I spent my three or four days of illness reading several books by garden writer Henry Mitchell, who had a gardening column called “Earthman” for twenty-odd years, and was a damn fine writer all around. I have enjoyed the books so thoroughly that I was sad to start the third one and discover that it began with his eulogy. He died with dirt on his hands, in his seventies, planting daffodils, and that is absolutely the best one can hope for in life, but still, I wish I could’ve sent him an e-mail and thank him for a couple of these essays.
We are completely different sorts of gardeners, mind you. He loved roses and irises and daylilies and dozens of exotics, and here I am mucking about with all these natives and warring on honeysuckle with the fervor of a Knight Templar stranded in the middle of Saracen Jerusalem. Still, what strikes me is the great similarity of gardeners in his columns–regardless of what you plant, you are probably behind on the weeding, you probably have conceived grandiose projects when there were mundane tasks going begging, you have undoubtedly planted things too close and in the wrong place and are now disgruntled that you cannot find a plant without digging through the shrub over it, and you have lost plants and you have crazy great ideas that have already been abandoned or changed beyond recognition and the plant you coddled died and you cannot remember why that other plant was a good idea even though you loved it at the time, and hey, look, a hummingbird!
And wherever you are, you wish you were at least a zone warmer so that you can grow that one Really Cool Plant. This is a Great Truth. Plotting how to keep my hardy Russian pomegranate alive has cost me more mental anguish than entirely healthy, and never mind that I can grow hibiscus and jasmine here and that pineapple sage is a perennial shrub and there are gardeners farther north who would be grateful just to overwinter lavender. Ingrates, the lot of us.
A few of these really struck me. There was a line he repeated frequently, which is “This garden is a result of doing unnecessary things that we could not afford in the wrong season,” and which I love dearly. And the statement that garden design is entirely overrated and we are far too obsessed with it–a garden is for the gardener, and while good design is a beautiful thing, the important thing is that the gardener know the plants and take joy in them, and if that means plants in bizarre places where they are completely aesthetically wrong, then so be it. The gardener will love it nonetheless. To someone like me, who’s garden design skills are rudimentary at best, this is nothing less than absolution.
My favorite, though, was “On the Defiance of Gardeners” about all the calamities that constantly strike the garden.
I smile when I hear the ignorant speak of lawns that take three hundred years to get the velvet look (for so the ignorant think.) It is far otherwise. A garden is very old (though not yet mature) at forty years and already, by that time, many things have had to be replaced, many treasures have died, many great schemes abandoned, many temporary triumphs have come to nothing and worse than nothing. If I see a garden that is very beautiful, I know that it is a new garden. It may have an occasional surviving wonder–a triumphant old cedar–from the past, but I know the intensive care is of the present.
…Now the gardener is the one who has seen everything ruined so many times that (even as his pain increases with each loss) he comprehends–truly knows–that where there was a garden once, it can be again, or where there never was, there yet can be a garden so that all who see it say, “Well you have favorable conditions here. Everything grows for you.” Everything grows for everybody. Everything dies for everybody, too. There are no green thumbs or black thumbs. There are only gardeners and non-gardeners.
Mr. Mitchell would not have approved of my black-eyed susans–upon which the goldfinches are currently snacking–and I would have cringed at his porcelainberry vine, but we might have found common ground on our hatred of Norway maples. And in being gardeners, of course.