A Gardener's Vacation

Most of us certainly love the time we spend in our gardens, or at the very least we may love the end result. But there is no denying that it does the body good, as well as the soul, to get away from the garden now and then. There is nothing quite like appreciating it from afar as we sit comfortably in an overstuffed chair with a good book, miles away from the beloved place we call home and garden. Fortunately then, no matter what earthy task it may come into our mind to do, we cannot act on it. If we were at home, of course, in all likelihood we would feel obligated to spring into action- weeding, planting, cleaning the garden shed... Or we would feel guilty that we were not accomplishing more.

That is why I so much enjoy this little sanctuary of a cabin on the Oregon coast, owned by my dear friends, Jane and John. It's small, rustic, and well positioned out of the wind, yet a mere half block from the beach. And, there is no garden here to speak of (at least so far). We will see how long I can hold off!

On the last trip here, I did spend a blustery afternoon in the rain planting native sword ferns. I very much hope they will easily naturalize on the wild, grassy berm next to the cabin. I also tucked in a native columbine going to seed, a tiny wild rose, and a lovely pink-flowering lavatera shrub (in the mallow family) that should grow larger and more beautiful each year with virually no care. That sounds like a garden, you say? Yes and no. This place is a nature sanctuary beloved by a host of local birds. The cabin itself is occupied no more than a few weeks a year, although I'd like to change that. Thus, the yard is really far too wild and overgrown to fit the typical definition of a garden.

That does raise a question, doesn't it, about how one actually defines the word garden. And of course the answer would always be relative to the plants that seem valuable, beautiful, or interesting and those that are perceived to be less meritous or just plain weeds. Around this cabin is a thicket of native shrubery- mostly fuschia, wild rose, salal, and camelia. There is also a broad expanse of graceful orange crocosmia and tall purple fireweed. Beyond that is the wild, grassy area to the west where I planted the ferns. And beyond that is a bushy stand of alder trees, a giant, many branched holly tree, elderberry, and other unknown species, all of which are thriving enviably.

Because these are all very common plants along the coast, they are not in general highly valued, but I love them. If plants grow well totally on their own, you see, they are all to often disdained by gardeners. Perhaps they dislike the fact that they can claim no credit for the success of these plants. Instead they are labelled as invasive, aggressive, or just plain undesirable. So if any such specimans grow in abundance in your yard, be assured that you don't really have a garden. You have ... an ungarden. That's no doubt what I see out the window here; an ungarden.

When I first arrived here yesterday, I unpacked the car, made up the bed, read for awhile, and then dragged out the hose to water my new plants. They all look good, in a scruffy sort of way, although the rose seems to have disappeared. But then, I'm actually not quite sure anymore where I planted it. Now that the watering is done, I really have no further "gardening" to do. I can just sit and gaze out the window, and try not to start envisioning the wonderful landscape I could create here. When that urge comes on, I usually decide to either take a long nap or go for a walk on the beach. After all, I've come here for a vacation, I tell myself.

On my walk (I've never been a good mid-day napper), I wandered the quaint little sidestreeets of this tiny coastal community. They are lined with many different versions of weathered, cedar-shingled cottages, some of course larger and fancier than others. Many of them have colorfully painted shutters and trim, and porches with bright flower planters. Some have lovely gardens- by anyone's standards (nice person-that "anyone"), and I can't help but be especially attracted to them. That may sound biased (garden sexism?), but what can I say? I am attracted to beauty and to those people who enjoy creating beauty.

On the last visit, when Forrest and I took our evening walk, we stopped to admire one such garden oasis and chanced to meet the owner, a lovely older woman named Pat. She was pleased to hear our appreciative comments and soon invited us into her more private shade garden and eventually inside to see her newly remodelled house. She confided that she was rather new to gardening, having come to it over the last few years, while recovering from a difficult divorce.

We both liked Pat. She was open and honest, strong yet vulnerable. I asked her if I could return the following day to photograph her garden. She was very willing. When I appeared the next morning, with camera and tripod over my shoulder, she seemed genuinely happy to see me. She confided that our appreciation of her gardening efforts really touched her deeply. As I characterize it, we had simply affirmed the tremendous amount of inner and outer work she has done in the process of healing herself. As within so without, unless we try to hide who we are.

