Making it up as we go along

Grandiose schemes yield to gratitude for the good friends growing in the yard

In The Garden

April 21, 2002|By Nancy Taylor Robson | By Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

An April breeze carries the scent of daffodil and fresh-turned field across the garden. I disengage a wad of chickweed, then stop to survey -- yet again -- the space I have cultivated for the past 16 years. But this time, I have an epiphany.

I'm not going to make a whole new overarching design for the garden because -- and this is the epiphany part -- I'm not a grand scheme kind of person. It's a shock.

Until then, I assumed I could -- and should -- redesign my garden to reflect a big change in my life, the transition between having children at home and children mostly away. For inspiration, I'd searched catalogs, magazines, books, other gardens and my own soul. And came up with nothing. No grand design, no guiding principle, not even a fuzzy, postcard-sized sketch. But until that Aha! moment on my knees, it never occurred to me that overarching plans are not my style.

Especially since I'd been enjoying the attempt. Sifting through options was like being 16 again. A host of possibilities, but without the angst. I had ideas: vegetables and herbs; replace the rampant hops on the pergola with more civilized annual cathedral bells (Cobaea).

In the reclaimed squash patch, maybe a progressive monochromatic bed that would go from yellow and white to blue and purple, then orangy rose. Since blooming periods are always approximate and often overlapping, the bed would be a botanical metaphor for the sometimes indeterminate, overlapping transitions in life. But each idea was more a patchwork piece than a design concept that would seamlessly move the garden forward into a new chapter.

In part, my indecision is existential greed. Like a teen-ager with a new license, I wanted to go everywhere and do everything -- or in this case, plant everything. Opting for one approach automatically excludes another. And the space, which runs the gamut from shady and moist to sun-parched and drought-stricken, already imposes its own constraints. The cherry tree's canopy now precludes growing vegetables in the southwest corner. I use the spot for early grape hyacinths (Muscari), which are finished by the time the tree leafs out. After that, it's hosta-land.

The bed that runs inside the west fence once held climbing vegetables and herbs. But about eight years ago, unable to resist the color, I stuck in a peach-colored rose and next to it (though I can't remember why), celeriac. At first glance, the beautiful rose and the overbearing celeriac seem mismatched, yet they thrive in each other's company. So some choices are already made. But others still hang fire.

Uncertainty brings out the latent (nearly moribund) housekeeper in me. Clearing unwanted debris helps to clarify the landscape both physical and mental. Thanks to the weirdly warm weather, I've been straightening all winter.

For the first time since the children entered school, the south perennial border is completely weeded and mulched.

I pruned back the three overgrown sage bushes that originally anchored the bed, cleared drifts of dried mare's tail, dug up, separated and replanted butter-yellow yarrow (Achillea) and added apricot daylilies (Hemerocallis), multicolored Dutch iris and peony. And there's still room for new things.

I like the notion of a grand plan. It implies a beginning, middle and end, which suggests satisfying completion. It also helps to prevent scattered, disjointed scraps of garden. But as I restore the edge to the ragged herb-and-perennial bed, I realize that I am not a grand planner. I'm an improviser. I assess what's available (or possible, or worth trying), and go from there.

In part, abandoning the idea of a grand plan is an acknowledgement that even without children here, I'm not alone. Present in every corner and curve is a host of improvisations that over the years has taught me a lot and added to the textured whole. It's fun to imagine being 16 with unlimited possibilities, but I'm enjoying the retrospective approach.

I'm grateful for the lessons -- and the experiences -- that have brought me to this point. I appreciate the garden's diverse colors and shapes, the mixture of perennial and annual, of sustenance and imagination.

I like the garden's history, which is, after all, one transition after another. The trick is to make the inevitable transitions between one patch and the next gracefully so that even if it isn't easy, it looks like a relatively seamless whole.

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