My grandfather was a strong presence when I was growing up in Greece. He was retired, a widower, and he lived with us. The man had his faults but, his love for his grandchildren was steady. I used to trail him everywhere, and he was happy to have an adoring, curious, mouthy, skinny little thing follow him around.
Trailing him as he went about tending his garden was one of my favorite activities. He was exceedingly proud of his roses, and he would turn and explain what he was doing as he went about the morning duties of a gardener. He moved deliberately, inspecting, pruning, feeding, watering, and stepping back to admire his handy work. He cultivated this rose variety that he called “the 100-petal rose,” and they smelled heavenly.
He would call me over and say, “Here, come smell this, look at the petals, the color, take it all in.” And I would, and to this day, the first thing I do when I see a rose is to touch it and lean forward to take its scent in. To this day, a rose isn’t a rose to me unless it has that same heavenly scent.
Roses were the centerpiece of his garden, framed by fruit trees and a grape arbor, under which the family would gather in the summer evenings. In the back left corner of our yard, there were three fig trees. In the summer, my grandfather would wake me up early to gather figs for breakfast. If you never had a fresh, juicy fig that you picked yourself off of a giant old fig tree, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Greek summers are hot, and no one wants to be out and about in the middle of a summer day. My mother would wake up early and finish her housework so that when the heatwave arrived, we would gather under the cool shade of the fig trees to find respite from the heat. She would put a blanket on the ground for us kids to lie down and nap, while she stayed up and chatted with her friends from the neighborhood.
My grandfather died when I was 15 years old. My mother, father, and sister have passed away, and the garden of my childhood is long gone. The old neighborhood looks nothing like the one I grew up in. I moved to the US in my mid-twenties. I had two suitcases with me and a river of unseen memories. My love for gardens, the scent of roses, and the blue sea also came along.
It wasn’t long before I began my own adventures in gardening. I started as a young, impulsive, unprepared gardener in a new country. I had to contend with the New England weather and learn about plants I had never heard of. Soon my garden began to deliver the lessons I needed. The journey has been humbling, illuminating, and healing. Every garden I have gotten my hands dirty in during the last thirty-six years has helped me become the person I am today.
Through my various false starts and stumbles, I have been instructed on how to feel the ground I walk on, read the light as it travels, and recognize that letting in and letting go is how the seasons of our lives work.
You can read some of the lessons the garden fairies taught me below, beginning with my experience in upstate New York, where I first encountered clay soil, and my education began in earnest.
The soil is your foundation. Get to know what’s under your feet. If the soil is not suitable and fertile, it doesn’t matter what blooms you dream of growing. Anything you plant in arid soil will wither and die. Learn to amend the soil and get creative. Start small, see what works, and take it from there. Take time to plan before you dig. It will save you time, energy, and a shit load of disappointment.
Follow the light because plants have different light requirements. Plants who thrive in shade will not survive in full sun and vice versa. Let the garden show you what it needs, stay open and flexible, observe closely and learn.
ON HAVING A VISION
Design the garden that pleases you. Visualize how you want your garden to look and feel. What would you like to grow? Flowers, vegetables, herbs, or all of the above? What is important to you? Think about colors, scents, and the personality and use of the plants you want to spend time with. Take time to dream before you act, and don’t be afraid to try something new. Take risks and learn from your mistakes and missteps.
My garden has changed over the years. When my daughters were young, it was designed to provide nooks and crannies for them to enjoy and share with their friends. The girls loved being outdoors, and they often participated in choosing the flowers and vegetables we planted each summer. The garden looked more unruly, playful, whimsical, and experimental. As they grew up and their interests changed, I found myself wishing for a more compact garden where my favorite flowers and herbs grew close to the house.
Mark the boundaries of your garden and don’t take on more than you can handle. A garden needs care and commitment, and depending on what stage of life you’re in, you may not be able to give it your all. Some plants are more high maintenance than others so plan accordingly.
Keep up with the weeds or they’ll take over your garden. It does not matter how big or small your garden is. Weeds will take what they can. They will zap the life out of your garden if you’re not watchful. Often, invasive plants are disguised in beautiful foliage and colors. Don’t be fooled.
ON LETTING GO
Sometimes and despite our best efforts, a plant refuses to develop and thrive. It took me a while to realize that not every plant belongs in my garden or is meant to stay with me forever. There were times that I considered it a personal challenge. I would persist and keep trying to give that darn plant what it needed so it would flourish. It wouldn’t. The bottom line is if a plant refuses to thrive, let it go.
And speaking of letting go, how about this attachment to perfection? Yes, of course, there are perfectly amazing gardens, tended by professionals and amateurs alike. I love touring these gardens and looking at pictures, but I am not that kind of gardener, nor do I choose to be. I call myself the ever-striving gardener for a reason. I’m good with that.
ON THE SEASONS
There is a season to everything. The garden needs to retreat underground and rest during the cold months. You may not see much happening during the winter months, but there is life under that blanket of snow, and the garden is preparing for its brilliant comeback. Trust the seasons and be patient as you wait for the plants to emerge from their winter slumber. They will come back at their appointed time.
A garden is meant to be shared and enjoyed. One of my favorite times is when, after a long session in the garden, I get to take a shower, put on clean clothes, and head back out to the garden to stroll and take in its beauty in the twilight. Or, when a good friend visits, we make a pot of tea, take a tray outside by the stream, and sit down to enjoy our time together.
These days, and as I am looking ahead at the upcoming changes, I feel the urge to keep things simpler and cleaner. I have to decide which perennial beds can stay and which need to go. I have already begun to divide the plants and share them with friends embarking on their own gardening adventures.
I have no doubt that the lessons will keep coming. A garden has many layers and many secrets. Everything always unfolds at its own time and pace. A garden is like a loving friend; it meets us where we are and gently nudges us in the right direction.
If you’ve ever dabbled in a garden, you know what I mean, and you have your own stories to tell. Scroll down and share your story. I would love to read it.