It's about time for another summer storm to smash the garden to pieces, though it may hold off until the phlox, tomatoes, daylilies and zinnias are in full sway.
I detect an unwholesome strain in gardeners here, who keep forgetting how very favorable our climate is, and who seem almost on the verge of ingratitude. v
Disaster, they must learn, is the normal state of any garden, but every time there is wholesale ruin we start sounding off -- gardeners here -- as if it were terribly unjust.
Go to any of those paradise-type gardens elsewhere, however, and see what they put up with in the way of weather, and you will stop whimpering. What is needed around here is more grit in gardeners.
Now I guess there is no garden in the world more dreamworthy than the one at Tresco Abbey in the Scilly Isles. It rarely approaches freezing there, off the mild coast of England, and wonders abound. Palms grow luxuriantly against soft old stonework, medieval in orgin, and there is hardly an exotic rarity of New Zealand or South Africa or Madeira that does not flourish. And yet they can have their daffodils, too, for it never gets hot in those islands, either; and if you view such a garden in the long slanting light of a summer's late afternoon, you will think you have got to heaven in spite of yourself.
Indeed, almost any garden, if you see it at just the right moment, can be confused with paradise. But even the greatest gardens, if you live with them day after decade, will throw you into despair.
At Tresco, that sheltered wonderland, they wake up some mornings to discover 500 trees are down -- the very shelter belts much damaged. The cost of cleanup is too grim to dwell on, but even worse is the loss not of mere lousy Norway maples, but of rare cherished specimens that were a wonder to see in flower.
Or there may be -- take the great gardens of Gloucestershire -- a drought, and the law forbids you run the hose. Not just a little dry spell, either, but one going on month after month.
There you sit in your garden, watching even the native oaks dry up, and as for the rarities imported at such cost, and with such dreams, from the moist Himalayhas, the less said of their silent screams the better.
Or take another sort of garden, in wich the land to begin with is a collection of rusting bedsprings and immortal boots. Old shoes simply do not rot, in my opinion, but just stay there forever. The chief growth the gardener finds (I am speaking now of the great garden of Sissinghurst in Kent) is brambles and bracken and dock, maybe broken up by patches of stinging nettles. Amenities include the remains of an old pig sty. p
You convert it, let's say, into one of the sweetest gardens of the world, with alleys and roundels of clipped yew and a little alley of clipped lindens, rising over a wide walk, almost a terrace of concrete cast in big blocks (not one in a thousand knew it was concrete) with spaces for a riot of primroses and spring bulbs, bursting out everywhere in lemon and scarlet and gentian and ivory.
The lindens all die. The pavement has to be replaced.
The primroses start dying out -- they develop a sickness, they wear out the soil, and no mulches of manure, no codding of any sort will preserve them.
So you grub out the dying and start anew with something else.
Wherever humans garden magnificently, there are magnificent heartbreaks. It may be 40 heifers break through the hedge after a spring shower and (undiscovered for many hours) trample the labor of many years into uniform mire.
It may be the gardener has nursed along his camellias for 25 years, and in one night of February they are dead. How can that be? Well, it can be.
You have one of the greatest gardens of the Riviera, and one night the dam of the reservoir breaks. The floor of the house is covered with a foot of mud once the water subsides. The reservoir was built at endless labor and cost, since the garden would die without water from it. And now it is gone, and in the flood everything has gone with it. Be sure that is not the day to visit that great garden . . ..
I never see a great garden (even in my mind's eye, which is the best place to see great gardens around here) but I think of the calamities that have visited it, unsuspected by the delighted vistor who supposees it must be nice to garden there.
It is not nice to garden anywhere. Everywhere there are violent winds, startling once-per-five-centuries floods, unprecedented droughts, record-setting freezes, abusive and blasting heats never known before. There is no place, no garden, where these terrible things do not drive gardeners mad. i
I smile when I hear the ignorant speak of lawns that take 300 years to get the velvet look (or so the ignorant think). It is far otherwise. A garden is very old (though not yet mature) at 40 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 it is a new garden. It may have an occassional surviving wonder -- a triumphant old cedar -- from the past, but I know the intensive care is of the present.
So there is no point dreading the next summer storm that, as I predict, will flatten everything. Nor is there any point dreading the winter, so soon to come, in which the temperature will drop to 10 below zero and the ground freezes 40 inches deep and we all say there never was such a winter since the beginning of the world.
There have been such winters; there will be more.
Now the gardener is the one who has seem 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. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get on with the high defiance of nature herself, creating in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises.
It sounds very well to garden a "natural way." You may see the natural way in any desert, any swamp, any leech-filled laurel hell. Defiance, on the other hand, is what makes gardeners.