Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On Leaving a Garden Behind

Thoughts on Moving

My wife and I are preparing to move, and that has me thinking about the gardens I will leave behind.   Our new house is only six miles from where we currently live, but it feels like another world.  We are moving from a third-story flat in the shadow of the nation’s Capitol to a one story house with a yard across the river in Arlington, Virginia.  For the last seven years, my “gardens” have been my container garden on our third-story deck and the parsonage garden I designed and maintained for my church. 
Moving is bittersweet.  The pain of leaving behind a beloved neighborhood is muddled with my excitement about the new house.  I mourn leaving Capitol Hill and above all, I mourn leaving my garden.  How many hours did I spend envisioning that garden?  How many backbreaking ours did I spend with friends installing it?  How many hours did I spend watering, maintaining, and loving it?  Each hour you spend invests you deeper into the place.  Cultivation is just another word for commitment.  You think you are just pulling weeds, but what you are really doing is writing a love letter to a patch of dirt.   

"The Gates" by Christo & Jeanne Claude, 26 years
in the making, but lasted only 15 days.

Several years ago, I heard the artists Christo and Jeanne Claude lecture at a local museum.  The artists are known for their monumental installations such as wrapping the Reichstag in canvas, or installing 7,500 saffron-colored gates in Central Park.  Most of their projects take decades to execute.  They patiently sit through community meetings, get environmental permits, and fund the entire projects themselves.  Yet their projects last only a few weeks.  It’s heartbreaking.  Can you imagine making something for three decades, only to rip it out after three weeks?  But their art is designed to be ephemeral; its brief life is central to their work.  “All of our projects have this fragile quality,” says the late Jeanne Claude, “They will be gone tomorrow.  They have total freedom.  That is why they cannot stay.”
And it’s the same with gardens.  Last year, I waged a mad campaign to make the parsonage garden last.  Knowing that I could not maintain it forever, and knowing it would never get the love that I had given it, I had to do something to make it hold up without me.  So I ripped out all the high maintenance plants and replaced them with more drought tolerant species.  I transplanted shorter lifespan forbs with longer living grasses.  Beds that were interplanted were re-massed so that one species would not out compete the others.  I removed the most vigorous self-seeders.  I mulched.  I watered. 

The parsonage garden, summer 2010
Yet a few weeks of drought quickly highlighted the futility of this effort.  Within weeks, parts of the garden started to fall apart.  Even drought tolerant plants suffered without water.  Weeds went wild in one corner of the garden.  I spent hundreds of hours aimed at making the garden last for a decade, yet within weeks, all evidence of my work vanished. 
Gardens are monuments to our existence.  To garden is to mark the earth, to say “I was here.”  The impulse that drives gardeners is not so much an impulse to control or tame nature; instead, it is an impulse to control and tame time.  Moving shatters the illusion.  When we leave a garden, it reminds us that all gardens are just moments in time.  Gardeners are artists of the evanescent, experts of the ephemeral. 
At night, I lie in bed and in the darkness start planning my next garden.  Lawn must be dug up, compost hauled in, beds must be cut, and thousands of new plants must be added.  I have not spent a night on the property, yet already I can feel the dirt under my nails.  Already I know: I will fall for this one, too.  This place, too, will break my heart. 

For Melissa


  1. I believe the ephemeral nature of gardens is why most gardeners are also photographers. We have to try and perserve at least the memory.

  2. Beautifully stated. You put into words what I could not.

  3. I'm looking forward to reading about your new garden. I'm also in a rambler and I have such a hard time finding examples of good landscape design in a house like mine. When you do find one, it is almost always how to take your rambler and make it look like a cottage or a bungalow, etc.

  4. How wonderful to have you back to writing powerful blog posts. It breaks my heart to think of leaving this garden, but what a delight it will be to follow your new garden as it develops ...

  5. What a poignant, beautiful entry. You touch on the core reasons we garden with such grace and eloquence. Keep it up!

  6. I love gardening and I love good writing and this blog is the best fusion of the two I've seen on the web! Wow!

  7. This is why I've told my husband we're never moving. Ever. As much as starting over sounds thrilling, there's been a bit of blood, sweat & tears getting our gardens into a semi-presentable state.

    Or, I suppose, if we do move, the plants are coming with us!

  8. A very moving post, Thomas. When I bought my house, I didn't see it as a permanent home. But all that changed when I started putting in the garden. With each year and each new flower bed, it becomes harder and harder for me to imagine leaving.

