“So much of earth, so much of heaven…”

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

"Youth like summer morn..." ~Shakespeare

They’re lying in wait outside the kitchen door like children whispering over a surprise, giddy with the secret they keep. Blousy bright maids amid the tired leaves and blossoms, the only ladies of the garden tough enough to look fresh after what July’s dealt them. And though I pass them every morning on the way to the barn and every evening trudging back to the house at the rounding up of a long day, though the surprise is unvaryingly the same and always given in a consistent manner, it never fails to startle me. To shock and move me out of the moment of time I happen to occupy and transport me to another one altogether. Feelings of a me that was and still is rise like a tide and other days’ passions quicken to life once more.

The scent of summer phlox is seventeen to me.

Philip has doubtless heard me say it a thousand times. I’ve bitten my tongue over it at least a hundred just this summer, though he never minds when I repeat myself. (A good thing! ;) ) But even the sentiment under which I planted them in my garden could not have fathomed how evocative that fragrance would be, or just what riches lay locked within its treasury. What shades would rouse beneath its spell, what notes and essences it would bear in its perfume.

It is a girl that turned seventeen in July when the phlox was at its peak. It’s a new Laura Ashley skirt and a croquet party in the front yard with friends in hues as sweet as a summer nosegay. A picnic on the floor in the dining room when rain threatened and Rigmarole and hand-written menus and ribbons on fans. It’s kindred spirits and laughter that will never tarnish though long ages roll over it. For that’s the way with the laughter of our youth: if a baby’s laugh makes a fairy, as the great Barrie believed, then a happy girl’s laugh must be likewise immortal. An undying bird, perhaps. Or a perennial flower.

Dreams were close companions in those days and ideals had yet to be troubled by even a cloud of unkind realities. Yet, looking back—carried back, as it were—I know that so many of those dreams have been realized beyond even the dreaming of them. Have put on flesh in the form of the man who walks beside me and in all the bleats, plowings, cackles, barks, hammerings, purrs, crowings and creakings of the home we have made together. Have expanded to include a scope I’d never have dared to imagine. Ideals remain high—higher than ever, you might say. But their sights are set beyond the mere horizons of this life alone and the underpinnings have been examined with a critical eye. Some of them have been packed away with the rose leaves of youth and others have been proven and tried for the duration. And the pillars that wobbled in places have been stabilized with the only Foundation than can support them.

There’s something in the eyes of that seventeen year-old girl that I quail before, however. Something that challenges me so deeply that my gaze falters before hers. For all her untested ideals and notions about life, there is a love for Jesus Christ that absolutely blazes out of her. Do I still love Him that way? I can hardly bear to ask myself the question. Is He still the morning star of my life, the sun and the moon and all that lies between? Does He still have my heart as unreservedly as He did then?

Lord, send me anywhere, only go with me—

(I used to sing it blithely with my friends and mean every line. Now it frightens me a little.)

Lay any burden on me, only sustain me,
Sever any tie, save the tie that binds me to Thy heart.
Lord Jesus, my King, I consecrate my life, Lord, to Thee.

I tremble and close my eyes over unshed tears.

I remember thee, the old verse whispers in my heart, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.*

It was a wilderness of a different sort then, another kind of waiting for that unproven heart. But the principle is the same, the temptation as real: to wander in the wilderness or to follow. To espouse our heart’s desires for their own sake or the Lover of our soul for His.

Pain has taken my hand many times since the days of ‘winsome seventeen’, and sorrow has occasionally nudged dreams to the side with a motion of gentle forestallment. I look back at my ingenuous self with her eager eyes still begging the question and I smile.

Yes, my young friend. I still love Him. More than ever. More than life. He’s more than even you could dream of, chief among dreamers though you are. You haven’t the faintest notion of how good He is. Not yet…

And nor have I, really. But what I know makes me love the thought of passing another year in His company.

~~

The phlox is all gone from the neighbor’s house where it was gathered in endless bouquets in endless summers all those years ago. But maybe I’ll take some to my mother’s when we go over next week.

Perhaps she’ll put it on my birthday cake.

Keep true to the dreams of thy youth. ~Schiller

*Jeremiah 2.2

Abloom and Afresh

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Welcome, maids of honor, You doe bring in the spring, And wait upon her. ~Robert Herrick, 'To Violets'

There is something in the air today that feels like England. I caught its fragrance this morning the moment I opened the windows. A greenness that you could smell, inhale, be nourished by. A great leaping joy in growing things and in the songs of the birds. And when I took my little constitutional after breakfast, I could almost imagine that I was there–if I stopped and closed my eyes my sweet white-throated sparrow might just be an English robin and the grass beneath my feet the satiny verdure of a hill pasture in Cornwall. Even the aroma of the barn as I passed it, the ‘rich, ovine scent’, to paraphrase Mr. Herriot, was full of happy associations. The sky was overcast with a pale curtain of light-filled clouds, a strange sort of relief from the almost unbearably lovely April days of blossom and sunshine we’ve been enjoying, and I was glad to need the little sweater that I had grabbed on my way out the door.

