeds themselves -- the pokeweed's crimson stalks spangled with green leaves and cascades of purple-black berries; the goldenrod, whose bright yellow tassels add definition to the bouquet of roses, perovskia, and wild boltonia on the dining-room table. The weeds enticed thousands of butterflies -- a greater variety and number than ever before. And for the first time, there were hummingbirds.

The garden's insistence on growing -- on its own terms -- reminds me that I am not the creator, but merely the conductor. Its music is its own, made by another hand. But even the best music needs direction, pacing, a sense of order.

I've decided to view my absence as a sabbatical, a means of taking stock and renewing my commitment. That's the wonderful thing about gardens. Each year, you get another chance.

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