The Last Word

This is a summary of today’s post.

  • Today our thoughts carry us forward, into the coming spring, and a reverie about what it ultimately means to raise a garden, create a home, and raise a family. And also how it feels to say goodbye and to let go of the things and the people we love in a long and full life.
  • This final post completes the cycle of The Garden Interior, and we would like to thank all of our faithful readers who have accompanied us on this wonderful journey, particularly those who were here from the beginning four years ago and saw it grow from a labor of love for friends and family, into a community of many hundreds of thousands of regular visitors from around the world. Together, we became a large family that is mindful of how gardening changes the gardener and of what goes on in the heart and mind of those of us who love this great craft of gardening.
  • If you have not had enough of The Garden Interior, please consider purchasing a signed first edition copy of our book, The Garden Interior: A Year of Inspired Beauty by clicking here.

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It is early spring in the garden again. This has been a remarkably dry and warm spring, with a high two days ago in the nineties, and last night it was eighty at 6:30 when I got home from work; perfect weather to go sit on the patio with a glass of wine and watch the dozen or so turkeys who live nearby swoop in at twilight to roost in the high trees at the back of our house. Across the fence that defines our backyard is a band about half a mile thick of dense and wild forested land. Well, I say wild forest. It is a sort of greenbelt, really; just the sort of untouched, scrubby, and tangled lowland forest that must have covered most of southern New Jersey at one time, with the exception of the mysterious and far more wonderful and atmospheric Pine Barrens. But the tangled forest here is still a lovely amenity, dressed in its fresh new verdure at this time of year. Most of our windows on the back of the house look out onto this vast green space teeming with lowland wildlife, birdlife especially. Yesterday, we were having coffee and saw a large, but timid, wild turkey slowly pick his way daintily and surreptitiously across the backyard.

“As you drive around our beautiful old town, you see huge swaths of frilly white and pink dogwoods, often juxtaposed with the brilliant purple of the Oklahoma redbuds and underplanted with early daffodils…”

“As you drive around our beautiful old town, you see huge swaths of frilly white and pink dogwoods, often juxtaposed with the brilliant purple of the Oklahoma redbuds and underplanted with early daffodils…”

But the dryness and heat of this spring have dramatically advanced the general timetable of things, and spring has now descended like a sudden storm. As you drive around our beautiful old town, you see huge swaths of frilly white and pink dogwoods, often juxtaposed with the brilliant purple of the Oklahoma redbuds and underplanted with early daffodils or tulips, often both, for impressive dashes of brilliant color, all set off against the fresh green backdrop of newly unfurled foliage.

“…or tulips, often both, for impressive dashes of brilliant color, all set off against the fresh green backdrop of newly unfurled foliage.”

“…or tulips, often both, for impressive dashes of brilliant color, all set off against the fresh green backdrop of newly unfurled foliage.”

Not long ago, the wildly popular painter Thomas Kincade died. He called himself “The Painter of Light,” and he became enormously successful commercially, owing to his luminous depictions of old-fashioned cottages and houses set in gorgeous, old-style gardens and villages. His art was very retro and sentimental, but he connected with a longing for things as they were in the old days, or as they were the way we idealize the old days to have been. Norman Rockwell developed a wide commercial and popular audience in a similar way, in another time. The reason I mention Kincade is that our town often reminds me of his artistic vision. It is a very old town, settled a century before the Revolutionary War disturbed the peace of the Delaware Valley, and its old, gracious homes are set far back on huge lots and are deeply surrounded by gorgeous gardens. With a bit of atmospheric fog in winter, or seen in the gauzy light and haze of spring greenery, you can almost hear the sound of horses clip-clopping down the broad, cobbled streets, and the creak of their wagons, delivering milk or ice, coal or groceries.

“With a bit of atmospheric fog in winter, or seen in the gauzy light and haze of spring greenery, you can almost hear the sound of horses clip-clopping down the broad, cobbled streets, and the creak of their wagons, delivering milk or ice, coal or groceries.”

“With a bit of atmospheric fog in winter, or seen in the gauzy light and haze of spring greenery, you can almost hear the sound of horses clip-clopping down the broad, cobbled streets, and the creak of their wagons, delivering milk or ice, coal or groceries.”