Then it began to rain, the sweetest, silvery-est shower, and it felt more like England than ever. The moisture seemed to coax the heart out of every mingled fragrance abroad–cut grass and violet banks and crabapple blossoms and green leaves–decanting it all as it were into an intoxicating libation of Spring. I passed the goats and sheep on the way back to the house, running as joyfully towards their shelter as I was for my own, and I laughed out loud.

There’s not one spot on all the face of this earth that I would rather inhabit at this moment than the one that I am on.

I’ve traded the coquetry of May and the poignancy of September for the charms of the Blessed Plot and hardly glanced back over my shoulder. I’ve left my roses blooming to wander in a daze through the gardens of the Cotswolds and I’ve gladly exchanged summer’s last giddy fling to feel the breath of autumn on my face in Oxford.

But I just don’t think that I could trade the magic of April for any other splendors that this world affords. Even the world that is England and is as dear to me as native turf. Browning taunts me, as he does each year, with his plaint, Oh, to be in England, now that April’s there! But I feel sure that if I missed all this sweetness and light, these heaven-fresh mornings and sun-shot twilights and this greening of the bit of earth that is my own, I’d be just as homesick for it as Browning himself was for his ‘blossomed pear tree’ and ‘wise thrush’ .

...and scatters on the clover blossoms and dewdrops..." Robert Browining, 'Home Thoughts from Abroad'

There is a sweet alchemy at work in my world. Trees watched anxiously have burst into flower and leaf while we glanced away. Old friends have shown their first blossomed faces in my flower garden and grape vines that looked devoid of life a week ago are covered with tiny flags of foliage. We’ve been hard at work every Saturday–in the wind and the sun, with farmers’ tans to prove it–clearing away the debris of a long winter and preparing for the glad season to come. The beehives have been painted afresh. The barn foundation has been jacked up and replaced. The beds have been cleared in my vegetable garden and are waiting to welcome the seeds of summer towards the middle of next week.

And there’s been a mirrored image of it all in own heart, it seems. A renewing of the mind. A needful pruning. A tending and nourishing of faith. It is no exaggeration to say that this was the most meaningful and probing Lenten season that I have ever known–and how the sadness of winter’s last hold seemed to underscore it all!

But the beauty of April has heralded the beauty of the Resurrection in a way that I will never forget. Easter morning seemed lent  from Heaven itself, so fresh and lovely and full of joy. The church service was a glorious pageantry of trumpets and incense and a Cross so wreathed in flowers as it made my eyes well to look at it. The lingering resonance of an angelic descant and the great, glad, joyous pealing of bells as we stepped out into the sunshine.

And there we were met with the music of the birds, just as joyful; the garlanding of flowers upon the dogwood trees; the sweet incense of Life in God’s awakened world.

Thanks be to God for His unspeakable Gift.

A lovesome thing

Monday, May 11th, 2009

DSC_1574.JPG

After the heartbreak of last summer’s drought, I let it be known far and wide that I had officially become a three-season gardener: winter, spring and fall. After all, I reasoned, there are plenty of things that can be grown in the South over the winter; plenty of things that need a good dose of the best cold we’ve got to give. Plants and seeds that love to be tucked into a good leaf-mulched October bed for a long winter’s nap; sturdy little lettuces and cabbages that toss their green heads at January’s worst.

It was easy to say that in August, when everything was dead or dying and the refreshing bloom of autumn’s bright color had not yet awakened the tired and dusty world. “Maybe a few tomato plants,” I told my friends, because how could I ever do without a basket of home-grown tomatoes on my kitchen counter all summer? But for the rest it was cool season crops: the very name sounded like water to my parched soul. A few zinnias and cosmos for good measure. But I just didn’t have it in me to battle the heat and the drought and the squash vine borers and the Japanese beetles and the mosquitoes and the unidentifiable spiky-backed black and red things that seem to live for sweet peas that mean gardening in the South in the summer.

Or so I thought.

But being outside so much with the animals and in the barn has made me a little sturdier, as well, I guess. I don’t quail as I once would over tramping outside in a frosty dawn with my Wellies and the chunky wool sweater I bought in the Lake District eleven years ago (and which always seemed such an overkill for my mild little winter insulation in the house). A driving rain is no longer an excuse to stay in, for the sheep must be let out and the chickens fed whether it’s pouring outside or not. (The goats, for the record, would much rather sleep in of a rainy morning, curled up together on their green blanket in their stall. But with the instantly-cozy sound of rain drumming on that tin roof, who can blame them?)