    Will you be able to take divisions from any of your most-loved parsonage plants with you to the new house? About 15 years ago, a friend of mine sold an urban townhouse with a tiny back garden that she had turned into a jewel. She wanted to take some plants from it, but felt that she couldn't do so because the garden was such an important part of the property. The following year, she discovered that the new owner had torn out the garden to pave it over for some additional parking space. This same friend just moved again; this time, she took some of her most loved plants with her.

  9. Yes, beautiful post. I loved the passage: Gardeners are... experts of the ephemeral.

    I've moved to and from many gardens over the years. My friends wonder how I can't be heartbroken over losing my garden each time I move. I think I'm able to do it by believing that the gardens I touch are created, maintained, loved for someone who is... NOT me. For someone else. The next homeowner, perhaps. Even the next passerby who simply cares to gaze upon my handiwork. Also, I love the idea of getting an opportunity to remedy the mistakes I made in the previous garden. Maybe moving is a blessing in disguise. A chance to demonstrate to the cosmos that we've learned. :-)

    Even as your heart breaks, it sounds like the seeds are being planted for what you will do in your next garden.

    And how about trying to find someone to take over care of the parsonage garden? Don't just leave it, get it a new gardener!

  10. hello Thomas, oh yes how transient our work can seem. but yet working on an old garden we can be aware that we are keeping a tradition alive and that gardeners who have gone before are watching us at work...when our time is done other gardeners will take our place...hope the move goes well for you..

  11. When my husband is feeling overwhelmed about how much work all our gardening makes for us, he says "just another nail in the coffin" when we plant a new plant. He means that every new plant makes it less likely we will ever leave here except in a coffin. That's a grim vision, but it's fine with me, I love my garden. I sympathize with you completely. However, I predict that once you get to the new place you will rarely look back.

  12. This is one of the best blog posts I've ever read. You are a man after my own heart. I wish I'd written this--and indeed, am working on a book where I said something similar, but not nearly as good. "You think you are just pulling weeds, but what you are really doing is writing a love letter to a patch of dirt." "The impulse that drives gardeners is not so much an impulse to control or tame nature; instead, it is an impulse to control and tame time. Moving shatters the illusion." "I have not spent a night on the property, yet already I can feel the dirt under my nails. Already I know: I will fall for this one, too. This place, too, will break my heart." We must have our hearts broken to live full, connected lives. We must.

    Thank you for blowing my head off with these words; you know, it's the Emily Dickinson test for good writing.

  13. Leaving a garden, watching it totally destroyed, provokes intermittent anger..however if some or most of what was planted remains the lost seems much tolerable...At least from my real, not virtual, experience.

    Good luck in your projects.

  14. Anthony and I installed our first garden in our first parsonage yard. It was a fairly pathetic attempt, a perennial bed guided by a Better Homes & Gardens plan...but I loved it! Then, when I was reappointed to Capitol Hill, I left, hoping that the perennials, not even a year old, would remain and thrive and become the vision in my head. The first and only time I ever drove back by the house, someone had mowed over the beds leaving nothing but sad sprouts and stumps. I cried all the way back to DC while trying to tell myself that the garden, like my ministry itself, is all about planting seeds and then trusting others to nurture, water, and help them grow. The planting is always, in my world, a great risk for it is certain that whatever garden I'm tending will have to be left sooner or later.

    But what a joy to participate in the vision and installation of our next parsonage garden. And what a gift, when reappointed this time, to know that you were caring for it. We give it to the universe in hope and trust...it has been such a blessing to many--humans and bees and birds and a certain dog who liked to lie in the grasses on a hot summer day...

  15. Thank you for this post.

    I am preparing to leave my beloved 7-year-old Pacific NW garden in June (which, I discovered, after many years in the Deep South, is a gardener's dream). The barren front and side yard has been replaced with mostly native plants and some mulch pathways. No grass to mow. Last summer, last fall, I found myself saying good-bye to so many plants, remembering when I'd planted them (moved them, moved them again, divided them, cajoled them into living one more season) knowing I would leave before they bloomed again. I continue to say good-bye this winter and will follow eagerly the appearance of each new green shoot, bud, and bloom until I leave. A friend of mine once said that all of life is made up of "Hello, Good-bye, Hello, Good-bye."

    I have learned not to return to my old gardens; it's too heartbreaking. Except one in Austin, where the current owner, a nurseryman, has built beautifully on what I started--controlled chaos with native plants.

  16. Beautifully expressed. I hope you have a chance to live a long time at your new place. In my experience, long-term gardening brings a profound sense of attachment/belonging and a different sense of time--it becomes more seasonal/cyclical, less linear/mechanical. It's ok to be earthbound.


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