Depression took a lot of things from me last year. Time, friendships, laughter, and my garden.
This is how my reasoning went last year: plants in nature don’t need care, so I’m going to let nature take care of my garden. Also: plans get blown off so I’m going to stop making plans. Holidays are temporary and hard work, so are they really necessary? Baggy jeans are good for every activity so why wear anything else; chocolate is full of antioxidants so no need for a vegetable. (I stand by that one)
At the time, I thought I was being easygoing and realistic, now I can see I was just sick.
Nowhere was this sickness more evident than in the garden. The year I said no more to watering and weeding was the year of the drought that went from “serious” to “severe” to “extreme.” I sat in a broken Adirondack chair looking at brown, and that was fine with me.
This was not who I was or where I came from. My mother turned a quarter acre lot in a 1960s subdivision into an oasis of old roses, cottage perennials, herbs, a compost heap crawling with squash and an annual garden full of sunflowers, zinnia and giant pom poms of marigolds swarming with bees.
I tried to take this tradition with me to the chicken coop Iain and I first called home, and then to the barn we converted for fourteen years. I started seeds in the basement and spent every Mother’s Day plant shopping, rain or shine. I killed the good majority of those plants, but I was always back at it each spring with a new garden plan and a new pair of pruners to replace the ones I lost each year.
Our current home in Gloucester is named Eudora Cottage after the mother of artist Nell Blaine. Nell was a world-famous artist who painted landscapes and flowers from her wheelchair after being paralyzed by polio. Specifically, she painted the flowers on her acre of land, which were planted by hired garden designers to her specific plans. The garden was literally a painting and now it is under my care.
The last gardener to work here, Mary, gave me a tour and named each native plant she had personally chosen: Amsonia ‘Blue Ice, ‘ Asclepias incarnata ‘Cinderella,’ Astrantia major ‘Hadspen Blood,’ and on through the alphabet. I wrote as she talked, trying to spell the Latin names she rambled off. She explained the “Fan Garden” that was designed to look like a Japanese fan, and she showed me the bayberry bush that she fanatically pruned each year into a graceful sculpture. “But you see this here? This is goutweed. Whatever you do, do not let that take hold. Get it out immediately or it will take over.”
You know where this is going.
I can’t say the gardens ever looked the way Mary left them. Or like the living palettes in Nell Blaine’s paintings. But every spring I tackled the fudgy-soiled Fan Garden, and picked the grass blades from between the succulents in the rock cracks. I was proud each year when the rare clematis Mary had raved about sent up its single blossom (even though I don’t even like clematis). And I happily added my own contributions each Mothers Day, which would be dead by next spring.
So when I said, no more, when I put away the sprinklers and left Eudora’s Cottage garden fallow for a year, that wasn’t me. That was my illness.
For the last two weeks I’ve surveyed the damage of drought and neglect. It looks like this:
And remember the goutweed? It looks like this:
When I was a kid, I fell in love with the premise of a book called Mandy by Julie Andrews. I don’t remember most of the story, but I remember the girl, Mandy, finding an abandoned cottage in the woods. It was rundown and overgrown with weeds and she decides to make a project of restoring it. Each day she sneaks away to the secret cottage and pulls the weeds and trims the hedges with borrowed tools. The idea that this young girl was capable of restoring this home with her own strength, little by little each day, stayed with me. So now when I look out at the weeds and brambles and skeletons of plants I think of that little girl I loved as a child, however unrealistic and overly sentimental and, actually, cloyingly sweet (I reread it to Dylan and it was a bit over the top), but STILL I pretend I’m Mandy, uncovering her garden weed by weed and bramble by bramble. And I think we’re going to be ok.
[Featured Image: Mother’s Day 2004]