So the ‘elements’ have become rather more friendly acquaintances than foes to be avoided. And spending half my time out of doors has given me a much keener appreciation of the seasons, and all the gentle undulations of change and renewal within them. No matter how busy the days become, there is always that early morning ramble across the pasture with the sheep and goats in which daily developments of leaf and bud and blade are scrutinized and appreciated. Never before has the re-emergence of the fescue grasses been such a matter of rejoicing, or the tender new growth and fragrant white fountains of the dog roses been greeted with such wholesale delight. Puck and Pansy would rather eat them, of course, and would surely tell me that I am missing out on a greatly-anticipated seasonal delicacy. But I much prefer to merely drink in their scent on a dew-wet May morning.

And so all of the color and perfume abroad have quickened a yearly madness in me, and I have fallen prey to the raptures of antique roses in full bloom and the enticements of an awakened flower garden. So many of last summer’s seemingly failed attempts have plucked up the courage to give it another go, and so have I. I guess I am such an incurable gardener that even the all-too-vivid memory of August’s ruin is a thing to be scoffed at in this triumphantly leaf-bright world. The peach trees, which I ran out of time to prune properly, have more peaches than ever. (Now, if I can just keep the squirrels away!) The aforementioned roses, which now comprise the sacred precincts of the bee yard and which received nothing more than a good barnyard mulch—compliments of the sheep and goats—are at their loveliest. And the potatoes, which I thought killed off by a late frost, are all beginning to flower, and there are dozens of little round red ones under their blanket of hay—I peeked.

My proclaimed summer tomatoes have become eleven in all. And they have grown to include peppers. And eggplant and zucchini and cucumbers and pole beans and arugula. And squash, of course. (My one consolation in that never-ending battle is that there won’t be squash vine borers in heaven.) I also planted the seeds of a lovely vine called Queen Anne’s Pocket, an heirloom melon that my sister-in-law gave me and which is reportedly so fragrant that Victorian women used to carry them as a form of perfume. There were two herb beds that were just asking to be replanted, as well. And I just had to add some more bee balm to the flower garden. Of course. For the girls.

So it looks like I have a summer garden, after all. And if the weather continues its merciful pattern of rain, I expect more of a jungle to contend with than a desert wasteland. Which is fine with me—I’ll take on mildew any day over a frizzling heat. It broke my heart last summer to see my gorgeous summer phlox hang their blossom-crowned heads and give up in despair. Even the notoriously dominant four o’clocks cringed and held their places in the garden as if marshaling their reserves.

I was walking in my friend’s garden the other day, greeting her flowers with her and being introduced to some new additions in a spring twilight so fair and fresh it made the heat of summer seem nothing short of implausible. And yet we moaned over it a bit, anticipated a few disasters. Worried over watering restrictions or the inverse of mildew and slugs. But we both spoke with such a quiet joy, bending over a full-blown peony or expounding upon the merits of a Graham Thomas rose. “Aren’t they sweet?” she said, with a loving look at the tall spikes of delphinium flanking her arbor. “We’re just trying to enjoy our garden this year, not stress out about what makes it and what doesn’t make it. That’s all we can do, you know.” She looked at me intently with eyes as blue as the flowers we had just been admiring. “God wants us to enjoy our gardens, Lanier.”

Such simple words. And yet, it’s the simple things that are the most profound in the end. I have thought of this so many times the past few days, as I have nestled plants into the ground with a hope and a prayer, drawing the mulch back up around them like a mother tucking in her children. She was so right, poignantly, penetratingly so. My garden is a place where I can commune with God with a mind unencumbered with less fundamental things. I can partner with Him in the joy of creation and enjoy the two-fold fruits of beauty and sustenance. I can literally read the parables of life before me in these dying seeds and growing things.

It is a gorgeous privilege to grow a garden, and I would not be complete without it. Even the discouraging parts. God knows that, thanks be to Him, and reminded me of it in time to get my summer garden in. And come July, when hope starts to droop a little bit, I imagine He’ll remind me of leeks and cabbages and lettuce and carrots. For I fear I have not become the three-season gardener that I pronounced myself last fall. I’m a year-round gardener. And a hopelessly optimistic one, at that.

My garden is a lovesome thing—God wot!

Rose plot,

Fringed pool,

Ferned grot—

The veriest school

of peace; and yet the fool

contends that God is not.—

Not God in gardens! When the eve

is cool?

Nay, but I have a sign!

