Sample text for Paths of desire : the passions of a suburban gardener / Dominique Browning.


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TWO: GROUNDS FOR RENOVATION

"The great way is very level; But people delight in torturous paths."

-- Lao-tzu

Te Tao Ching

One day, soon after we had moved into the house, I walked out the back door from the kitchen and saw a couple of mysterious plants poking, with great determination, their way out from the edge of the driveway. Fugitives from a buried bed. I had never seen such plants in my life. Two strong stalks of dusty green with thick leaves ranked up the sides, they grew taller and taller -- I felt like Jack watching his beans rise -- until they reached a height of five feet. The stalks were noble and erect, as if they were flagpoles from which would unfurl heraldic banners. Then the stalks began to bloom, a profusion of blossoms up and down their length of a mottled, breathtaking, unnameable blue. A Botticelli blue. A blue close to the clearest depths of southern seas, or the celestial orbs frescoed on the ceilings of old churches. And then again, a blue that lay closer to the inky mauve of a slow dusk. The color was shifting, changeable. This was my introduction to the aristocratic delphinium. For years afterward, I searched the garden catalogs to find a flower that resembled the ones that seemed to have come down to my backyard from the heavens; I figured out that they were a hybrid of the elatum group, but I have faltered in finding the color, which hovers elusively, winking at me, somewhere between the "Blue Nile" and "Bruce." It is like that blue spot in the middle of the darkness behind your eyeballs, the so-called Blue Pearl at the heart of meditation, that the seeker finds only upon transcending time and place and the need to scratch an itch. I have read about it, but will never find it. I had seen the mythic delphinium; I was soon to lose it forever. Those flowers that appeared at the back of the driveway came bearing a message, I was sure. It was time to start a new bed in the back. That was how we came to rip out the parking lot.

Parking lot? you say. It was an unusual landscaping feature, to say the least, for a suburban backyard -- at least in those days. It was an extension of the driveway, tucked around behind the kitchen at the back of the house, paved and fenced off from the rest of the yard. A beautiful old pink rose, with trunks as thick as my wrists, spilled over the fence rails. The previous owner, who had had a sister and several grown children living with her, had needed to accommodate many cars. We owned but one car, so we pried up the asphalt and replaced it with flagstone, and, shoving some dirt up against the ungainly concrete wall that seemed to be the only thing keeping the uphill neighbor's garage from sliding into our yard, we created a slightly raised bed, held in place with a low stone wall. The neighbor's garage -- which was actually a beautiful old wreck of a stone carriage house -- loomed above my new garden area, the Back Bed, and its granite walls trapped the heat of the winter sun and kept the climate behind the house mild.

The Back Bed was about four feet deep and twenty-seven feet long. As it was in the sunniest part of the yard, it readily took on whatever perennials I could squeeze into it; they thrived. The patio off the kitchen instantly became the summer dining room, where I could gaze happily at the new flowers. What's more, the Back Bed had the advantage of partly shrouding more than half of the band of concrete retaining wall that ran partway across the back of the property -- and what a nasty wall it was. It had nothing to recommend it save for its Atlas-like devotion to holding up the neighbors' world. It did not even seem to weather properly, but stayed the same mealy and uninteresting color through every season.

(Over the following years I would try to further mask the wall with various covers and creepers, the unfortunate Euonymus fortunei, or wintercreeper, and English ivy, Hedera helix, but though all these plants were considered invasive, they seemed to bake right off in the hot sun, as if my wall were repellent even to a pest. Finally, years after the creation of the Back Bed, I would plant a clematis, montana, at one end of the wall, simply because I had ordered too much of it for a different spot. I had no hope for its survival, as I had always thought that clematis was a fragile, fussy thing. But it was so wildly contented with its spot at the end of the wall that within a year I was able to train it down the length of concrete; it cascaded off the top. It bloomed profusely every spring, its small white flowers glowing into the night, and I thought I had triumphed over the wall, until one year, after a severe -- and accidental -- pruning, the clematis became demented, and began to twine its way into everything else in the bed, haywire, strangling whatever it could. I had never seen such a coy, robust invader. The wall, clearly, was cursed. I decided to ignore it. Little did I know of the perils of ignoring trouble.)