I knew, after last month's photographic foray in Pat's delightful garden, that I had made a real friend. So this trip, on my first long evening walk on the beach and through the neighborhood, I made sure to end up at her house before dark. I looked long at her evolving garden and then knocked on her door. Once again, she was very glad to see me, inviting me in without a moment's hesitation. We
talked about gardens, of course, and gardening books, gradually meandering our way philisophically through topics of living more simply, oppression in relationships, finding our personal freedom and healthy lifestyle, and so on until, near midnight, we came full circle back to the subject of gardening.

I eventually had to borrow a flashlight to find my way home on the unlit streets, whose gardens (the most familiar landmarks) were now invisable. And since I would have to return it before I left town, I borrowed a couple of interesting gardening books as well, as if my "writer's retreat" hadn't given me enough to do already. This morning, I slept in and then read in bed until ten o'clock-luxury of luxuries. Reading Meg Des Camps hilarious accounts of her long-time resistance to gardening and being the youngest of eight children in a family of plant nuts, I had to laugh. "Slug Tossing and Other Adventures of a Reluctant Gardener" certainly isn't my experience of gardening, far from it. But what we share in common is that we each live in the Northwest and come from a family of eight children.. In my case, I am the only gardener. In Meg's case, she was the only non-gardener.

Once again, though, I am experiencing through someone else's eyes a different motivation for gardening, or not gardening. And I am again feeling the unmistakable urge to transform the side yard of the cabin, even though I know better than to undertake such a task. So I'm sitting here asking myself why I want to do such a crazy thing. Then where can I go for my gardener's vacation?

So why have I even started a garden here? For in all truthfulness, I do see this yard as a garden, (allbeit a wild one), even if no one else does. Well, as near as I can explain it, I planted the ferns to hold the bank, which was originally just a large pile of sand that Jane and John had hauled in to fill in the front of the sunken side yard and create more privacy. I planted the columbine so that it would seed freeely in front of the cabin. And I planted the ill-fated wild rose and the Lavatera shrub so that they would obscure the view of the houses across the street. Checking on the progress of this endeavor, I notice that, from the dining room table, the Lavatera blocks out the lower three feet of the telephone pole across the street. And from the living room chair where I sit to write, it blocks out the trunk of a distant holly tree, which Is actually one of the nicer trees on the street. Oh well.

But I'm not finished yet, I reason. If I planted another lavatera near the first one, and a butterfly bush or two next to that, and then perhaps a camelia with its evergreen foliage, I would have all the privacy I could want. That's why I want a garden here. Ah, but I wouldn't be telling the whole story, you see, because there's another reason. When you follow the little winding path around the sandy, grassy berm, it leads to a hidden low spot at the back of the yard. This place would be perfect for a lovely meditation and sitting area. The banks that rise up rather steeply above this spot would look great if planted with (besides the existing ferns and salal) ornamental grasses to catch the ocean breezes and a few foxglove and daisies.

Now I ask you, is this anything unreasonable? Am I compulsive or merely sensible? Once these plants and a good bench were added, I'd be done, right? Wrong. I know better. After all, if there's one thing I've learned, it's that a gardener's work is never really done. I would have to weed around the various plants, as the owners apparently began to do last week on one of their rare visits. (Heh, that must be the reason the little rose dissappeared...) And I'd have to water carefully for the first year or more, which is difficult to do from a hundred miles away. Or, I could try to fit a bale or two of straw in my car next trip so I could deep-mulch everything. And no doubt I'd want to replace any plant that died, and fine tune the color effects once I see what blooms, and cut back the grass stalks each spring, and, and, and ... I'm worn out just thinking about it. It must be time for another walk.

Perhaps in my heart I will never be truly satisfied until I see a garden, or at least a flower planter or two, in every yard. It's simply a moral imperative that is irrevocably locked in my DNA. Then again, I can continue to take gardener's vacations and simply retrain myself to stop caring so much. I can focus on appreciating and outwardly affirming whatever efforts others may make to beautify their yards. And I can meditate on the zen of being rather than forever doing. Sounds good, doesn't it?

But now what do I do with the plants I bought at the nursery on the way here? I know. I didn't tell you. They're sitting on the front porch just waiting to be planted. Once a gardener, always a gardener. I guess I may as well admit it and accept it. There is no such thing as a vacation for me, just a change of scenery: trading one type of garden for another. Then again, I've been contemplating saving up for a trip to Bali. And my friend Morgan, who just moved to the Arizona desert, tells me that eight months out of the year it's too hot and dry down there to grow much of anything except cacti. I could visit her.

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Tricia Narana McDowell