‘Tis very sure God walks in mine.

Thomas Edward Brown

My Garden

My own patch of sky

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

00008107.JPG 

With a bound she leaped to the top of a hill and looked down into a dell carpeted with bluebells. She checked and paused, still poised on her toes with her arms stretched out. The bluebells ran down the sides of the dell in rivulets and gathered at the bottom into a pool of azure. The sun that smote through the trees overhead gathered up their scent, so that it brimmed the dell like wine in a cup, and when the wind blew the slender stalks near Henrietta leaned all one way, bending their blue heads.

Elizabeth Goudge, A City of Bells

With that one passage, encountered not many weeks before our pilgrimage to England two years ago, I promptly fell in love with the bluebell. Imagine my delight, then, to find in a bit of travel reading a few days later that we were slated to alight on British soil at the very heady blue peak of the famed woodland bloom. From almost the first moments after our arrival, as the refined pastoral scenes of Surrey began to flash past the windows of our newly-rented car, I began to perceive the azure pools and glimpses of inimitable blue beneath the trees and along the roadsides. By the time we reached Herefordshire a few days later, I had learned to anticipate them, detecting just which settings and scenes they most seemed to favor. From a rocky, seaside descent in Devon to the byways of the Golden Valley, they accompanied us on our ramblings, and became the sweetest symbol of an unforgettable Maytime in England.

Last fall, my husband planted me my own little pool of woodland blue. We chose the site with care, remembering all the loved the places we’d found the bluebell growing most happily. Philip planted the bulbs with the random care required for naturalization: scattering them lightly and then nestling them into the earth where they fell. Early in the spring he was obliged to build a little fence around them, low enough for us to cross but high enough to prevent the inquisitive nibbles of goats and sheep, or the indiscriminate padding of a huge Pyr paw. It meant the world to me, from the planting to the preserving, and I look forward to the spreading carpet of those swinging bells on their graceful stalks each spring.

The first bloom was a small celebration, and as I knelt upon the decaying leaves and moist earth and took the first long breath of my own bluebells, I was back in England, if only for a moment.

At the top of a hill, gazing down into a dell carpeted with bluebells…

 DSC_2336.jpg

And all forlorn

Wednesday, April 11th, 2007

We had an absolutely blighting frost this weekend, and much of the tender new growth that was last week so fair and fresh has blackened hopelessly or hangs limp upon shivering boughs. Where has our lovely spring gone? On Easter Sunday I wore a wool suit and fur in place of the white English net tea gown I originally had in mind!

As I wandered about the yard yesterday morning surveying the damage, I couldn’t help but ask the Lord why He had allowed it. After He had taken such pains to make everything so beautiful, why send such bitter weather to destroy it? I mean, I’m enough of a Southern girl to have a healthy respect for our notorious bursts of ‘blackberry winter’—I’d never consider setting out anything remotely tender before Tax Day. (As it is, I’ve been hustling seed flats and small potted foxgloves in and out of the basement for nearly a week now as our nighttime temperatures would kill them rather than ‘harden them off’.) But it broke my heart to see the curled leaves on my hydrangeas, the dejected and lifeless buds on the Confederate jasmine, the withered remains of the bright new growth that had once clothed the majestic old crepe myrtle that nearly fills our side yard.

There was such a depressing sobriety to the scene, a strange and brooding sense of things beyond my control. Philip and I had covered up everything we could, racing about in the windy dark, throwing every spare sheet I owned over gardenias and roses all in bud and tender summer forget-me-nots that our late warm weather had charmed into believing it was May…

But there was nothing I could do besides—except hope and pray, which I did with a right good will! And, after everything, be grateful for all that was spared: the slender fingers of green on our beloved willow tree out front, my stout-hearted little sweet peas, the raspberries that were just leafing out, the irises with their swollen purple buds. The summer phlox—queen of my garden—the poppies and cranesbill and hollyhocks. I felt I loved them more than ever in that still grey morning.

He hath made everything beautiful in its time. I felt the truth of those words, the consciousness of God’s sovereignty, rising in my heart as surely as the sap was rising in the growing things all around me—green and otherwise. He had done it before and He would do it again. All manner of things would be well. I thought, whimsically, that I knew what those frost-burned creatures would say, had they power of speech—or, rather, what they were saying, perhaps, could I but hear their language:

Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him…

For it’s still spring. The quickening life is yet abroad and new growth will replace that which has been allowed to die. The same God that restores a life blighted with disappointed hopes, that heals a broken heart, that binds the wounds and dries the tears of His beloved people, will send His rains and His sunshine once more upon the earth. And this spring, the only spring we have in our possession, will be beautiful in its time.

