Every garden tells a story. Many stories, in fact.
There is the story of conditions: too much rain, not enough rain, too much sun, not enough sun, too much clay, not enough sand, too close, too deep, too early, too late, too tempting for the squirrels. Some plants thrive, others struggle. You tweak the variables–water, nutrition, pest control, even location–but the outcome is beyond anyone’s control. In the end, every garden story is a parable about patience and humility.
There is the story of the work: The bulbs I got as a party favor at my friends’ gorgeous May wedding that I forgot to plant and then secretly discarded with tremendous guilt. That time I waited too long to treat my Dwarf Hinoki Cyprus for parasites, and now it looks like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. When my friend died, and for days all I could do was garden. “Too many weeds,” I thought as I pulled them. “And somehow not enough.”
And then there is the story of origin: Those hasta came from my friend Liz’s old apartment. My boyfriend and I drove 100 miles out of state to buy the Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar out back. That Christmas Rose and those other hasta came from my mother’s garden. That Live Forever came from my mom’s garden, along with the Snow on the Mountain in the back, and she took them from my grandmother’s garden maybe ten years before that. Some of the plants came from my great grandmother’s garden, which ones, we’re not sure.
A garden story can go on like that forever.
In my family, touring the garden is a tradition. Whenever my mother comes over, she checks out the plants in the front yard, commenting enthusiastically about whatever is in bloom. I inevitably start pointing things out: This came from your house. That Andromeda is really struggling, can’t figure out why. Yes, that Live Forever will need to be divided soon. Before long my dad has disappeared inside to check sportz on his tablet, and my mom and I are wandering through the backyard too. It’s true, her memory problems ensure that the legacy plants always come as a revelation, but the ups and downs of weather and season ensure that there will forever be new news to report. “I really need to get out here and ” is usually the final word.
Because the work is unceasing. A garden is a process, not a finished product. Gardening is a journey, not a destination. A garden story never ends.
But it does have a beginning. My garden began as a rectangle of grass with a single, tidy bed that hugged the porch. Then I met Marcos, a neighbor and professional landscaper. Gardener, actually. He was an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. He was also the most beautiful man I ever dated–black hair, mocha-colored skin, dark eyes rimmed with lustrous lashes, thick lips like a Mayan god, and a gorgeous torso sculpted by honest work. He loved plants more than he loved women, and he loved women a lot–the curve of their hips, the mysterious depth of their bellies, the way they moved and smelled. I should know–I was one of them. “Beauty,” he called me softly.
Marcos never told me he loved me. Instead, he said, “We should do your yard.” And he did. One morning I awoke to a chopping sound. I looked out my bedroom window and saw him working out front, wearing nothing but white cotton pajama bottoms that he quickly sweated through. He had borrowed a pickax from the golf course where he worked, and he swung it like John Henry digging tunnels through solid rock.
“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Over and over, never stopping, he dug up six pernicious Rose of Sharon that threatened to devour the whole house, Sleeping Beauty-style.
“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Gone went the sucker trees that proliferated behind the neighbor’s crumbling shed, preventing my plants from thriving in their shade.
“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Out of the ground came tap roots five inches in diameter that denied water to the tender plants I was trying to nurture.
After two hours, his brown skin was slick with sweat, and his soaked pajamas concealed pretty much nothing from the neighbor’s prying eyes. I brought him ice water and strawberries, and he kissed me sweetly. I am sure the neighbors who saw us together, then and later, told themselves a nasty little story, of a middle-aged white lady who hired a Latino gardener to redo her yard and then ended up sleeping with him. Over the next several months, we did little to dispel that rumor, in part because the myth that he was my gardener (and not my boyfriend) helped him get side jobs in the neighborhood, in part because we found the narrative titillating, and mostly because it was none of their fucking business. What actually happened was, I dated a talented man who loved me, and he gave me the most gorgeous yard in the zip code as a symbol of his affection.
When Marcos was done with the pickax that first morning, he pointed at the epic piles of debris and angry roots still protruding from the ground. “The rest is yours,” he commanded. “I’m going back to bed.”
Yes, he could be blunt and patriarchal, and he had some retrograde opinions about gender. But this aging feminist found it hilarious, endearing, and sexy as hell.
Over the next few months, Marcos terraced my front yard and built two patios and paths out of Pennsylvania field stone. He meticulously worked the soil to create flawless drainage and maximize the plants’ growing potential. We worked together to weed and sew. He called the final result “The Garden of Love.”
Every garden is a labor of love, but from the very beginning, my garden was made of it. Some of the plants Marcos chose did not do so well when the winters turned cold again. The neighbors drastically pruned their tree, and a few shade-loving plants withered from exposure. After Marcos returned home to Guatemala, I lamented about how much work (and life) he left me to do alone. But I take comfort that many of the plants we chose together are thriving, some so well that they need to be divided and shared with friends and family. And of course, the stones he laid in the ground will be here forever.
Like our love for each other, like the story itself.