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Time spent in a garden is believed to be restorative both physically and spiritually, though some argue that gardens – designed to satisfy human notions of beauty, which constantly change – are not representative of Mother Nature but only of people deluded into thinking that they can improve upon her handiwork. But anyone who has attempted to cultivate a garden will recognize that one has to work in partnership with nature and that, in many cases, she subverts one’s best laid plans.
You can study the worthiest guides to what grows best in your horticultural zone, what flourishes in clay or sand, acidic or alkaline soil, and which perennials will provide a colourful flow of blossoms and foliage throughout the seasons. You can salivate over the Lee Valley catalogue and send away early for heirloom seeds from Stokes and bulbs from Veseys. But you can never truly control your garden.
Or at least I can’t.
My garden reminds me annually how little control I have over it. Oh, I can go around whacking stuff with shears and secateurs to whip it into line, I can weed till my back gives out, I can squish aphids by hand, but such retaliation on my part only proves how resilient the garden is and how impervious to my intentions.
Every winter kills a few things – invariably the expensive ones – and results in unwelcome surprises, as when the gorgeous yellow climbing rose proves to have been grafted onto a boring white R. multiflora that sends ambitious suckers in all directions and is shockingly hard to dig up. And what happened to the darling columbines that used to nod their pert little heads from every nook and cranny? Everyone else says they spread lavishly and take no maintenance, but I have to beg and plead with my flowers to persist. Most of them tender but a few grudging and ephemeral blossoms.
Except for the weeds, of course. They dig in their heels and proclaim loudly, “J’y suis et j’y reste!” Maybe I should just capitulate and let herb Robert, variegated goutweed, garlic mustard, goldenrod, celandine, wild violets and swamp roses take over? But wouldn’t that be like refusing to vote because I know that Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives (there’s an oxymoron for you!) are going to win the election again?
Recently, I tried to transition from an English garden (tulips, daffodils, lilacs, allium, myosotis, peonies, irises, roses, lilies and so forth) to a native Canadian one (pasque flowers, trilliums, shasta daisies, milkweed, Joe Pye weed, coneflowers, coreopsis, cardinal flowers, etc.). The resilience of the weeds suggested that local beauties might be more inclined to enjoy the terrain than foreign ones. But most native flowers turn up their noses at the space I offer them and refuse to return the next year.
Do they know something I don’t? Or perhaps something that I refuse to admit? That I, myself, don’t really belong here, having come to Toronto to work in English-language publishing in 1977, after the Parti Québécois got in and there were no editing jobs in Montreal, and somehow – in spite of the future I’d always imagined of unfettered travel – marrying, buying a house, having children and just … settling.
Perhaps, then, my garden is subversively exposing my repressed yearning to journey abroad as I did in my youth, before guilt about my carbon footprint and fears of COVID stranded me here, with arthritic knees, dirty fingernails and arms crosshatched by rose thorns. Maybe my garden really is a window into my soul? In which case my soul clearly is more conflicted than I will admit, and crawling with not only aphids but those sawfly larvae that make lace of my only successful native plant – firecracker loosestrife, otherwise known as lysemachia – every single summer. Those critters are silver, and tiny, and exceptionally good at hiding. Whenever I find one, I pick it off the underside of its breakfast leaf and crush it underfoot. But my victory, alas, is brief, since its friends and relations just keep on munching. Even whilst reading a book under the shade of the silver birch, I fancy that I can hear that mindless munching and it drives me mad.
In fact, though sitting quietly in the garden may seem like a passive activity, it never is. I am constantly noticing what needs pruning, what wants deadheading, what is flourishing, what ought to be transplanted, or divided, or moved to a better spot. I have often remarked how much gardening is like editing! You try to discern the true shape of the thing under a lot of distracting language: language that may be beautiful and arresting, vivid and interesting, but not in quite the right place, or disrupting the flow of the narrative, or simply redundant.
Here is something I wrote many years ago to a client who asked me to edit his novel but then refused to cut needless exposition and excessive description of inconsequential characters:
“Cutting out stuff you’ve worked hard on can be emotionally wrenching, but when it comes to revision you need to be ruthless, because now that you see the whole, the parts don’t have individual rights any more! You are like a gardener having to prune or transplant or even pull out plants that are not contributing to the balance and harmony of the total vision. If you want people to enjoy your book and understand it and be excited to keep going, you can’t ask them to indulge overly long or complex pieces of writing that bog them down or distract them from the action, or give them information they don’t actually need about characters or plot or background. Every formal aspect of the novel – description, exposition, characterization, dialogue – has to serve more than one purpose: advance the plot, provide information, add nuances to the themes and develop characters. Nothing can be there just because it was interesting to learn about or fun to write.”
In other words, “garden” is not just a noun; it is also a verb. In fact, many of the terms associated with the activity are both nouns and verbs: “flower,” “plant,” “root,” “weed,” “fruit” and “seed,” for example, or “rake,” “hoe,” “mulch,” “stake,” “water” and “harvest.” You have to spring into action before you can savour the results of your labour, and then you have to act some more to make that labour come to fruition.
Susan Glickman lives in Toronto.