The Gardener

 

The Gardener

 

Gardens are a form of autobiography.

Sydney Eddison, Horticulture, August/September 1993

 My earliest memories of a garden are the glorious peonies, raucous red cannas, and gnarled apple tree in my maternal grandparents’ Chicago backyard.  I remember fresh raspberries and the pervasive smell of soybeans at my paternal grandparents’ central Illinois farm.  When we moved to Oklahoma when I was in kindergarten, the gardens changed.  I no longer shinnied up an apple tree but played house under a pink mimosa or giant redbud whose branches arched gracefully to the ground.  Brightly colored poppies replaced the peonies, and the fragrances of roses and sweet peas scented the air.  While a freshman in high school, we moved to suburban Houston, Texas, and the garden palette changed again.  Gardenias blossomed just outside the front door, camellias and azaleas lined the driveway, oleanders and orange trees filled the backyard borders, and tall pines punctuated the landscape.

 Although I did not garden while attending the University of Texas at Austin, my knowledge of plants grew as I learned some taxonomy from David, my botany graduate student fiancée. I learned scientific nomenclature easily and came to prefer it when conversing about plants-tame or wild.  A “mountain laurel” doesn’t universally designate the same small tree. After we married and he graduated, David took a position as a professor at Texas Tech University. Again, I became acquainted with a new plant vernacular.  I din’t have time for gardening now; I merely landscaped because of the demands of a growing family.  At every house where my family ever lived, we  planted a “Peace” rose, and I continued that tradition.  We also planted fast growing silver maples to produce quick shade, and splurged on one beautiful multi-trunked red oak for longevity.  We learned the value of  the indigenous Ilex vomitoria(Yaupon holly) as a foundation plant and successfully grew apricots and peaches.  We had our first vegetable garden and experienced the wonders of freshly harvested asparagus, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and okra.

In 1985, we returned to Austin when David became the first executive director of the National Wildflower Research center, now the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  Now our landscape and gardens had to meet a new requirement.  We walked the walk and talked the talk.  The only “exotic” plants we grew were in pots.  Our first house in Westlake perched on a hillside with only a sliver of yard between the limestone block retaining wall and steep slope.  The hillside remained natural and untouched, while small native live oaks populated the front yard.  We featured a Sophora secundiflora (Texas mountain laurel) in a bed by the front porch and added a hedge of Cenizo (purple sage), three Yucca pendula, and a Texas persimmon by the mailbox.  The lawn was seeded buffalo grass.  I taught middle school English, and even this small and uninteresting garden offered respite from the pressures of work.  I found joy in being outside in nature, and David mentally crafted solutions to problems while hand watering.

 By 1989, we needed more space and found the perfect FLAT, large lot, dotted with mature post oaks, live oaks, a cedar elm, lots of Texas persimmon and Yaupon.  Huge limestone boulders were uncovered during the building process, and we planted them  in the landscape too.  Our planting plan was determined by where we didn’t hit a slab of rock when digging the appropriately sized hole. We did our own native landscaping rather than accept the builder’s exotic mix.  The “Peace” rose found its space outside a large over-the-sink kitchen window. We kept large areas of the backyard natural and interspersed native perennial herbaceous and shrubby plants.  We again tried buffalo grass in the form of sod.  Because of deed restrictions, we were forced to use St. Augustine grass as the front lawn.  Over time we had some beautiful successes and some dismal failures.  Imagine purple liatris and bright pink Echinacea brightening a fenced corner or springtime Ungnadia (Mexican buckeye) and Cercis(Redbud) in bloom simultaneously. Because of our pioneering effort in the native plant movement, our suburban garden space was pictured in  Sally and Andy Wasowski’s book, Native Texas Gardens. On the other hand, we never could rid the buffalo grass of sticker burrs. Turk’s cap became invasive, and weeds seemed impossible to control.

After David left the Wildflower Center in 1997, our garden philosophy mellowed. We no longer talked the talk or walked the walk of natives only! Our son married on New Year’s Eve of 1997, and our daughter married in April of 1998.  The social events around those special occasions caused a quick and superficial cosmetic spruce up of the gardens and lawn.  We substituted St. Augustine grass for the buffalo and began adding a few other hearty perennials like day lilies, plumbago, and newly introduced and better behaved native species like Tecoma stans (Esperanza). Yet, all in all, the garden continued to decline, and I found it overwhelming to maintain even though I was no longer teaching.  At about this time, we purchased land in western Llano County and began building a small cabin.  That work provided the perfect excuse to escape and ignore the home garden.  Then, left to Mother Nature, the space became less of a garden and more of an overgrown tangle of wildness.  We never ventured out into it or used our expansive deck. 