Christina Rossetti’s Another Spring has always held a solemn charge for me to live in the present and cherish the joys of today. Perhaps this spring it is most applicable of all…

 

If I might see another Spring

I’d not plant summer flowers and wait:

I’d have my crocuses at once,

My leafless pink mezereons,

My chill-veined snowdrops, choicer yet

My white or azure violet,

Leaf-nested primrose; anything

To blow at once, not late.

 

If I might see another Spring

I’d listen to the daylight birds

That build their nests and pair and sing,

Nor wait for mateless nightingale;

I’d listen to the lusty herds,

The ewes with lambs as white as snow,

I’d find out music in the hail

And all the winds that blow.

 

If I might see another Spring—

Oh stinging comment on my past

That all my past results in ‘if’—

If I might see another Spring

I’d laugh to-day, to-day is brief;

I would not wait for anything:

I’d use to-day that cannot last,

Be glad to-day and sing.

 

The Art of Propogation

Friday, February 2nd, 2007

While I’m certainly no expert on propogation, I thought I’d share my little successes in this most satisfying of garden practices, in the hopes that others might be inspired to take a few cuttings of their own–particularly when they see how simple and fun it can be.

My mother-in-law is the master of this art, and it was her fine example that led me to take a few tentative samples from the majestic hydrangeas in the garden of a house she had recently moved away from. My husband looked down at the handful of bare, brown twigs I held out to him and said, "Those are going to be bushes?" Truth be told, I had my doubts, as well, but I certainly wouldn’t be out anything if the project failed. So I took them home and looked up ‘Propogation of Cuttings’ in my cherished 1931 Gardening in the South by George R. Briggs. I’ve always been just a little bit afraid of George R. Briggs–he’s no nonsense, and has very strong opinions on things I’d never even thought of before–but I trust him. If he says that an all-over mulch spoils the effect of a rose bed, then I lay the bed to grass around the bushes. If he tells me to cut said roses almost to the ground, I swallow hard and then fall upon them with the shears. And if he states that, "Plants grown from cuttings are by far the most important from the home owner’s standpoint," then, by golly, I’d better get busy propogating! ;)

I really was amazed at how simple it was. The size of the cutting itself will vary according to the plant or shrub, but you need to clip a twig that has at least two or three nodes along the stem. Cut as close to the nodes as possible at the top and bottom of the twig, and if there are leaves, strip all but the top node.   

Surprisingly, one of the best mediums for rooting cuttings is wet sand. It seems to hold just the right amount of moisture close to the stem and stays damp for a long time. Immerse the cutting in a jar of play sand that has been soaked with water and the excess poured off–only the top node should be above the surface. This will produce–or continue to produce–the leaves, while the nodes beneath will send down the roots. Miraculous! :) They need a good source of light, and, if it’s still cold, protection from the elements. (I started mine under a flourescent light in the basement.) And they need to be kept evenly moist, never flooded or dried out. That’s all!

That first attempt of mine was quite ambitious–as all of my first attempts at anything new seem to be when I have no idea what I’m getting into! In addition to the hydrangeas, I started some wild grapes from a vine Philip’s grandfather had planted, as well as several varieties of my mother-in-law’s roses, including a Chinquapin rose that she had propogated from a cutting of her great-grandmother’s bush!

As none of my samples had any leaves on them, it really was fascinating and exciting to watch each and every one leaf out and begin to grow over the weeks that followed. To be sure, it took a long time to see any progress, and many days I was tempted to toss the whole lot as a failed venture, but I’ll never forget that morning that I went down to check on them and saw that first little flush of green at the tip of a hydrangea cutting. I think I danced a jig for joy!

Once my roses leafed out, I planted them in a ‘holding bay’ corner of my flower garden and placed mason jars over them. As they continued to grow, the moisture given off by the leaves created a nice little hothouse effect. This can also be done after the initial bushes have gotten their leaves, skipping the wet sand stage and keeping several inches of foliage above the ground.

The hydrangeas and grape vines summered on the patio in pots and were put out the following spring. It is worth noting that I planted four ‘store bought’ hydrangeas across the yard the very same day that these still-tiny bushes went in the ground–and now, almost three years later, the plants from cuttings are three times the size of those nursery varieties! They’re not full grown yet–and I’m sure they’re looking forward to some fertilizer this spring!–but they’re sturdy and staunch and their blooms have been large and long-lasting. (Not to mention the fact that they survived both the roofing and the painting of the house, being planted along the western wall and subject to unbelievable debris and trampling and ladders and heavy boots!)

There are untold methods and means of this gentle art, but each, I’m sure, will yield the same rewarding results. I love it because it’s fun, and it makes me feel like I’m being a good steward of the beauty God surrounds us with. And I appreciate the sense of connection it can give with people and places–other gardeners, dear friends, loved spots.

