My Garden (An Exercise in Garden Writing)

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Back of the house as seen from the back corner of my garden. The willow arbor is floating there to the left.

After having seen many residential gardens over the last few years I think it’s safe to say that mine is rather small, a regular city lot, with areas more or less here and there in strips along the north, south, and west sides of the home. The backyard is probably more of what would be traditionally called a garden, but even it is quite small when compared to larger gardens seen in this city. It is square, roughly 30′ x 30′, and in its heart is my 10′ x 10′ living willow arbor. For me, this is the shaggy, ragged and often messy heart of my garden. It’s my outdoor living room. It’s cozy and a bit wild—probably a bit like me.

This area looks sort of finished but if I’d pulled the camera out a bit the illusion of order would disappear. (That’s Cryptomeria japonica ‘Spiraliter Falcata‘ there on the right and an Impatiens tinctoria on the far left. Still cannot find the tag for the really hardy evergreen fern there but I’m working on it. The grassy bunch is a lovely Carex.)

Then there is the rest. The bits and pieces. I see swipes and swatches as I wander around watering in the heat. I see finished areas followed by piles of trash that I’ve not yet picked up from old ideas for projects. There are the overgrown run-on sentences of the garden—mostly vines. My garden is one that’s a work-in-progress, it’s an artist’s studio. This place really is my mad plant scientist’s laboratory. 

Antirrhinum majus ‘Oriental Lanterns (TM)’ grown from seed I bought from Park Seed. The color is amazing and the plant is a great plant.

My house faces west. The front yard is not really coherent. There is the tiny hell strip, cut up into three uneven pieces. There is a central area, with a privacy planting, meant to keep the eyes of those on the sidewalk away from my large front window. The parking area is there too but it’s currently filled with racks and pots and is more of a staging area this summer. An edible garden once ran along the southern side of the house. It is overgrown now and a mass of tangled plants. It was created initially to be the domain of my ex, but I’ve not yet fully reclaimed it. I hope to soon. 

Life in the hammock on a summer evening as I dream of better times ahead.

I see the memories of each and every plant and space. I see the ghosts of plants who’ve come before and which are gone now. I want to garden to build a future now more than to remember the past. This will be challenging for me, but I want to do so. So much about gardening requires time and patience. I’ve finally learned too that gardening can be exhilarating when you rip everything out and begin again. Just like a diseased plant, it’s best to rip it out. Some plants struggle in the wrong conditions, I have been one of those plants. 

The real garden here at home. The back boundary has been an eyesore for years. Here is Mona the Cat watching the apartment dwellers. Someday soon I’l have the fence I’ve been hoping for and planning for years.

The front garden runs along the fence and turns along with the walking path into what is my north garden. It is the access walkway and no one ever wants to go that way even when I encourage them to do so. Someday I’ll actually consult someone about how to make that entryway more enticing, but for now, I’ll just continue to gently encourage folks verbally. 

My engagement bike along the North Side of the house. (Yes, I’m engaged to be married.) The bike “La Dama” is now my mobile seed-collecting unit. I can bike to homes nearby and collect seeds from gardens locally to be sold in my online store. So far, the whole process has worked wonders for my health.

I like the small northern strip. I don’t like having to look directly at my neighbor’s house, but he’s a nice man. He just isn’t as into privacy as I am. He has landscaped with English laurels (Prunus laurocerasus), Japanese privet (Ligustrum japonicum), and cedar (Cedrus)—all having grown randomly on his property from seeds dropped by birds or else they were blown in on the wind. He then plucked them and rearranged them into rows. Amazing in its own way I suppose as a lesson in patience and he has loads of that virtue. He’s a great neighbor and I like to harvest from his ever-growing army of Western Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum). (My first client has also been grateful for this too.) 

Sedum morganianum in my office. I’m taking care of my indoor babies before it gets too dark and cold outside to do so in the fall. I hate transplanting houseplants when the days get shorter. It’s best to care for them now. Their roots will appreciate it and they’ll be far less likely to fall prey to pests and disease.

