My Garden Never Turns Out as I Envision, But I've Found the Joy of Embracing Imperfection
IN MIDLIFE, NEWLY SINGLE, I decided to transform my backyard into a perfect garden. Why I thought myself capable of such an endeavor, I do not know. I’d barely tinkered with the flower beds outside the home I’d shared with my ex-husband, and to mediocre results. I had a woeful history with houseplants. This didn’t stop me as I walked outside that first April, shovel in hand. Since signing the deed to the house, I’d gone to sleep with visions of peonies and sunflowers and sweet, shady nooks in my head. I believed I could learn what I needed to know to make these visions come true. I recognized my impulsive determination from my life as a fiction writer. I wanted the garden to exist, but more importantly, the garden seemed to want to exist, as certain stories do.
The backyard at the time was more yard than garden. Two ill-matched fences, one slumped forward, contained a lawn of clover that ran into a concrete parking pad. Above, power lines and cables sagged into an alley. There was a dogwood, under which the previous owner had buried her cat, and flower beds of plasticized wood, filled with knock-out rosebushes and liriope—plants I considered clichés. First I pulled out the faux wood, intending to eventually replace it with cedar. I dug up the rosebushes and the liriope and gave them to a friend in a bucket of water. Then I sat down at a patio table skirted by concrete. I looked around and let my mind whirl.
I wanted my garden to be a wild, free space, alive with primary colors and movement and surprises. Wisps that caught in the wind like feathers. Coiling vines and bursting blossoms. I would grow gorgeous tomatoes, beautiful basil, and plump strawberries for my two daughters and me to feast on all summer. Somewhere, wisteria would drip Englishly. (My love of 19th-century British novels and their cinematic adaptations heavily influenced my sensibility.) From brimming beds, hollyhocks would erupt near clouds of Queen Anne’s lace. Goldfinches and monarchs would dine on the wildflowers I planned to grow beside the fence.
SIX YEARS LATER, I still want that garden. Every spring, I work in compost and yank up weeds, sprinkle seeds, dig in transplants. Then I draw a map of what I’ve done, adding to it all summer, until the Baltimore heat stops me from planting. Every fall, I mark up the spring map in red pen. “Don’t put the cucumber there next time. Spotty mildew.” “Move climbing rose to fence—needs more sun.” The next year, I do it again. I have spent hundreds of dollars on dirt and seeds and plants and wooden flower boxes, clay pots, trellises, a wire corset for the Paprika yarrow that flopped over, burying its beautiful heads in its straggly stems. From April to August, I start my day by walking outside with a cup of coffee, scouting for new blooms and shoots, and I end my day clogs-deep in the beds, pulling up renegade morning glory or deadheading digitalis, my legs speckled with dirt.
The ideas sprout as fast as the radishes. I will try growing potatoes in a burlap sack! What about artichokes? I will plant this lost onion from the pantry and let it bolt into snowflake flowers! Would metal gutters attached to the fence work to grow spring mix? How about baskets hanging by the door and a fig tree in that patch of sun? Driving to the university where I teach, I pull over to examine a pumpkin vine trained up the side of a garage. Having coffee with a friend on a terrace, I take a picture over her shoulder of an intriguing combination of dill and goldenrod. Last year, I became obsessed with a zinc planter at the local food market, regal with a Little Lime hydrangea and sweet potato vine. It would have looked stunning next to my gate, but it cost $400. Instead I bought a metal garbage can and drilled holes in the bottom for drainage to re-create the effect.
On summer mornings, shaded by an umbrella, the patio table doubles as my writing desk. My new husband calls “good luck” to me from the kitchen doorway before shutting out the mosquitoes. My daughters wave goodbye from the windows of their air-conditioned bedrooms. Barefoot, I open my laptop. Lavender and mint flavor the air. A grapevine tufts and swirls over the fence, dripping with chartreuse clusters of fruit. Cucumber vines waterfall from a planter. The wildflowers flit with butterflies and hum with bees. When I get stuck on a sentence, I refill the bird feeder for the doves or forage in a cedar bed for strawberries and peas. I watch a caterpillar nurse on the stem of a coneflower. If, as Virginia Woolf said, every woman writer needs a room of her own, I’ve found mine outside.
THOSE MORNINGS AT THE TABLE—alone in the company of flowers, plants, birds, and insects—remove the sting of my gardening failures. So many of my enthusiastic ideas do not pan out: The burlap-sack planter yielded two potatoes; the garbage can, crowned with a hydrangea, still looked like a garbage can. I have a tendency to overplant: The hanging baskets by the back door became deranged with creeping Jenny. I lack a good sense of proportion: The fig tree was not meant to be 50 times as big as the Texas bluestar. Sometimes I am indelicate, uprooting a watermelon plant in an attempt to untangle its vines. Certain plants continuously elude me: The zinnias, meant to be bright and zingy, always end up looking leggy and tacky. Every year, I clear-cut the mess and fill every last vase in the house.
And then there is my tortured relationship with the coy and complicated passion vine. A periwinkle merry-go-round on a base of light green petals, the passionflower delights me more than any other flower, more than peonies, foxglove, chocolate cosmos, or climbing jasmine. I have planted passion vine every year since I first spotted it at the nursery, and every year it does not do what I hope—namely, spread its glossy foliage and burst with blooms from June through August. The first summer, the plant died in a pot. The second summer, moved to the ground, it grew only leaves. Last summer, with more fertilizer and another relocation, the vine crept up the fence, spurting tiny buds, then bigger buds. Each morning, I’d go outside with my cup of coffee to see what had bloomed. Each morning, the passion flowers hadn’t. June went by. July. As summer tipped toward fall, I took out the map and wrote, “Never opened!!” Truly, is there anything more frustrating to a gardener than a passion vine cloaking your fence, covered with flowers that stay shut all summer, a world of intricate, singular magnificence, closed off to you?
Despite such vexations, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never achieve my perfect garden. The actual bed will never match my vision of the bed. I’ll never be an expert. I have only so much control. I can prune the fig tree all I like, but it might grow horizontally rather than vertically. Whiteflies will come to the Brussels sprouts. The cardinals will eat the zucchini blossoms. A week of tropical rain will explode the tomatoes. The butterfly weed will take a year off from sprouting.
And the passion vine will decide for itself when it wants to open, as mine finally did in the last week of August. I stood in the morning light, face-to-face with those five complex, swaggering blooms, and I felt I was part of a miracle. Although the flowers closed back up by noon and never opened again, the memory of their beauty gives me hope for next season.
Jane Delury’s debut novel-in-stories, The Balcony ($7; amazon.com), won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She teaches creative writing at the University of Baltimore.