We have lived here eight years now. The first year after we moved here, a national magazine named our town America’s best small town, period, and strolling around its streets on a gorgeous spring day like today, you can see why. You could point a camera in any direction and publish the result in a sentimental calendar of old-fashioned, small town life. Our house, for example, is a 125-year-old Arts and Crafts bungalow built in the Swiss style, and as such, must be one of the earliest Arts and Crafts houses in America, as that architectural style only came to these shores from England in the 1880s. When it was built, I suppose it was very avant-garde; now it looks charmingly dated, with a granite-block first story, soaring and intersecting A-frame axes, the steeply canted roofs supported by heavy carved corbels and gracious old brick chimney blocks that vent the house’s five fireplaces. It is set in an acre of old gardens, which it has been my great joy and satisfaction to tend for these eight years. In retrospect, it was probably far too much for one person, without help and with a difficult day job and a demanding family growing up on the premises, but there you are.

“Our house, for example, is a 125-year-old Arts and Crafts bungalow built in the Swiss style, and as such, must be one of the earliest Arts and Crafts houses in America, as that architectural style only came to these shores from England in the 1880s.”

“Our house, for example, is a 125-year-old Arts and Crafts bungalow built in the Swiss style, and as such, must be one of the earliest Arts and Crafts houses in America, as that architectural style only came to these shores from England in the 1880s.”

Gardens do not last forever, and indeed that is part of their charm. They are a work that is endlessly in progress, never finished; they change daily, and over time, they change dramatically or perish altogether. They are mutable and ephemeral; it is their nature. Gardeners do not last forever either, as you have probably reflected, but that is not really my subject here, although I guess indirectly it is. We move about far more often these days than families used to, and gardeners do not generally get to garden in one place for decades and decades. Who would want to anyway; that would be so boring. Our jobs and our families and our health histories, or whatever, move us in different directions, so that we must love the gardens we tend fully and well, we gardeners, and be prepared to leave them when the time comes, hopefully with a full and happy heart and with the satisfaction of having done a good job. And without regrets, if that is possible.

For those who make a life practice of gardening interiorly, this is rather easier than it is for others. For us, gardening is not so much about the garden itself as it is about what is going on inside ourselves. That way, when we move on, the garden goes with us. That is, if your garden is interior, it is by definition portable, and it does not cease to exist because you happen to live somewhere else. It goes on inside you. The same is true for family, love, friendship, and many of the other good things in this life, in the unlikely event that you have lived this long without yet noticing that. And isn’t this remarkable portability of the good things in life itself one of life’s very good things?

But still, as our time here draws to an end, I have been on vigilant alert for incipient melancholy in these few final weeks, as I do each routine, practiced, and well-loved chore for the last time. I planted this summer’s crop of dahlias, for example, that I will not see bloom, and likewise scores of canna lilies that will be blooming at their finest in the fierce heat of July when I will not be here to marvel over them once more. But what a feeling of satisfaction I have this spring to see the lovely wisteria, which I have carefully coaxed to grow up a corner of this fine old house and then scramble twenty more feet over the front of the garage, now finally old and established enough to bloom. And to add to my intense satisfaction, blooming with it is the pink clematis that I paired with it, its pink spangles entwined with the purple racemes and the two of them perfectly synchronous. Amazing. Just as I planned it, for once. The clematis is exactly the same color signature as the whitish-pink of the pink dogwood just a few feet away on the patio, so the overall scheme was a satisfying success. For me, that is remarkable, as my plans rarely come off so perfectly, and I am so glad I lived in this house long enough to see its fulfillment. They are going to look well together for a very long time, with any luck.

5.“I love wisteria, as I have written elsewhere, and I rejoice that in our town it grows like the Chinese weed it of course is.”

“I love wisteria, as I have written elsewhere, and I rejoice that in our town it grows like the Chinese weed it of course is.”

I love wisteria, as I have written elsewhere, and I rejoice that in our town it grows like the Chinese weed it of course is. In some of our wooded greenbelts, it is positively rampant, covering the spring woodland like a huge and very lumpy purple blanket. Sometimes it clambers up tall trees until they are completely smothered in drooping violet. Just a block from our house, there is a garden with a giant skeleton of a dead spruce in it, at least fifty feet high, perhaps sixty. It has never been cut down because it is completely smothered by a vast and venerable wisteria vine and, for two weeks each spring, that tree is a giant purple spruce that looks like a bizarre tree in a Dr. Seuss book. It is fantastic.