When my mother and I drove away from my grandmother’s house for the very last time after the closing, I stopped in the driveway and snapped off a branch of the oak leaf hydrangea that grew outside the dining room windows. It was like a little bit of my grandmother, and all that she loved. I’m still nursing it along in a little pot on my porch a year and-a-half later. But I like to think that down the road I can point it out to my children in my yard and remind them where it came from. And maybe they’ll look forward to taking a cutting for their own someday gardens…   

When nature lies despoiled of every charm…

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Sowing sweet pea seeds outdoors in January seems like an act of faith.

Especially when the sun hasn’t shown its face in days and the whole world is sodden and drear. I was almost laughing at the absurdity of it last week when, bundled in my winter coat and hurrying against the cold of a cheerless afternoon, I dug my hoe into the beds outside my vegetable garden and turned over the rich loam. Dropping the seeds into the little trenches I had made, I felt like I needed to apologize to them. I had to keep reminding myself that they like it…that hopefully we’ll have enough really cold weather over the next few weeks of this fitful winter to do them some good. That they’re alot tougher than they look–like a Southern belle? ;) –and that it’s our languishing summers that they fear more than anything.

I was leafing through a seed catalogue the other day–one of my guilty pleasures–and paused quite wistfully over the two-page spread of sweet pea varieties. There was only one of the whole lot that was actually stout-hearted enough to declare its resistance to all that zone 7 can dish out. Old Spice–it’s all I’ve ever had any luck with, but it’s of a lovely, old-fashioned stock of many colors and I adore it. I’ve never had enough blooms to sacrifice to a bouquet–shocking extravagance!–like my Northern and English fellow-gardeners, but every single blossom that’s ever lifted its little bonnet over my garden fence has been precious to me. A welcome and beloved friend.

The catalogue in question indicated a couple of new varieties that Englishwomen grow for show. If I lived in England, I would grow sweet peas by the bushel basket-full. And then some…
 

Garden Reading

Saturday, May 6th, 2006

I could read a seed catalogue from cover-to-cover.

Especially one with beautiful photographs. I still remember the thrill of that first one from Park Seed, and the infinite sense of possibility that it offered me. I was seventeen, and completely dazzled with the notion that a whole garden could come from an envelope of those famous gold seed packets. And so inexpensively! I promptly ordered all sorts of unsuitable things for a beginner, like delphinium and larkspur. And while I was waiting for them to come, I obtained permission to appropriate a corner of our front yard for my garden. My mother was so gracious…and when none of the seeds came up that first year, she bought me some pretty little annuals in a burst of compassion.

The next year I was smart. I set all my new seeds out early in flats under plastic and nurtured them on our enclosed porch. Sweet peas and forget-me-nots grew and flourished into tiny seedlings. But the first night that I set them out to ‘harden off’ we had a rain storm of torrential proportions. I didn’t remember them until a burst of lightning awakened me with a start around two a.m. Mama and I stood on the porch together in our nightgowns and mourned all the poor little plants. Another year for annuals…

That year’s tragedy was mitigated somewhat by the fact that I had diversified. To be sure, my flowers had all been lost upon the flood, but a delightful delivery was on its way: three hybrid tea roses from Jackson & Perkins.  They had been ordered for weeks, and were promised to be sent at the appropriate planting time for our area. And that magic time happened to fall right in the middle of my two week mission trip to Russia that spring. Mama opened the box with fear and trembling, and she and my brother set them out where they hoped I wanted them. (Which was precisely correct, by the way.)

I learned so much through those early failures and sweet little successes. Above all, I discovered that despite the heartbreaking trials of it all, I really, really wanted to garden. To be a gardener. To cherish some of God’s loveliest creations into existence. Through the sage advice of other lovers of the soil, and through lots and lots of disasters :) , I’ve gotten a little experience under my belt now. Even so, every season poses a new challenge, and bitterly-remembered adversaries to contest with. Bacterial rot. Squash vine borers. Slugs and drought and mildew and hail. But every time I put out my seeds or nestle a plant into a prepared bed, my heart whispers that very same little prayer that it did years ago when I patted those tiny bits of promise from Park Seed into red clay in my parents’ front yard:

Thou visitest the earth and waterest it…Thou makest it soft with showers: Thou blessest the springing thereof.

