The ruins of my garden had been visible from the deck for some time, but I had not yet ventured outside. It was time to get out there and acknowledge the ravages of time and neglect, weep, and get to work, as my grandma used to say, to formulate a rebuilding plan.
The flower and vegetable gardens had been my project for years. My husband managed the lawn, the best lawn in the neighborhood, lush, dark green and weed free. He took great pride in his lawn, had many tools, such as an edge trimmer, and kept it immaculately groomed.
But he wasn’t a gardener.
When I got sick, the gardens languished. I was too sick to notice at first and when I noticed I was too sick to care. By the time I cared I was still too weak to get out there. By then, the flowers had languished to death.
Now I had to scope out the extent of the damage and plan my next steps. I had 30 feet of flower gardens and as much again of vegetable gardens. I started on the flowers, beauty a balm for my soul.
I stepped into our backyard for the first time in a very long time. The day was warm and sunny. While visions of previous blossoms floated by my mind’s eye, tears blurred the real view, the neglect, the destruction. I knelt in the grass beside the garden with a wrought iron bird bath in the centre and leaned into the dirt. How I loved my dirt, the smell of it, the feel of it.
I loved how some remnants of perennials had managed to hang on by the tip of their roots, tiny bits of green poking up among mounds of brown and yellow dead foliage. I loved how the tiny red roses, even though long dead, resembled dried flower bouquets. The beauty of the dead and dying
plants struck me with awe. Though some flowers had grown past their usual life span, and even though no one had pruned them, wild, spindly, shaggy bits had gone to seed. Scraggly shapes and colors swirled around each other, roped together by errant vines.
What had looked like a mat of greens, yellows, and browns was beautiful – a montage of nature taking care of itself, seeding, dying, going dormant, germinating again, against all odds, in the spring, fighting for sun, rain and nutrients. They had climbed around each other, sharing resources and, in the end, died together.
Was there any beauty left in my body and soul, matted down by years of chronic fatigue, pain, fighting for breath, struggling to stay alive? Just as surgery had saved my life, surgery was now going to save my gardens.
I grabbed gloves, pruning shears, trowel, shovel and a trash bin. I debated pruning around surviving remnants, but not knowing the chance of survival of plants that had gone 3 years without food and water, other than what the soil and rain had provided in my absence, I held my breath and started ripping. I ripped out plants by the roots and tossed them in the bin. Ripped and ripped, tears dripped.
I didn’t realize how much I loved and missed this garden, and the act of gardening until it died, and I had to start over, rebuilding from the dirt up.
Life imitating life. I didn’t appreciate my health until I lost it and had to start over.
I ripped out the first flower garden. I had several, with themes. A birding garden, fairy and butterfly garden, and the farmyard, complete with a big red barn.
I could take only so much destruction, soon I cleaned and put my tools away for another day. My heart jumped at the view from the deck – a clean, empty black dirt, a blank canvas. I grinned and planned a trip to the greenhouse.
The next morning, my husband drove us to Garden Scents, just out of town on a narrow gravel road. I jumped out of the black Sante Fe and grabbed a large cart. He raised his eyebrows but didn’t say a word. Kid in a candy store, I zoomed up one aisle and down the next.
“Do you know what you are looking for?”
“I’ll know it when I see it.” I grinned, barely looking his way. “I need to see everything before I decide.”
The perfume of thousands of flowers, the scent of the dirt, the instant dopamine surge. I grew up on a farm, planting and weeding were in my blood. As a teenager I had resented time spent in the gardens and fields. I wanted to read, write, be by myself. 40 years later, I could hardly wait to get back .to the dirt.
My stomach was pinched, like first love. Pansies, little purple faces smiling, petunias, gorgeous pink petunias, white bacopa, purple lobelias, curvy ivy, my cart – my heart – was overflowing.
Again, the raised eyebrow. I paused, he smiled and nodded. I, tears threatening, leaned in for more. I stopped when the color and texture of the many plants I had chosen were spilling over the cart. I bought far more than I needed for the small space I had cleared the day before. Certainly more than I would have the energy to plant.
“I can help you.” My husband said on the drive home. “I just wanted to make sure you were truly ready to do it this time.” He glanced over at me, eyes immediately back on the gravel road. “You’ve gone out there a couple times over the years but came back in almost immediately.”
It wasn’t the first time he had told me something I had no memory of. The memories were frail, as if I had been in a walking coma the previous years, bits and pieces floated by, difficult to grasp.
“I didn’t want us to start and then let it die again. I don’t love your gardens enough to do it on my own.”
I laughed. Never a more obvious statement uttered.
Later, I placed flowers, still in their pots, in various arrangements in the birding garden with its wrought iron bird bath, swinging old wooden cabin bird feeder, and the large, turquoise condo bird house. I heard my husband ripping out weeds and detritus in the fairy garden nearby. I winced but didn’t look up. He had been nervous until I told him, “don’t worry about identifying anything, just dig it all up.” We both knew he didn’t know petunia from clover, a rose from thistle.
When I was satisfied with the arrangement, I left the pots in the spot where I wanted the plants to live, and my husband dug the holes. He finished and left the rest to me and my sensual delights, sitting next to my plants, settling them in with food and water, patting the dirt, soothing the plants with my voice, and in the process soothing my soul. “I’m going to take you out of your pot, give you a beautiful place to live, lots of love and food and water.”
My husband had joked that plants don’t talk back, but I know they do.
Over the spring and summer, we were in the garden almost every day. The bird garden was glowing with soft pinks and purples, dotted with white. The fairy garden twinkled with pink and muted blues, purple cornflower for the butterflies, an occasional blaze of red. The toy farm with its big red barn, a rock path to the fields, one side green thyme ground cover, for the hay field, yellow ground cover on the other side for canola. Joy and exhaustion in my eyes, fingers and bones.
After the flowers we tackled the vegetable garden. My husband turned the soil over with a shovel, a few days grunting with that task, he bought a handheld roto tiller.
Weeks later, the flowers were spectacular, hanging purple fuchsias dripping into climbing pink roses, purple lobelias creeping into lawn territory, risking their necks to the lawn edger. My stamina increased over the days and weeks, digging in the dirt, pruning, humming, weeding, until once again, the gardens were almost completely my domain.
By summer’s end, the vegetables were ready to harvest – baby potatoes, sweet carrots, crisp green beans and fresh sliced tomatoes. We savored the first taste of steamed baby potatoes smothered in butter.
Sweet moment. Nothing ever tasted as sweet as vegetables grown in our rebuilt gardens.
Life reflecting life. Nothing ever felt as sweet as recovered strength and stamina in my rebuilt body.
I breathed new life into the garden. The garden answered back, breathed new life into me.
Doris von Tettenborn lives with her husband in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains where they enjoy gardening, playing with their granddaughters and relaxing into retirement. Doris had an essay appear in the Globe and Mail many years ago, participated in NaNoWriMo a few times, and has written many pieces not seen by any other eyeballs, so decided it was time to get submitting.