Forgive me for not writing about my plants though. Major life transitions recently have made that painful. I’m healing. I’ve learned a lot. So many memories were tied up in every corner of green in my space. During the past few years I’ve really come to understand how unusual I am in that sense. My plantings have held such sentiments. But I know that I am not the only one. There are those who garden to decorate. Some re-create a time, or a place, or a feeling. Many just want symmetry and low-maintance. Some want that impression—a replication seen in a magazine. I planted to forget. I planted to create another kind of reality. I remember far too much and I’ve come to realize recently that I’ve never forgotten nearly as much in my garden as I’ve remembered. 

The garden of my mother.

My home is the home of a woman who up until recently didn’t really understand she had a moderately serious case of OCD. When I was highly stressed during the past decade—for the first time in my life—the negative effects of this affliction really showed themselves. Now I’m using my “old friend” to help me to organize, clean and make sense of the chaos I’d created during so many years of unhappiness and loneliness. I’ve taken my life back and I no longer see OCD really at all. I had no idea that such severe and extreme stress could do this to someone. In hindsight, I have been that woman. 

I’m very detail oriented. This can be a wonderful thing—especially for making pastries.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy I have a light form of OCD but I want to use it for good. The kind I have appears to have helped me in the past with my academic achievements. I have an amazing memory and when I want to organize and categorize things, it’s like breathing for me and I find it extremely relaxing. It puts me in my happy place. When I’m stressed though, things fall apart. I’ve lived with a lot of stress for many years now and my garden shows that still. It’s the last frontier of my former life but I’m making sense of it now. I’m re-writing my garden as I’m re-writing my life. 

First harvest of the season from the Ficus carica ‘Petite Negra’.

For these reasons I do not see what others see. As I walk the circle around my home I see what never was, I hear the echos of arguments, there were the joyous moments after my divorce, conversations with friends and foster kids, and I see myself wandering, wondering what to do with myself. I see myself crying in pain during times of horrible illness and swelling. In my head the refrain, “I need help,” repeats over and over. It is far more difficult to ask for help than it is to prune a Japanese maple. When I walk in my garden, I see and feel the pleasure pruning the Japanese maples has given me during the worst of times. When I felt my worst emotionally, I always sought my pruners. 

The front of the house July 2013.

You’d think that this would make for an organized garden but mine is not. There are yet many unfinished projects. I’m slowly trashing them now and am making room for a new period in my life. I’m keeping the plants that grow well and which bring me happiness. If the memories are too painful, reminding me of when I fell and broke my fingers, or when I fell and hit my head, I’m trying not to let the plants die. Instead, I am either giving things away or moving them. The memories are dying instead and things are no longer falling apart. 

Maurice the Cat in his happy zone.

I should add more pictures but I’m still ashamed to do so. With a party coming up to welcome my fiancé into his new home I’m making strides. These things take time, energy, and money and I don’t have a lot of any of these right now.

I’m one of the many chronically ill divorced people who’ve filed for personal bankruptcy. I’m not a perfectly comfortable member of the middle class and I’m not ashamed to say so. That’s what I feel and see when I see my garden but I’ve been learning to see so much more.  

I feel that I’m lucky and gifted to be here—to be able to continue living here. I’m loved now too—a lot!—and I’m learning to be part of a team. We plan to buy the house and stay here. These things take time, but sometimes things work out for the best. I’m learning that too and being positive makes a huge difference. I adore all of the positive green people in my life and want to thank them from the bottom of my heart. We gardeners are ever the optimists and you’ve all helped me feel alive during a time when I really needed the lifeline. Thank you.

Gardens are for people and this garden is a big part of me. I really look forward to sharing it more with others in the future—and I guess that means you’ll get a bit more of me too.

(The Grow Write Guild is a creative writing club for people who garden. It’s a series of bi-weekly writing prompts created by garden author and blogger Gayla Trail. I’m starting out late with the series but hope to catch up soon. It’s just what this blogger needed for some summer fun.)

The Willow Arbor in Winter

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A week or so ago my husband trimmed up our willow arbor in the back garden. It is a task that we neglected to do last year and we paid heavily for it this year. Much of the growth that could have been harnessed for the structure’s integrity was lost, but next year, this won’t be the case. The arbor has been streamlined.
I’ve ordered a super sized tarp to temporarily cover the arbor for a spell this winter. We have so little space indoors at times, and only a small front porch, so it seemed important to do so.
The tarp will be red. I love the color and it always looks nice with green. I just did not want a blue tarp.
Maybe if I pull out the fire pit I can sit beside it and warm up as I work on winter garden tasks. I’ve been so busy indoors that I am beginning to want to go back outside again.
Next year, my plan is to have a nice fence to block more of the apartment building from our view. I am not a big fan of having folks that close. My childhood, surrounded by woods and water, spoiled me.