Psalm 65: 9, 10

I love to read about gardening almost as much as I love gardening itself. And really, the studying and learning is every bit as important as proper maintenance. It’s all part of the same joy of discovery. So permit me to share a few of my favorites…

That second spring I purchased my first two garden books. They were both respected Rodale publications: Illustrated Encyclopedia of Perennials and Growing Fruits and Vegetables Organically. The former was fuel for my aspirations; the latter was fodder for future dreams. Now the Fruits and Vegetables book is warped from sun exposure and muddied from on-site reference, and remains one of my all-time, hands-down favorites. It was there I learned about pasteurizing potting mix and when to harvest beans and how to pinch back tomatoes. But don’t imagine that Perennials has fallen upon neglect. It still ventures forth with me from time to time, especially with the introduction of a new lady to my flower garden.

A gardening friend gave me a gem for my birthday one year: Month-by-Month Gardening in Georgia by Walter Reeves and Erica Glasener. It’s such a fabulous reference tool, with an extensive chapter on each of the various classes–annuals, bulbs, edibles, houseplants, lawns and perennials–that tells you what you should be doing for your garden at any given time of the year right here in Georgia. I can only recommend it to local friends, of course :) , but I encourage you to find out if your state has a similar publication. A few years ago I made a huge calendar of all the things I thought we needed to be doing during each month, gleaned from reading old Southern garden books. What a relief to find everything all in one place! With the non-essentials eliminated! More time for actually smelling the roses…

Speaking of old books, another of my dearest ones is a trim little volume I picked up years ago at Downs Books. It’s called Gardening in the South by George R. Briggs, and its glossy pages are peppered with black and white photographs of old Southern homes shaded with magnolias and spreading lawns fringed with spirea and azaleas.  The information in this solid little book is straight-forward and no-nonsense. Reading it is like talking to one of our grandmothers about plants. Good, sound advice with no unnecessary frills. The best quote of all comes from the chapter on roses–you must permit me to share it with you:

The writer knows of one great lover of Roses who buys dozens of the finest varieties each year which grow and bloom beautifully, but this person’s Rose garden is lacking in beauty and fails to show its splendor because the Roses are not in beds and bare soil only glares at the onlooker, thus ruining the entire display.

I confess, we read the above with a few chuckles. But then we went right out and bought some grass seed to sow in our rock-lined rose bed, in place of the shameful mulch-covered dirt. :)

Another gift from this book is the intensely practical information on propagation from cuttings. I have become a firm believer in this most satisfying of garden rituals, thanks to this book’s simple illustrations and forthright text. I almost felt like George R. Briggs was standing over my shoulder that first winter as I stared in amazement at the tiny buds appearing on what seemed to be dead little twigs, saying, ‘See, I told you it would work.’ (I’ll share the process later, if anyone’s interested. :) )

I’ve already mentioned Ruth Stout, the guardian angel of vegetable gardens. I’ll just re-iterate here that reading her book absolutely changed my whole approach to gardening and made it so much more fun and rewarding that I can’t say enough in her praise. If you’re thinking of starting a garden, and feel overwhelmed–as I did five years into mine–then get your hands on anything Ruth Stout has written. Post-haste!

Tasha Tudor recommended Flowers from Seed to Bloom by Eileen Powell, and I bought it without a second thought. It’s another reference, indispensable if you have a penchant for perennials from seed. And if you need a reason for going to all the trouble and worry, then all I suggest is a perusal of Tasha Tudor’s Garden by Tovah Martin of Victoria magazine fame. It will have you planting fairy rings of pinks and weaving daisy garlands.     

I just finished a charming book called Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim. Some of you may recognize her as the author of Enchanted April. I bought it from an English bookseller called ‘Brimstones’ on Birdhole Lane (how enchanting!). This is a non-fiction account of her happy days buried away in an old schloss in the German countryside with nothing but books and babies and an unspeakably dear garden to occupy her mind and heart. An Englishwoman married to a German nobleman at the turn of the last century, she finds her life somewhat cramped by the dictates of decorum which prevent her from so much as taking up a spade in her own hands. But her wearisome trials with various gardeners and assistants have a spice of humor to them which she is well-aware of, and which she portrays–along with her raptures over roses and flowers–with a truly beautiful and engaging style. Her simple joy was a fresh-faced reminder of why we garden in the first place. A delightful read…and full of so many gorgeous color plates that it’s a feast for the eyes.

 

 

 from Elizabeth and Her German Garden

 

From My Garden

Thursday, April 13th, 2006

I’ve spent every spare moment in the garden this week. How wonderful to be alive and outside in such a lovely old world as this! I simply cannot believe it each morning as I see the sun rising over the woods to the east that we are to have yet another of these Eden days.

I have a ridiculous farmer’s tan (won’t that look charming with my Easter dress on Sunday?) and my Wellington boots stand by the back door in constant readiness. I’m just so full of joy in my awakening little realm that I can hardly stay indoors (except on these still-chilly mornings!). Every time I see a loved flower curling up from the earth, or hear the raptures of a mockingbird or catch the heady sweetness of wisteria on the air I remember that it was no coincidence our Savior’s resurrection occurred in the springtime. All creation is witnessing to that greatest of miracles, death to Life!