In 2004, I was lured back to teaching seventh grade English on a part time basis.  Although I love middle schoolers and seventh graders in particular, the pressure cooker of public education caused me to yearn again for a garden, and David soon grew tired of my nagging. The yard had become so overgrown, it was now claustrophobic, and I realized we needed to change its proportions and modify its population.  During the winter of 2005, we called upon a landscape designer Annie Gillespie of Botanical Concerns (http://botanicalconcerns.com ) to visit with us about the backyard; it was no longer a garden.  Our priorities were manageability, less lawn over-all, and year-round color.  Collaboration occurred, plans were drawn up, and sticker shock set in.  We decided to carryout the plan in phases and to complete some of the work ourselves.  The hardscape was to begin in June, 2006. In May, we went to Brittany, and after about a week of touring the French countryside, we received a call from our house sitting daughter that 17 tons of limestone had been delivered and a Bobcat was moving dirt.  The transformation had begun!

 Life

I am.

Love, Little ones, Learning.

I yearn to make the earth a garden.

Family is important to me.

Responsibility and Accountability

Show respect.

I strive to remain open-minded,

I see the glass as half-empty, but realism is like daylight.

People grow greedier,

And the earth browns.

We can try to tear down fences.

I live.

February, 2009

 

 

Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.

Alfred Austin

First of all, I am an amateur gardener!  I know that mistakes abound in my garden in the eyes of the gardening professional or landscape architect.

I am NOT an armchair gardener.  I don’t pour over catalogs.  I like to be in the “field” with the plants. David and I wandered miles of roadways when he worked as a field botanist and plant taxonomist. I can spot a particular plant while traveling down the highway at 60 miles per hour.  Since childhood, I have toured public gardens and arboreta. Why are Texans members of the Tyler Arboretum in Philadelphia?  While David was at the Wildflower Center, we hosted tours of the best public and private English gardens.  Another time, we were guests at the director’s house at London’s Kew Gardens.  I visit gardens and plant nurseries wherever we travel.  Just last week while visiting Raleigh for my dad’s surgery, I drooled over a species geranium that I wanted to add to the others planted among my roses.  It took two trips to the nursery to convince me that I could not take it home as a carry-on on the airplane. 

I am a plant collector.  I would love to have one of everything, three of many, and five of some.  Perfection would be to own a personal arboretum.  Perhaps the obsession results from the variety of both indigenous and introduced plants that I have learned to love over a life time.  Less is not more.  More is better, but tightly packed is best!

I love color.  No one cares about a particular color palette when viewing a field of vibrant Texas wildflowers in May.   Wildflowers are some of my favorites, Penstemon cobaea (wild foxglove), Phacelia congesta(Texas blue curls), and baby blue eyes.  Gaudy lilies, blousy hydrangeas of all hues, and china pale roses all have a place in my heart.  I view my garden as a tapestry woven from all of nature’s best colors.  As Alan Jackson says, “Too much of a good thing is a good thing.”

My best gardening tool is my index finger as it points David to the next task or job at hand.

We know that buried slabs of rock always change the planting diagram.

Lacking a better system and more knowledge, I plant in triangles and odd numbered groups.

Gardens always have “fences”. Edges. Borders. Boundaries. Blockades. Limitations. Conversation places. Trellises.  Opportunities for decoration.  Privacy.  Enclosures.  Exclosures.

A Garden of Memories 

I am from books and dolls,

From Ovaltine, Tide, and clotheslines.

I am from houses with gardens, flooding sunlight,

Soft colors, antiques whispering old stories of

Land let go, long ago

I am from the apple tree,

Peonies and pink primroses

All teaching survival.

I am from colossal Christmases

And searching for a bargain,

From William, Kate, and Betty

From the Vails.

From the “I’m always rights” and

“I’ll never give ins,”

From “Life is never fair” and “You’re the best.”

I am from “Jesus Loves Me This I Know”

From The Good Church of the Garden

And feeling God in the landscape,

Everywhere

Watching over my shoulder.

I am from the university campus,

English settlers, and

Sadly, no Native Americans.

From pumpkin pie, scones, and homemade strawberry jam.

From the goat eating laundry,

The cop chasing Capone,

And the mother dieing too young.

I am from the bureau overflowing

With black and white glossies,

Memories pushed to the back of the closet

Of my mind.

Plowing fertile ground

Building heritage for the future.

March 5, 2008

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2 Comments

  1. Phyllis said,

    June 23, 2009 at 12:02 PM

    “A Garden of Memories” is a beautiful picture of who you are and why you have become who you are. You need to have this printed and placed in a journal/book (bound) with photos/illustrations of those people/things/plants that are or have been important to you. What a gift to your children……

  2. gardenfences said,

    June 23, 2009 at 12:45 PM

    Thank you. For now, this blog serves this purpose!


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