With guidance from a Design Expert at a nearby nursery, I planted a row of shrubs in the Back Bed, to pick up the line of some shrubs that were already in place along the back of the yard -- three hydrangea, because of the two old hydrangea at the back of the house, which bloomed a hard, almost green white late in the summer, then tarnished, fading into a beautiful rosy blush of powdery old age. In the new bed I planted a standardized form; I felt that would look more delicate, balletic, sending its sprays of flowers twirling from a central trunk. Because there were already some in the yard, I alternated the hydrangea with two althea, or rose of Sharon, shrubs that would grow in a vase shape that I admired. Their flowers also came late in the season; they were white with a crimson center, and there seemed an endless supply of them. The shrubs looked so small and forlorn, once they were in, that I decided to fill the spaces between them with perennials. And so I squeezed into the Back Bed anything and everything I liked from the catalogs, augmented by supplies from the local nursery. Lavender, rosemary, phlox, hollyhock, foxglove, mint -- oh, the mistakes I made -- sedum, daisies. I spent lavishly, extravagantly; I gardened licentiously.

I had been intimidated by flowers, at first, but then was seduced by the catalogs. I loved reading the names of things, the way it felt to say them, mouthing my way into the private language of the gardener. Monarda, with its swelling, soothing, matronly vowels -- bee balm. Echinacea, sounding like the very sneeze the coneflower was meant to ward off. The silvery artemisia, surely a fairy's flower. Campanula, ringing in morning devotions. Over the next few years, I ordered and crammed and moved and tended and lost and yanked and killed. You can never know what will work in your garden until you try it. And discipline of design is harder won, and all the more satisfying, when it has conquered the instinct for profligacy. My hand would eventually grow firmer, my eye more sophisticated. But neither was of interest to me in the early days of gardening.

In my first years with the Back Bed, I was a blissfully ignorant gardener, and, although it was masked by the extravagant planting, I was also quite insecure. I put in the shrubs to give "structure," as I had an idea that shrubs made bones, and bones were virtuous. I copied what was already in the yard so that I could feel safe about my choices. And at the same time I was riotously haphazard; sloppy, really, troweling in anything that caught my eye, or ear, with no regard to color, size, habit, or overall effect.

I sometimes wished I could have been like those professional landscape designers who go to a paint store, mix chips of color together until they find a pleasing combination, and then plant accordingly, sticking to the plan no matter what the temptations of the nursery. The best that could be said of my efforts was that I had tender feelings about whatever went into the Back Bed. Eventually I grew to appreciate that a solicitous touch was at least as important as a ruthless eye.

One day in early spring, a few months before the collapse of the retaining wall, workmen began to mill around the stone carriage house. The house had been neglected for years, which gave it charm, I thought, but also made it an appealing home for skunks and rats. Not so charming. I watched from my kitchen window over the next few months as the men rebuilt the crumbling chimney, shored up the foundations, trimmed the roof in gleaming copper gutters. They replaced rotting window sashes, then replaced the old glass (one of the panes shattered by a son's errant -- so I was told -- baseball). I could peer into the bottom floor and see a furnace being dismantled and a new one being assembled. Electricians arrived, and stringy tangles of charred wire were removed and neat coils of shiny wire brought in.

I had new neighbors.

One morning, I woke to the grinding, scraping noise of bulldozers, and the sound of dynamite blasting rock out of the ground.

The new neighbors had ambitions.

The carriage house was the least of it. The main structure was an elaborate, four-story, stone-and-stucco Victorian layer cake of a house, one of the oldest in town, dating from the 1890s, swagged with rotting porches, boasting a gorgeous old slate roof of a soft, tarnished silver color, the loss of whose shingles was highly entertaining, if you were lucky enough to catch a showing. The slates would dislodge themselves, slide slowly down the slope of the roof, gather speed, and careen madly off the edge to the driveway far below, shattering deliciously. The house had been standing empty for a long time, caught in a muddle of estates and lawyers and distant relatives; its previous owner, a reclusive, eccentric, wealthy old woman who, it was said, kept all her money in brown paper bags in the closets, had died, alone in the house, years earlier. The house was now coming back to life, teeming with carpenters, masons, electricians, plumbers, and every other manner of helpful man.

And then began the assault on the grounds.

An old Victorian fountain, three-tiered, with dolphins and maidens holding pan upon pan over their heads, was removed. Oh, no! The paths to the carriage house were rerouted, graveled, and edged in Belgian block (that ubiquitous, stony status symbol). Trees were taken down, making room for the swing set (how many swing sets did one street need?), and shrubs removed -- but the new owners had not even moved into the house yet -- how could they know what they were taking out? Why hadn't they asked me? I had been watching that garden grow for over a decade! I understood it.

