I was 16 when I read Andrew Marvel’s poem ‘The Garden’ and the line “to a green thought in a green shade” jumped out at me. It was the first inkling I ever had that gardens were somehow different from other spaces. Living in big cities all my life, it had honestly never occurred to me. And while I did not seriously start tilling the soil until I bought a fruit & nut farm on a ridge in Philo 15 years later, even that huge commitment (I was at the time living 500 miles away) came more from a desire to have my boys run wild and free than to grow my own food, or fill my rooms with flowers. Well into my 20’s the only edible thing I had ever tried to grow was a $1.29 pot of basil and I watered that sucker to death. Oh, grasshopper, you have so much to learn.
But as is so often the case in life, sometimes the things we think we choose to sustain us are really things that choose us, like a mutt looking for a master so it can find somewhere to call home. Even well into my 30’s, living in Britain & only returning to the farm in Philo every summer, owning a garden ~ or rather having it own me ~ was more a literary pursuit than a life’s commitment. It was a casual interest in the affaire between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West that lead me to read Vita’s old gardening columns she had written for the Observer the last fifteen years of her life. I was charmed with the confessional, confidence building voice she used to describe this world that held such unparalleled delights. Vita moved plants around like they were so much furniture in a drawing room. She made mistakes each season but took them in stride, and did not find any contradiction in a natural world that was both ruthless yet forgiving. The first time I visited her estate at Sissinghurst I knew I had found a road map of what it might be like to create art out of nature. That it would take the rest of my life to become good at it was not beside the point. It was the point.
If you have yet to fall into a garden’s spell, there is no time like the present. Do not be dissuaded by how little you know or how small your plot…Get your hands dirty. Fill your lungs with the loamy smell of soil. Order seed catalogues and leave them by your bed. Talk to strangers in the nursery that you find hanging around plants you think you might like to grow. Read gardening journals by great writers. Never become competitive ~ gardening is not a sport. The only thing you are competing against is the voice inside your head that wants to know what’s taking so long. Tell it to shut up. Unlike everything else in life where time really is stacked against you, in your garden the return of a season brings with it an abiding optimism that instant gratification can never give. Gardens are Valium in landscape form, bringing with them Marvell’s “delicious solitude,” where the mind, “withdraws into it’s happiness,” and the world, and your role in it, will fall into place.