Spring. This is the time of year, even in the coldest climate, when your thoughts turn to gardens.
You may not, necessarily, spend a lot of time thinking about the work of gardening: the clearing of the spent beds, the weeding, the digging, the planting, the fertilizing, the mulching. But you do relish and long for the pleasures of being in a garden, of having plants around you. One of the few experiences left in life, that the internet cannot yet deliver.
Like watching a ground cover fill and spill off over the edges of a raised bed. Like watching a climbing rose or a passion-flower vine mount latticework, or a fence, or whatever is in its way, searching for that stray beam of sunlight between the branches. Like watching bulbs pop up from the ground with those great tissue tufts of leaves, long before the shy tulip flower peaks its nose out of its hiding place. Like discovering, with embarrassment, the grim, shriveled carcass of a tulip blossom, tucked between leaves in that pot you forgot to water. Like sadly seeing forlorn holes, left behind by eager squirrels, who, when you were not looking, snagged all the rest of your buried bulbs long before spring finally came.
These are things we watch, not like a clock, ticking minutes continuously. We glance at the garden one day, and then again the next and then again a week later, and notice little changes, a creeping, a climbing, a spreading. Behaviors that remind us that plants are, indeed, alive.
There are Gardens, and Then There are Gardens
Not all gardens are created equal. In my brief hiatus here on Earth, I have had the pleasure to view and walk about many majestic gardens. I have seen the fussy geometric crew-cut gardens bathed by fountains at Versailles; the technicolor tulip fields of Baden-Baden; the dilapidated lichened stonework and Venetian gondola stands of Viscaya; the vast acreage and aristocratic variety of the Biltmore; and most recently, the various meadow, forest and lawn landscapes, the tree houses and greenhouses, the orchid room, the palm room, and the giant lily pad ponds of Longwood.
And yet some gardens I love more than others because of the sentiment attached to them, the memories. The iron-gated garden of the Baroque bishop’s palace, the Residenz, in Wuerzburg, Germany, for instance. As a foreign exchange student, I spent many long hours wandering in it, in all types of weather. Climbing up the slippery stairs in winter, past frozen, snow-laden, scantily-clad cupids. Lounging with a cup of Frankenwein on a picnic blanket, at the base of one long slope of the garden, listening in the warm night air, as the orchestra played merry melodies from Mozart.
There is a also garden that I adore here, in my own town. It is adjacent to the river that winds through downtown , and belongs to the local art museum, the Cummer. Hurricane Irma, when she came through last year and flooded much of the downtown area, wreaked havoc on this poor garden, such that I hardly dare go back. I fear I will no longer recognize that which seemed as unchangeable as bedrock during my twenty-odd years in this town. But bedrock is hard to come by in sandy Florida.
The Cummer garden that I remember opened up from the back of the museum with great glass walls. A series of steps, wide and semicircular, spilled forth from the glass doors and, level after level, paths would lead you down over moss-nibbled steps to the edge of the river, which always seemed to come up almost to your toes. The constant lap of the water against the base of the concrete “turned” banister helped stifle the sound of traffic over the freeway, off to the left, down the river. But without that modern sound, one could easily imagine that it was the 1920’s again, and this was simply the garden of the woman who owned the house, and she had invited you over for dinner.
The Cummer garden I recall was full of sweet little hideaways. It had concrete benches throughout, but in particular, two concrete benches with high backs, slightly overgrown with moss, facing one another, and overlooking the rightmost stretch of garden, when facing the river. This side of the garden contained a fountain in the shape of a little cupid, relieving himself. There was a loping corridor along the river, roofed and sided with wisteria, which is now blooming. Wisteria grows miraculously fast, so that when its grapey blooms are spent, it transforms itself into an architecture of knobby vines that block the sunlight and make the sticky summer months more bearable for those protected by it.
At each end of the garden presided a tiled alcove fountain, and off to the left of the garden, in the riverside corner, was a bewildering gated chamber, a wrought iron door on a brick chamber the size of a small closet. What this enclosure was for no one knews. At least no one I knew knew. It was a source of endless speculation. Parallel to this left wall, looking again toward the river, was a lovely set of long shimmering gazing pools. And, always, you would find a handy set of watercolors nearby, should you feel so inspired.
In the center of the garden, trimmed all around by plantings of foxglove and hyacinth, and countless other stately specimens, rose an oak tree of indeterminate age, covered with ferns and air plants, with a spectacularly long and low horizontal branch. Perfect for sitting on, and children did try, only of course this was strictly forbidden. Beside it lay a great stretch of grass for running, also probably forbidden.
But, of course, that is exactly what my children did, from the moment they were old enough to run. Up and down the pathways, by the fountains, up and down stairs. Nothing could have been more perfect on a fine spring day.
This is the memory I hope to preserve of the Cummer garden, which, for the first time since the hurricane, once again is opening its great glass doors. Right in time for the orchid show held next door at the Garden Club, another botanical favorite of ours. I hope that their new design is just as charming and inspired as the original, and that in this renewed and revamped garden, a whole new generation can make lovely garden memories alongside mine.
Do you have a garden that you would call your own?
(Pictures From Longwood Garden, Pennsylvania)