GARDENS AND GARDENERS age and change. Why wouldnâ€™t they? The passage of time brings about changes in all living things, yet old age always takes us by surprise. Iâ€™m stunned by it. In the sliding glass doors to the kitchen, I catch glimpses of an old woman hobbling around my garden, and I realize in amazement that itâ€™s me. When I began writing this book, I wasnâ€™t hobbling. That has happened during the last few months.
â€œThe old order changeth, yielding place to new, / And God fulfils himself in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world.â€ When I was young and read Alfred Lord Tennysonâ€™s Idylls of the King, I rebelled against the idea that any good thing could possibly corrupt the world. How could it? And how could Arthur, that model of goodness, corrupt anything? But in a garden, it becomes quite clear. Change is natureâ€™s way of managing it allâ€”animal, vegetable, and even mineral. The sands of the desert shift and mountains erode. Everything changes, and somehow or other it all works.
Itâ€™s hard to say whether a garden is a metaphor for life or the other way around. Certainly, each phase of my life has been clearly reflected not only in the glass doors but also through them. The view today is very different from the same view in 1961. At that time, the kitchen was just a covered porch surrounded by long grass and brush. The glass doors were not put in until 1980, when there was finally something to see.
The garden emerged by fits and starts over a period of many years. But it doesnâ€™t seem so long ago that it was in its infancy and I was young. Now we are both old. The first rhododendrons I planted have trunks like trees, and a Chinese chestnut given to me as a sprout in a four-inch pot has reached a height of thirty-five feet.
Evidence of change is everywhere, in both garden and gardener. Weâ€™ve been through a lot together: the year the trees were defoliated by inch worms that hung in masses from their bare branches; drought years, when my husband and I pumped gray water from the bathtub to revive the wilting shrubs; a three-year plague of voles that decimated the shade plantings.
To balance these relatively minor setbacks, there have been so many moments of heart-stopping wonder and delight, such as the triumph of a yellow ladyâ€™s slipperâ€™s first bloom. I now have a whole clump, and they remind me of my youth and the farmer who taught me about wildflowers. He used to send away for plants and seed and managed to establish a small colony of yellow ladyâ€™s slippers in the woods behind his farm.
My garden is full of wonderful memories. In April, I look forward every year to the poignant beauty of primroses planted in memory of my English mother. And in the summer, I think of Helen and Johnny Gill, my gardening mentors, who are responsible for the river of lambâ€™s ears in front of the long perennial border.
For forty-eight years, the garden has been part of my life every day, in every season and in all weathers. It has witnessed my greatest joys and absorbed my deepest sorrows. It is a place of safety and comfort, an old forgiving friend who is always there for me, who protects and embraces me.
I cannot leave this place. It is where my husband and I spent a lifetime together and where I want to stay. The determination to remain here fueled my desire to find a simpler way to garden and to write about it. In addition, there were the letters I received after an article for Fine Gardening on reducing maintenance in the garden came out. Those letters have kept me in front of the computer.
This is my story and it is for my husband, but it is also for the kind people who wrote those letters. They told me a little bit about their stories, and as it turns out, we are all doing exactly the same thingâ€”trying to hang on to something we love. And sometimes we feel that we are winning. Already, some of the strategies Iâ€™ve tried are working, and caring for the garden has become easier. So many gardeners will eventually find themselves in the same boat that I think our experiences worth sharing.
But first, a backward glance at the way the garden used to be. Because unless you know something of its history, you will not understand the significance of all the changes, voluntary and involuntary, that have taken place in recent years.