I began the process of putting the garden to bed yesterday.
The process of cutting down perennials, and uprooting annuals. Of planting the bulbs to bloom in spring, and putting away the garden decorations. The process of ending this cycle of the garden’s life. Stopping and considering where things are, and how they have fared, and might that bleeding heart look better over there, and might I move those hosta’s forward, and what if I move the tiger lily that is marginal in this growth zone, but has been blooming beautifully these last five years, might then it die?
Some years ago, I was volunteering in palliative care. I sat with a particular woman, who proudly displayed pictures of her gardens, where most displayed pictures of their families. And we talked about gardens. About plants and tips and the philosophy of a garden. The last night I saw her, she told me about the garden she planned for next year – that she had planted entire beds of perennials after her diagnosis. She worked like a woman possessed at planning and planting and cultivating. She did not live to see the fruit of the vine, the work of her hands. She did not live to see green poking out of the ground in spring time, and she did not live to see the inventory all gardeners do, the survey to see what has made it through the long and cold and dark winter, and will show up for spring. She did not live to see the lush flowers of summer, she did not live to smell the last gasp of the sweet peas in late fall. She did not live in her body, but her garden, is possibly just large enough to encompass her spirit.
I did not understand what she was doing then. I merely stayed silent, asking questions about what she planted. I did not understand what she was trying to accomplish. I did not understand the space she was living in.
The smell of thyme and basil are heavy on my hands. Dirt on my knees, swatting away the yellow-jackets, and laughing at the dog who is trying to catch fall-lazy flies and still not succeeding. I am mid-way through my work, and the warmth of the day is lying to me, telling me that I have lots of time before the snow, although experience tells me that I may only have a week. I am looking at what is left to be done, trying to decide if I should work by task, moving everything that needs to be moved, planting what needs to be planted, or if I should concentrate on beds, doing all that is needed in each bed. I am counting the work against the time, and I am coming up short. And I am remembering my laughter as I planted those thyme seeds, some 4 years ago. In my need for ritual, to honour the special moments in life, I decided to plant thyme in the garden first. The statement amused me. Tickling my need for irony and relevance.
But perhaps, as I sit, for a few moments, trying to plan, knowing that I will not be in my garden next year, I will be trying to grow a baby, perhaps I am understanding the lessons of the gardener. We give our gardens as gifts to the world, a place to grow wise and feel ease, but we do not live in them as they are, we create them for our memories, a place to retreat to on winter days, and a place to dream about. Gardens, for gardeners at least, live in the province of yesterday – the plants we remember, that did not make the winter, the blooms that are larger and sweeter in our memory. And we live in the future, as we plan. Our plans are never done, indeed, most never come to be. Our gardens outlive us, become larger than we are. They become more important, more organic than we could ever be.
You see, a gardener lives in the past and in the future, but not really in the present.