For weeks I heard blasting and drilling and groaning and grinding and buzzing. I reflected, wistfully, that for the last five years, I had been doodling plans for the renovation of my own property -- enhancing the Old Garden, reorganizing the Back Bed, drawing pictures of new beds that would grace the other parts of the yard, especially the side yard, dawdling about fixing the driveway. Daydreaming, and doing nothing at all. Uphill, the neighbors hadn't even moved in, and the garden had been wrenched, with great decisiveness -- at great expense -- into an elaborate renovation.

My husband and I had divorced six years earlier and I had decided to stay in the house. Just before my husband left, I had shoehorned a last perennial into the Back Bed, halfheartedly pruned some azaleas in the Old Garden, and then simply given up the effort. For the next few years, I spent not another penny on the garden; I worked not another hour. I took some comfort in watching the garden take care of itself, for a season or two, in the sad days that followed the breakup of our family home -- the shrubs smothering the threatening weeds with luxuriant new growth, the perennials letting loose a dazzling display of flowers, the sedum presenting as rich and burnished a bouquet as it ever had. Then the ivy began to creep up into the sassafras again, bittersweet twined into the hydrangea, the camellia took on a woebegone air, and I let it all go. Still, I felt fiercely protective of the garden, and could not imagine leaving it to the mercy of the next buyer, who might want what the realtor had called "curb appeal" and move in with that chain saw. I would never have been able to live in the same town as that garden and not watch over it. I intended to stay.

But I put off further alterations, though they were certainly needed. The Back Bed grew shabby. The Old Garden was clotted. In the side of the yard, the fifty-year-old hemlocks had been growing scraggly and dying. It was a dismal sight. The garden was now mine only in the sense that I owned it. I watched as it went into a gentle decline. I went with it.

In the next few years my confidence in my ability to ever manage the place again was steadily eroding, and I had begun to entertain thoughts of downsizing. The Boys and I would take evening walks past the local realtor's storefront office, and we would browse through the listings pictured in the windows. After reading all the notices carefully, the Boys would turn to me with sad faces. "Please, Mom, please don't downsize." They were rather poignant. "You are in the original house. You will never find anything like the original garden. You love your garden. We love the original house. We don't want to move."

So of course we did not move. But the fantasy that I might, someday, find a new garden to tend gave me an excuse, as if heartbreak were not reason enough, not to spend another penny on the grounds. Every once in a while, in a rush of affectionate memory for my old feeling about gardening, I doodled thoughts of what I would do on the property, if I were to allow myself to feel joy in it again. But I also kept a running tabulation, in my daydreams, of the cost, both financial and emotional, of adding more, cleaning it up, refreshing it -- and deliberately making its gardens mine.

The elements in my calculations changed, over the years. I wouldn't spend the money because I was changing jobs; because no one else cared; because I was single; because the Boys were only there half of every week, so they wouldn't enjoy it enough (as if they had ever noticed it all); because I had to support myself; because I was too tired and too sad; because I was too busy; because I might move. Really, though, I had become afraid to deepen my roots. I had become afraid to care too much about my garden, or my house. What good did it do, to care? I was afraid to commit. I was locked in an ambivalent embrace -- the worst kind.

By the time my new neighbors started their garden alterations, the calculus of noncommittal was quite refined. The Boys were growing up so fast. The oldest was about to leave home for college -- for a while, "about to leave" meant in several years, then it was in a couple of years, and then, overnight, it was next year. He would be abandoning the garden -- why bother to change anything? His brother trailed four years behind, so it was true that he would be around to enjoy the garden a bit longer. It is lovely to read stories about children who appreciate gardens, who gather up flowers in their little arms, bury their little noses in the fragrant blossoms, and trip and skip into the house to present their blowsy bouquets to their mothers. Those children like to weed; they are the children in books. When did a skateboarder ever care about flowers? My younger son wanted ramps, not beds.

My daydreams cost me nothing -- a little agitation, perhaps, but no more. While the neighbors blasted and buzzed, I went on doodling. A new bed here, some new trees there, how about a fountain? -- I had always wanted a fountain. Then I put my dreams aside.

One day the buzzing and blasting stopped, and the new neighbors moved in. All was quiet for a few weeks, until the stormy night when the wall fell down.

Copyright © 2004 by Dominique Browning




Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Gardening -- New York (State) -- New York -- Anecdotes.
Gardens -- New York (State) -- New York -- Anecdotes.
Browning, Dominique -- Homes and haunts -- New York (State) -- New York -- Anecdotes.