“You must remember, garden catalogues are as big liars as house agents.”
—Rumer Godden, China Court
My love affair with gardening was tumultuous from day one, fraught with all the heights and depths of a grande amour. Mainly self-taught, my earliest attempts were characterized by rapturous perusals of garden catalogues, advertising such wonders as heat-tolerant lilacs and humidity-resistant tea roses. As a teenager, I pored over Jackson & Perkins, Park Seed, and White Flower Farm with the avidity other girls my age brought to YM and Seventeen. The pictures and descriptions made my heart pound, and much of my hard-earned babysitting money went to seed packets, bulbs, and bareroot crowns. I remember the agony of trying to decide between bleeding heart and lily of the valley, and the exquisite promise of the gardenia-like “Rose of May” daffodil.
If it was old-fashioned, sweetly scented, and so much as mentioned in an L.M. Montgomery novel, I wanted to grow it. I sketched out a plan for a patch of uncultivated earth on the south side of a massive magnolia tree in my parents’ front yard, drawing and re-drawing the placement of my anticipated darlings. Some nights I was so excited about my garden I literally could not sleep.
In all my zeal it never occurred to me that silly things like hardiness zones and growing requirements really mattered all that much. Those were for other peoples’ gardens, not mine—my garden would be loved into existence, regional limitations be hanged!
Sadly, as may be imagined, a lot of that money would have been better spent as straight fodder for the compost bin (which I’d likewise saved up to buy). For the fact is, no matter how much I wished it otherwise—wished it to the point of believing—English primroses just don’t like Georgia’s sudden and generally brief springs, and sweet peas absolutely will not grow here unless you plant them in October, period. And nothing—nothing I was interested in growing, at least—was going to flourish in packed red clay. The weeds, on the other hand, seemed to get along just fine. By mid-June, what was left of my garden was completely drowned in chickweed and Johnsongrass.
If my garden knows the curse of the Fall, by way of thorns and herbivorous larvae and fusarium wilt, then surely, surely it knows a Reclamation is burgeoning—is, indeed, already underway.Lanier Ivester
Amazingly, I was undaunted by this early heartbreak. Quite the contrary, in fact. Which goes to show that even disasters have their metaphorically compostable value. The money I spent that first year made me all the more selective the next—and it also made me take another look at those dratted hardiness zones. I invited a dear friend of my mother’s, who happened to be an accomplished gardener, to advise me on soil amendments and plant recommendations, taking every drop of advice most soberly to heart. I mixed topsoil, mushroom compost, and sand to help drain that red clay, and I bought plants from a local nursery—special plants, like “Strawberry” foxgloves and veronica and blue salvia, which also happen to thrive in our area. My friend gave me a slip of a “Fairy” rose from her own garden to get things started, and it was the anchor of my planting design. When I married and moved to an old farmhouse several years later, that rose came with me, to anchor a new perennial garden at my new home.
The years since have seen considerable extremes of triumph and tragedy in my garden career. My husband built me the kitchen plot of my dreams soon after we were married, and I will never forget how the outer beds were ringed that second year with the salmon-colored bells of foxgloves I had grown from seed, nursing them through a full three seasons in the basement and on the patio before they were ready for the garden. I had all-but named them, they were so dear to me. Then, of course, there was the summer I had surgery and let the chives go to seed—over ten years ago, and I am still cursing that bit of oversight as I wrench volunteer chive plants out of the stacked-rock beds.
But, oh, those stacked-rock beds! And that picket fence curtained with morning glories! Over time, we added a birdbath in the center and a colony of Italian honeybees in one of the herb beds, and, after a brief interlude of pine bark mulch, I laid out the paths in pea gravel. I confess, for all our ups and downs, we’ve had an understanding, my garden and me. And there have been times—amid the spring planting, for instance, or on a June morning when the beds around me fairly jubilate with squash and tomatoes and summer flowers—when I have felt the love flowing out of my hands and into the soil.
I’ve always thought it loves me, too—in spite of my many mistakes and failures—in the way that our Creator meant for His creation to live in mutual respect and benevolence. And if my garden knows the curse of the Fall, by way of thorns and herbivorous larvae and fusarium wilt, then surely, surely it knows a Reclamation is burgeoning—is, indeed, already underway.
I sometimes suspect it knows it better than I do.