I love out willow arbor, don’t you? It’s 10′ x 10′ and the heart of our garden. Maybe it was a bit ugly for a few years, but when it’s covered in Clematis blooms and the branches sway and block the bright sun, it’s simply heavenly.

Things Fall Apart, Rereading the Garden

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Our willow arbor is beginning to fall apart.
I was introduced to the book Things Fall Apart by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe many years ago when I was a freshman at Lewis & Clark College. Surprisingly, the book was not assigned, but instead, it was recommended to me by my boyfriend at the time, my first serious boyfriend, someone who’d lived in Nigeria for several years with his family and had greatly admired the book. Believe it or not, I often think of this book when I consider my garden.
In summary, the book examines the life of one African man as his traditional tribal culture rubs up against the culture of white Europeans and Christianity in his realm. The events that occur become increasingly more painful for the reader to read as the story progresses, and in the end, you are there, on the stage with them, confronted. Few books have ever left me so radically changed.
Things Fall Apart has stuck with me for many years, and I return to it often, especially whenever I feel stuck between conflicting realities. Let’s say radically so. Often, nowadays, I stand between the world of the healthy and the world of the ill and as much as you may believe these two places are the same, they are not. If you are healthy you can physically work and earn money or else take care of things like your health and possessions. If you are currently unemployed, that is not even close to being the same as unemployable. If you are ill you struggle with money, time, personal expectations you’ve placed on yourself, schedules and then there is always that nagging responsibility you feel to lessen the stress for those who care for you.
We all have to put on a productive happy mask, but what lies beneath it is always what matters most because beneath the mask and its design is what we call its integrity. That’s what makes some books great, while others miss the mark. It’s the unseen emotive element in design—and it exists even in garden design. Not surprisingly the designs with the most integrity are also those which inspire us the most, that’s why we say great works have soul. They live and breathe apart from us. It’s for this reason Dr. Frankenstein, like so may others, created his monster. Unlike them, I am not a literalist, or for that matter, a copyist.
When it comes to our garden, I am often asked what style it is, and up until right now, I haven’t really had an answer. It wears no mask, at least not one that fits into any traditional category—and we like it that way. When we get around to affixing a mask to it, I will let you know, but until then, I think I may begin to tell inquisitors that it is in the Style of Illness.

My Living Willow Arbor (Needs a Haircut)

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This is not the easiest object in our garden to photograph, but I thought it was worth a shot. I cannot lie and say that it took us a great deal of time to create and train, but it does take some time to cut it all back. The pleasure it gives us though, and our guests and family every summer, is worth it, and the branches can be used for a variety of things—mostly garden related of course! 

This is the arbor as seen from the other approach.
Here is what can happen when you are not paying attention to how your training is going. The injury should be fine, and this summer the “training wheels” will finally be pulled out, but I’m curious to see what happens to the tube then…
 
 
There is nothing I enjoy more than when I’m able to wake up on a sunny and warm morning, put my Bialetti coffee pot on the stove, and then look out the window to see the cats already sunbathing. I grab the laptop, pour the coffee, and slip on my shoes. Nearby traffic is an annoyance, but so it goes in the city. 
 
This is the crisscross on the top of the arbor. It is not straight, and it is a bit overgrown, but I plan to get this all whipped into shape this summer!

The Clematis ‘Josephine’ is the other big highlight in the backyard this time of year. It lives on the  NE willow. I have Clematis vines on two of the other trees, but they have not taken off nearly as well yet.

 

Trimming the Living Willow Garden

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The other day I was finally trimming the living willow arbor out back and I noticed some funny things. First off, this tube in the photo now has tree growth growing around it. I could cut the tube out, but I think I’ll leave it there. (It could be worse. It could be a bicycle growing in a tree like on Vashon Island.) Anyway, there is a fear that I have. It could become diseased, but I think that I will just let it go. In addition, a few branches have already start to graft to one another with no human intervention. It is scary to think that the four trees will eventually become “one” with one another, but so it goes… If I lose one at that point, I guess I will lose them all. Anyone else out there have a living willow structure that they care about? Any advice?