A new season

all creeping things –
the bell of transience.
– Issa

It was not wise to go back. You could have warned me. But he wanted to know how to care for the grapevine. And potted plants had been placed on the stoop. That was reassurance.

I could not assume the new people would take up the mantle. Gardening takes time and effort and commitment. It involves error and failure and tragedy and frustration. In this demanding city, with its extreme yet temperate climate, only the determined persist beyond the summer petunias and gaudy azaleas.

I relished the final season of my modified English garden, which really should not have been tried in the steamy heat of relentless Washington summers. As if to reward seven years of toil and learning, it gave me one last glorious spring. The most spectacular spring.

The climbing rose burst through the upper branches of the nectarine tree to form a cascade, a twelve-foot waterfall of deep red, beautiful wild roses, best viewed from an upper window…the eglantine engrained in imagination from a thousand Midsummer’s Night Dreams. The azalea exploded in birthday cake pink and the camellia earlier heralded spring with its warm ivory blooms. A single lily of the valley displayed its plastic flowers, throwing off a perfume that would rival a department store scent. The wet spring created the lushest garden ever.

In the evenings leading up to the move, I would sit in the dark garden with the cat, consuming my evening glass of red wine, and contemplating the events that led up to now. Thankfully, I savored those final evenings, observing the daily growth and change of the spring garden.

I worried about its future and planned to write a guide to caring for it. I never had time, in spite of composing it repeatedly in my mind. But before I went back to collect my mail, I gathered up the plastic labels that had accompanied each plant from the nursery. I had religiously collected and washed them after planting every new addition.

When I arrived the roses outside the front door looked fine. Ok, they needed deadheading, but I had struggled to keep on top of that task. He thanked me for reminding him to water them—he wouldn’t have otherwise known. I explained the importance of pruning and we entered the house.

The small and charming space that once was our home seemed dingy and shabby. A stuffed leather maroon sofa dominated the tiny living room and an oversized television perched precariously on the small cabinet. The dining room had always been the center of our social world. People gravitated to the welcoming kitchen for drinks and dinner and poker games and badly played bridge.

But the presence of two huge dog beds precluded anything but a tiny café table pushed up against the wall. The dogs had been locked upstairs but were clearly the size of calves. The house had degenerated since its glorious masquerade as an aspiring Crate & Barrel tableau for the open house. The four weeks since my departure seemed to equate to a couple of years of a rough family living in a small house.

We stepped into the garden where the grapevine was as aggressively healthy as usual. We talked about the type of grape and when it would ripen and how the neighbors’ children liked to pick them.

He drew my eye to the nectarine tree. For seven years the squirrel had defeated every attempt to preserve even one fruit for me to sample. But something, I later realized the dogs, had kept the voracious consumer of soft fruit kernels at bay. And then my gaze fell downwards to survey the flowerbed, the heart of my green world, thirty square feet filled with perennials.

I had feared drought—it’s tough to keep things watered in brutal July and August—but I had never imagined destruction.

In four short weeks, perhaps in four short days or only four short hours, the beasts had trampled every tender perennial into oblivion. Never mind if the plants were several feet or several inches high, they could not withstand repeated tramping. The hosta was flattened in a perfect circle. Other plants had vanished completely. The clematis growing in the tree, its roots hidden behind another shrub, was protected but dying of thirst, it’s rapacious tendrils crisping up.

I had in fact taken a couple of plants…but in my overly diligent manner I had replaced them with newly purchased salvias. And I had only removed those that had outgrown the space…a huge Lenten rose, a Texas gravetye clematis that needed climbing room, and I had split, not taken, but split the pulmonaria that bloomed early each year.

In fact, I could have removed everything except the azalea and camellia, which were standing up well to the animals, thanks to their size and maturity.

I handed him the batch of plant labels attempting to make a joke about their redundancy.

“I’m sorry you had to see it like this,” he said.

Now the gardener is the one who has seen everything ruined so many times that (even as his pain increases with each loss) he comprehends – truly knows – that where there was a garden once, it can be again, or where there never was, there yet can be a garden.
– Henry Mitchell

7 responses to “A new season”

  1. Rachel says:

    Stella, I read your post first hoping, then fearing, that there would be accompanying photos. Your final note of hope is encouraging, but still–I’m so sorry.

  2. Adriana says:

    Oh no, Stella, I’m so sorry. Well, here’s to the gardens in your future.

  3. Tim says:

    And here’s to the memories you have of the garden you made. Long live the garden!

  4. Dave says:

    Thanks for this piece, Stella. Gardening is such a lesson in impermanence.

  5. LP says:

    Jeesh, how sad. Not just the garden, but the giant dog beds in the dining room! That house was just big enough for two people and two cats – can’t imagine what it’s like to live there with big, energetic, plant-trampling dogs.

    Sorry you had to see that, Stella! Hopefully you can block it out and remember the house as it was for so long — charming, welcoming and happy. xo

  6. lane says:

    god that’s sad.

    i have some ground cover you gave us in our front planting space. it’s never really taken off because there is so much shade, but it is well rooted now, five years on, and looks great,

    i always think of you when i fiddle with it.

    your garden lives on.

    thanks stella

  7. Stella says:

    Thanks everyone! I’m now over the shock but if you have nice pictures of anything in the garden, send them to me sometime.