Life has seen some significant challenges in recent years, and, by default, my beloved kitchen garden got demoted to low-priority status. The picket gate started to sag; the stacked rock beds caved in places. The honeybees quitted their pretty little English hive for more advantageous lodgings—a hollow tree, no doubt, or an unoccupied porch column. My neighbor saw them swarm and thought, most reasonably, “Hm. There go Lanier’s bees.”
I could hardly blame them. But their going fell on my heart like a dirge, or the last light out in a deserted house.
Plantings were out of the question. The weed situation, on the other hand, became a running joke between my teenaged farm assistant and me: at least once or twice a summer I’d hire him to help me bring order out of chaos, and together we’d whack and haul for hours at a time.
“You know,” I told him on the hottest day of July, leaning on a fence post and drawing a grimy hand against my forehead, “I’m thinking about putting in a swimming pool. Right. Here.”
Two years ago, I looked out my kitchen window one January morning and was obliged to admit that my little garden was a nearly irreparable ruin. Dry weeds rose against a dour sky, rattling their seed pods menacingly in each gust of wind. (No wonder the French call them mauvaises herbes—“wicked plants”!) The center beds looked more like graves of dead lavender and rosemary, and the once-neat paths were obliterated under two winters’ worth of leaves and out-of-control clematis vines. After a long stretch of sorrow and bereavement in my life, the effort of reclamation seemed greater than all the years of cultivating put together.
Maybe I’ll be a gardener in my 60s, I thought rather dismally, turning from the window with a sigh.
The trouble with gardening, however, is that once you’re in love—and I mean really in love—it’s for keeps. No amount of discouragement or unpropitious circumstance is going to uproot that mysterious tangle of delight and desire from your heart. Like all the great loves in history, love of gardening persists, often in the face of impossible odds. At unlooked-for times, and in unlooked-for ways, the passion ignites, and you remember what you knew as a girl: even if the end result doesn’t live up to the promise—even if the promise is unattainable this side of heaven—the desire itself is sweet enough to make up for it.
What’s more, the thing the promise points to is real, and your effort to incarnate it in an orderly vegetable patch or a flowerbed of flaming color is to claim a bit of Eden on a weed-choked, hard-crusted old earth still dreaming of a beautiful past and a redeemed future.
You rejoice to find that neither drought, nor busyness, nor squash vine borers have power to snuff out that original spark, and that a seed catalogue, or a fleck of green on an otherwise dead-looking hydrangea cutting can still summon a quick rush of tears. Of all things.
That very January I found my passion for gardening kindled once more amid the pages of Christie Purifoy’s quietly radiant book Roots and Sky. Christie’s journey to make a home out of an old house, and her efforts to embody truth with tangible beauty, were so close to my own heart and story it was like having an extended talk with a kindred spirit. I read more than half of it out-loud to Philip, and I’ve lost count how many friends have whipped out their iPhones and bought it on the spot at my enthusiastic recommendation.
I loved—savored—every word. Midway through, however, I closed the covers and placed it on the bedside table with a sigh of resignation.
“What is it?” Philip wanted to know.
“I’m cleaning out my potting shed tomorrow,” I said. “Christie’s started talking about Brandywine tomatoes, and I just can’t bear it.”
The truth is, Christie’s gentle and joyous reflections on gardening, from seed catalogue to wealth of summer harvest, felt so familiar as to be painful. It was years since I’d had my own little army of green under a lamp in the basement; years since I’d tasted an heirloom tomato I’d grown from seed. Years since I’d had enough produce to share with friends, and still enough to put up in the freezer. I knew I couldn’t continue reading her book until I had responded to the very personal and particular unction I had found in its pages.
Accordingly, I fell on the little above-ground basement beneath our sunroom which has served as my potting shed since I moved here, sweeping, tossing, unearthing, and rearranging. I sterilized flats and trays, dropped seeds into ranks, wrote labels for herbs and flowers. And tomatoes, of course. Next to the name “Brandywine” I drew a little heart. Always my favorite, it meant even more to me now. The memory of it, the promise of it, had tumbled me headlong back into gardening.
Multiple times a day I ventured down to the basement to talk to my seedlings, check water levels, re-route tendrils of moonvine. It was the re-beginnings of my garden, the promise of both nourishment and beauty, framed in a west-facing window.
There was so much work ahead to prepare the beds and reclaim my kitchen plot from ruin. But as dear old L.M. Montgomery said, “It is always safe to dream of spring. For it is sure to come; and if it be not just as we have pictured it, it will be infinitely sweeter.”
Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.