The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech and night unto night showeth knowledge! Psalm 19

I’m passionate about my garden, and I’m afraid that anyone who drops by in the next few weeks is going to get more giddy exaltations over ladybugs and compost and seedlings than perhaps they bargained for. :) I’ve always wanted to grow things, and though most of my experience has come by trial and error I greet each planting season with a renewed enthusiasm and optimism. My garden journal may be more full of things not to do than of things that worked—for instance, I have given up on hybrid tea roses, as they are often laughingly treated as annuals here in the hot, humid South! But I have made joyful discoveries, as well: Virginia bluebells love the shady bed beneath my cedar trees; sweet peas will grow and actually bloom here if they’re planted no later than early January; coral bells are about the pluckiest plants around and strawberry foxgloves really are perennials!

One of my mother’s very dearest friends taught me how to garden, both by the loving example of her own flowering bit of earth as well as by actual hands-on expertise. She came over when I was still living at home and gently coached me on my little plot. She explained the needed balance between sand and mushroom compost and topsoil for our obstinate red clay, and she told me how to select plants from a nursery (and, for that matter, which nursery to go to! My favorite to this day!). She instructed me on which plants do best in our climate and gave me the confidence to drop a tidy little carefully-saved wad on an evanescent living thing simply because it was beautiful.

One of the first things I did that spring after Philip proposed was to plant a garden at my soon-to-be home. I could hardly wait to get my hands in the rich dirt around this place.

“Where do you want it?” he innocently inquired.

“Right there,” I sweetly replied, indicating the precise location upon which his bountiful woodpile reposed.

Being the darling that he is, he proceeded to cart away all the logs, and in their place I found loam richer than I dared hope—all that decomposed wood! Not long after I had my beds prepared my mother’s beautiful friend came over with a car load of rootings and young plants from her own garden, and out of the thousand kindnesses she showed me during that sweet time, none could be dearer to me than this. She gave me sweet woodruff, brown-eyed Susans, spiderwort and a ‘Fairy’ rose. I planted them with tender thoughts, for to a gardener, a living plant from another gardener is truly a bit of themselves. The rose is now three and blooms profusely in dainty pink clusters, and the spiderwort (such an ungainly name for such a graceful plant!) opened its first flowers of the season today.

So, you’ll find me in the garden these days. But I’ll be back soon to tell you about my very cherished garden books, the ones that go out into the yard with me and whose pages are begrimed with garden soil…

A Gift of Friendship

Saturday, January 14th, 2006

I wanted to show you a lovely present given to me by one of my dear girlfriends, and which has brightened my home through the holidays and beyond.  Back in November she came up my front steps with a huge florist’s box all wrapped in craft paper and decorated with dried ferns.  To my mystified gaze she only answered, "It’s an experiment," with an eager twinkle in her eyes.  I lifted the lid and found, nestled amid generous sheets of tissue paper, the most exquisitely preserved ‘creeping ferns’–gorgeous long strands of them, coiled and couched tenderly on crisp white beds.  I could hardly believe my eyes, and, well-aware that our first frost–though late this year–was still long past, I looked up at her, still puzzling.   "Where did you get these?" I asked, dazedly.

They were from a trellis in her yard which she raided in advance of our first below-freezing weather for the season.  The loveliest strands she preserved in glycerin, her kind heart forseeing the beauty they would lend to my holiday decorations.  According to her recipe, she mixed one part glycerin to two parts water, soaking them thoroughly before spreading them to dry in the autumn sunshine and then packing them so carefully–such a beautiful gift in every way!

I turned back the lid with bated breath a few weeks later, well into my Christmas decorating.  I lifted them out and gasped again at their beauty, and at the loving friendship that prompted such a gesture.  Delicate-looking, yet strong and pliable, I draped them with abandon around my chandelier and the candleabra on the table below, then stood back to admire.  I simply could not believe how lovely it was–and is yet.  For unlike all of my other beloved Christmas decorations, these shall stay in place until they deem themselves ready to go and begin to fall to pieces.  Two months after the initial ‘experiement’ they still have a freshness about them, though they have just begun to lose a bit of their color.  It makes me happy just to look at that touch of sylvan wildness in my otherwise quite civilized dining room.  And to think of the possibilities!  I can’t wait to perform similar experiments on some of my dear flowers and greenery come Spring.  I promise to give a full report on how they turn out!   

Oh, thank You, Lord, for such loving and artistic friends!