In another part of our town, there is a farmer’s market stand on a corner lot, whose surrounding acres provide the produce that is sold at the stand. Every fall, they plant row after row of cabbages there, and they grow all winter. I have never really cared for cabbage, either the edible or the ornamental kind, but I must admit they are a bit of tonic to look at in the depth of winter—they are so bright and hardy in the otherwise bleak landscape. Then in spring, for some reason, they sometimes let them go to flower and seed. So right now, they are all topped with tall, waving, yellow flower fronds and are looking rather bizarre, in point of fact. And right across the street from them is one of those greenbelts with a rumpled coverlet of purple wisteria, so that the intense combination of acres of yellow competing with acres of purple is far, far overdone and someone should call the police really, it’s much too much.

Dogwoods “…are one of the many great things about being American. These delicate, beautiful woodland creatures are native to our eastern forests, which they fill with their graceful growing habits and the beautiful white or pink flowers that open on their bare and delicately fanned stems.”

Dogwoods “…are one of the many great things about being American. These delicate, beautiful woodland creatures are native to our eastern forests, which they fill with their graceful growing habits and the beautiful white or pink flowers that open on their bare and delicately fanned stems.”

And a further word about dogwoods. They are one of the many great things about being American. These delicate, beautiful woodland creatures are native to our eastern forests, which they fill with their graceful growing habits and the beautiful white or pink flowers that open on their bare and delicately fanned stems. They are evidently afflicted by a terrible blight that is slowly but surely killing off the American dogwood (Cornus florida), and I suppose a terrible time may come when they are all gone at last. But until then, I think we should go on planting them as long as we can, and that is why I chose to plant the beautiful pink dogwood in the center of our patio, doomed as it perhaps may be (and as perhaps we all are). It is gorgeous enough for me, and there is time enough yet for beauty in the land, come whatever may. Perhaps in the future, our impoverished descendants may only be able to plant the blight-resistant Korean dogwood, and that would be a shame. These Korean dogwoods certainly have their partisans and their considerable virtues—they are disease resistant, more vigorous bloomers and have a winningly compact growing habit—but they simply do not, in my opinion, have the elegance of the American variety, and of course, they bloom with their dense pelt of green leaves, which is far less beautiful to my mind.

Returning to my own garden, this spring the bluebells have excelled themselves, forming big, fat clumps that are more like daylilies in size than bluebells. Whatever can have gotten into them? They are blooming so profusely that, for once, I was able to cut enough for vase after vase in the house, paired with dark blue irises and purple honesty for the last indoor displays from this garden that we shall have, while still leaving plenty of them outside to rejoice passersby. As the very first irises are now opening, I have to confess a pang of melancholy that I will not be here next month to see the May zenith of this garden, when irises, roses, and peonies are all at the top of their form together, the triple crown of this garden, as it is for so many.

"Today I walked alone through this lovely old house where we have lived together longer than anywhere else in our family’s life. Now it is empty and clean, and ready for another family."

“Today I walked alone through this lovely old house where we have lived together longer than anywhere else in our family’s life. Now it is empty and clean, and ready for another family.”

Still, the gardener must move on to other gardens and to other schemes and challenges. All that I learned here and remember from here will go with me, and often, usually as I am falling asleep at night, my mind will roam familiarly through this garden, as it does in others where it knows its way well, restlessly checking each plant in turn and in each season, love mingled with loss, joy mingled with affection, always questing. Today I walked alone through this lovely old house where we have lived together longer than anywhere else in our family’s life. Now it is empty and clean, and ready for another family.

For just one more day, it is still ours. It is beautiful inside, but very bare. Every room rings with memory, and I pause in each in turn, with a full heart. I tend dangerously toward the sentimental in life and was so proud of myself for not indulging in it until now. But now, now I am giving way a bit, as of course we must in life. Inevitably, we think of our children and how much of their lives are lived in each of the homes we make for them, what a large part of their lives each home is, and the cataract of memory cascades from year to year, flowing from child to child, from home to garden, and back to home again. And then I turn, and lock the door one final time.

The last I see of this garden is the pink and white of the coolly elegant, gesturing dogwoods against the dark green of the hedgerow at the back of the glorious garden, looking serene and everlasting.

The last I see of this garden is the pink and white of the coolly elegant, gesturing dogwoods against the dark green of the hedgerow at the back of the glorious garden, looking serene and everlasting.

“The last I see of this garden is the pink and white of the coolly elegant, gesturing dogwoods against the dark green of the hedgerow at the back of the glorious garden, looking serene and everlasting.”

 

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