Thank goodness for farmers. As a mere gardener, I don’t know how they do it. The heartbreak. My phlox had powdery mildew last summer and it about killed me. The worry. Was I applying the right mildew spray? The doubt. Had I read the Department of Agriculture’s official Plant Hardiness Zone Map correctly? Was Provincetown in Zone 7A? I had to remind myself that my life and livelihood did not depend on my phlox crop.
One morning I stood like a garden ornament among my plants trying to laser-kill mildew with just a look. I was also deep in a narrative about being down to my last rotting beet and the wife had just made our last thin gruel with a cabbage leaf and the little ones were hungry in our sod hut on the windswept prairie, when a jogger stopped and asked me if everything was all right.
We chatted. I rambled on about the ravages of the powdery mildew and concluded with some agrarian admiration. She was with me until the part about the farmers. In the sweet new morning air, she flamed me with a tirade about the horrors of industrialized farming, water theft, pesticides, G.M.O.s, scandalous farm subsidies and tasteless square tomatoes. She ended with gratuitous almond-shaming. For weeks I expected to see a Michael Pollan scarecrow staked amid the hollyhocks.
We were new to the neighborhood. For 23 years we had lived seasonally or full time in a small cottage with skylights and an open floor plan. Our modern house was tucked in among a warren of weathered old Cape houses, with interiors of tiny concatenated rooms and low, low Diane Arbus ceilings.
Every winter I vowed to plan, then plant a perennial cottage garden. But I would get sidelined by photos of gorgeous old blue-gray English gardens, or intimidated by overwrought, overthought “wild” gardens. I read Virginia Woolf and Annie Dillard on their gardens, and Stanley Kunitz’s poems on his own Provincetown garden. I never got around to reading a catalog or actually ordering any perennials.
Instead, during every spring’s frenzied, short growing season, I planted annuals. My girlfriend called me “The Arrogant Gardener.” She would ask, “Will it grow there?” I never knew. The results were mixed. The nasturtiums were spindly. I overwatered the geraniums. The pansies crumpled. But my impatiens always grew like they were on blue-ribbon Ortho-crack. They seemed to mock me.
We moved from the cottage, and bought an old house surrounded by an ancient privet hedge, known to old-timers as “the poor man’s fence.” A gnarly old bush still surprised with fragrant, deep purple lilacs. But the front garden, like the house, suffered from “delayed maintenance,” and was a tangle of vines and weeds.
The decision to move was chemo-induced. My dear partner had just finished a sabbatical from life-as-we-knew-it in Cancerland. It had been a year of diagnoses, mastectomies, chemotherapy, radiation and waiting rooms. Our large world had become small. As treatments ended and side effects lessened, life began to expand again. We re-emerged but did not trust our decision making: We who were adamantly for marriage equality for others, but absolutely not for ourselves, got married.
In what I now see as a sign of health, but at the time thought was chemo-crazy, my partner pushed to sell our cottage and buy the much older house. I did not think we should do it. It was a huge project. I didn’t have the energy. I was adamant.
One early July morning I took a walk to try to clear my head. I walked down a narrow, lush lane, overgrown with Queen Anne’s lace and deep blue chicory, to the back of the house under debate. Along the old silvered wooden fence, the day lilies had opened, the first of the season. I started to walk back, and turned for one last look. At the end of the lane, in a tiny sliver between two massive houses on the water, I could see across the bay to the Long Point Light. I had not known I was looking for signs. We moved.
To honor the previous owners, I wanted to bring back their original garden. We hacked back the privet, yanked up the encroaching deadly nightshade and dug up the entire front garden. On a bitter cold day, in a steady, piercing wind, a wily gardener friend who had worked in that garden on and off for 20 years, scavenged and pulled up roots, shook off the dirt and identified the plants. We saved old poppies, day lilies and peonies. We tilled and mulched, then planted perennials.
Lately when I am in the garden, I try not to make too much floral eye contact. One old-time landscaper told me about a friend of his who stared too long into an orange-pink tulip backlit by a setting sun. “Just lost his mind. Never was the same.” I don’t grow many tulips, but a buzzing bee’s rump deep in a blue balloon flower, kicking pollen-pantalooned legs? I look away.
As I am bent over in the garden, hoping I am pulling weeds, not new shoots, passers-by ask my rump, “What’s that flower?” I make a big show of standing up, slowly follow their pointed fingers, act as if I’m thinking of the name and debating whether I should give it to them in the Latin or the English, and say, “It’s beautiful.”
I gave up on names awhile back. I like to think of myself as an Impressionist. I might not remember who was at dinner last night, or what I had or even where we went, but I have the impression we had a lovely time. And that is enough.
In my new old American Impressionist garden I tend my phlox. I weed, spray and dust. I deadhead and prune. I stop and smell the roses, then check for aphids. I am no longer impatient, young and careless with the years. I am vigilant, an older gardener, now sure there is less living one year to the next. I look forward to the orange day lilies, perennial favorites, floating one-day-at-a-time reminders not to look too far forward.