Recently I read a charming book that made me reflect upon my garden — never a bad thing to do when winter has descended, putting the garden to sleep. Penelope Lively, an English gardener, has written “Life in the Garden,” a book I recommend to all those who love to garden.
Generally English garden books are not especially relevant to us here in North Carolina as the English climate rarely has the extreme temperature highs and lows we frequently experience. Cast aside your hesitations and grab this book.
One chapter, “Time, Order and the Garden,” in particular grabbed my attention. She points out that while we are gardening today, we’re really gardening for tomorrow. Of course we all know this but it bears pointing this out again and again.
How many times have we situated plants too close to one another? How often have we been tempted to take out a plant because it has yet to perform? Gardening requires patience. It took my Eucaphus japonica five years to morph from a blah small tree into a magnificent blooming one.
It took my ‘Madame Anisette’ rose three years before she consented to bear blooms on a regular basis. During that period she wanted to concentrate on growing her canes, rising to huge heights for a hybrid tea, thereby creating an image of great gawkiness. Reading the description of her large, fragrant blooms spurred me on to keep her. Last spring, she was finally magical, with flowers as intoxicating as their portrayal. She’ll never be an over-enthusiastic bloomer — but that’s OK.
Lively points out that our gardens are “in a state of unstoppable change.” Viewing pictures of my garden five years ago, I can hardly believe that it’s the same garden. Plants and small trees planted then have grown. Some I didn’t appreciate and took out, others grew to adulthood, no longer resembling the babies I originally had put in the ground.
If you are going to be an enthusiastic gardener, you have to anticipate: “Anticipation is central, where garden time is concerned.” Figure out the reasons you garden, working out from this basis. Do you want blobs of color? By all means plant masses of daffodils if yellow is your thing. Would you prefer instead a rose garden? Or a perennial border? It’s your choice.
I dislike waves of one color but this doesn’t make planting scores of daffodils wrong. What might not work in my anticipatory mind might work beautifully in yours. Capture that picture in your mind, trying to make it work in the garden.
Above all, “to garden is to impose order.” By gardening we are manipulating nature. As Lively points out, nature deals with disorder, a disorder on which we try to impose discipline. Out go the weeds, in come plants that would never exist side by side if nature had her way.
For this reason, the gardener has to accept the fact that the garden is “an artificial concept” in that by its very nature it’s a defined area, one that nature works hard to recolonize. Keeping this in mind makes weeding — never a task to relish — practical and reasonable. This is the reason good gardeners do not let the weeds get out of control to the point that they are forced to resort to lethal weed killers.
This book has caused me to look at my garden with new eyes, proving once again that old dogs can learn new tricks.
Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn The Absentee Gardeners
Author Penelope Lively
Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively