The Self-Taught Gardener: Love and loss in the garden

Fred took me from my buttoned-down days in my Connecticut garden to my life as a single man in the Berkshires and gave me a new way of thinking about gardening.

Our lives and our gardens are ephemeral by their very nature. The passage of time brings about the passing of flowers, plants, and even those that we love. But, from where I sit today, looking at the bulbs forcing their way up in pots at my friend Michelle’s nursery in Brooklyn, time brings about not just loss, but new life. The gray-green foliage of grape hyacinths, tulips, and daffodils are a sign of what lies ahead, harbingers of the colorful blooms that warm our hearts in early spring. Today, this thought is critical to my well-being, as my beloved pet and garden companion Fred passed away while running about our garden this past weekend. Between tearful moments that overcome me like early spring rains, quick and unexpected, emotional, and drenching, I am reminded of all of the joy that he brought to my life and my garden and how even with his departure, I need to honor his legacy of teaching me to see the world through a different lens.

He taught me to see the garden differently from the first moment that he entered my life, running up the hill in our Connecticut garden and surveying the landscape with a broad glance at all that it included, filling his nostrils with the scents of the meadows, trees, and stream that the garden overlooked, not to mention the scent of a mock orange in full bloom. Later that week, I had planned to have my friend Peter Wooster to dinner. Peter is a talented gardener and designer who lost his speech after a stroke and was left with only the expression “Koo-ka-nu”, which came to mean everything, as his intonations and gestures gave it nuance and meaning as varied as the emotions that pulsed through his mercurial soul. I was worried about trying to prepare a dinner, entertain Peter and manage a new puppy, but was determined to see Peter and see how Fred could integrate into my life, with all of his unbound energy and enthusiasm. Peter’s garden is known for its perfection and, having figured out a supper of poached salmon with dill mayonnaise and a green salad that could be prepared in advance, I knew that I had time to get the garden in some semblance of order. But Fred had another idea in mind. Not yet trained to be off leash, he ran to the kitchen, grabbed his leash and jumped on the sofa, demanding a walk about town.

As much as I wanted to get things in order, this was the first of many lessons from Fred: Let it go, take the world in and embrace the moment. We went off on a walk around town on roads bordering neighboring farms, eventually stumbling across a patch of bloodroot in full bloom. It was highly likely that these ephemeral blossoms would be gone in the next few days and I felt fortunate that Fred and I had the opportunity to observe them before they went dormant. I felt that even if Peter put forth a judgmental Koo-kan-u, I was making the right decision. But Peter not only did not chastise me for an unedged border, he saw the glory of the day through the eyes of Fred, raising his hands and gesturing around the property with a glorious Koo-ka-nu, with which Fred wholeheartedly concurred as he jumped into Peter’s lap. This was the first moment when I learned from Fred, and Peter, about the art of acceptance and seeing the beauty of a less than perfectly manicured garden. It was not the last.

The walled garden we left behind in Connecticut had a formal beauty that was offset by Fred’s presence, but many of those formal features would be left once we arrived in the Berkshires to start anew.

Fred took me from my buttoned-down days in my Connecticut garden to my life as a single man in the Berkshires and gave me a new way of thinking about gardening, not merely as a designed space but as a microcosm of the natural world we inhabited. The formality of our walled Connecticut garden gave way to a garden that feels more relaxed and open in its nature, celebrating explosive moments in the season as they come to pass. The insane abundance of beauty bushes and flowering cherries in full bloom, the inclusion of wild asters and the blue blossoms of Jacob’s ladder(s) not carefully sited but exuberantly coming up where they may, the beauty of peonies after the blossoms have broken and fallen to the ground, became my way of life.

I learned, too, to see the garden through time. Watching Fred as he stopped and took in the scent of a flower or a seedhead, I saw him do something that I someday hope to be able to do myself: to smell the passage of time. When Fred took in a scent, he smelled the story of the past, present and perhaps the future of the site. Every scent told a story, in the same way that a seedhead gave us knowledge of the flower that had been there in its stead just months earlier. The present was all encompassing, including the glory of the flower and the resulting seed and also the moment when the plant would be dormant beneath the winter snow, into which Fred would excitedly push his nose after a fresh snow, knowing what was to come.

Fred taking in the glories of the Grand Canyon, teaching me how to see the beauty of the natural world though his eyes.

As we traveled (Fred managed to visit 44 states and Canada in his brief life), he shared his love of the landscape with me: its smells, the broadened view of it all that he took in with his observant eyes, and the wildlife that it contained. His first encounter with a cactus reminded me that plants have ways of protecting themselves from others. Conversely, his first response to a skunk cabbage in spring, a scent that, revolting to us in its smell of rotten meat, was totally enticing to Fred and to the flies that pollinate its flowers made me realize how plants can entice others to help them in the act of procreation.

My current garden reflects the the freedom and exuberance I learned from Fred and his love of running through the landscape.

Just days before his passing, Fred and I took a hike up Mount Washington with a friend and Fred brought the winter landscape into focus. As he ran amongst the birches and felled trees that were a part of the landscape, I came to see the beauty not just of the upright trees, but also of the lichen and moss covered stumps and logs. As Fred explored these logs, smelling the story of the insects and animals that had taken up life amongst them, he made me realize the need to allow for such items in my own garden. I began to think that an old oak that had fallen in my garden and a few cedar stumps needed to become the beginning of a stumpery, allowing a place in my garden for ferns and other woodland plants and fungi to have a place to inhabit. For even in death, life moves forward, as hard as that is to sometimes see… a belief I would be desperate to hold just days later after finding Fred, lying on the ground where a patch of snowdrops comes up each spring.

I often like to write about the gardeners who shared their knowledge and insight with me over the years — Henriette on the phone each morning with her concerns about the health of her beloved rhododendrons, my friend Michelle on the germinating seeds she is sowing when we visit at her nursery, my friend Eric sharing his observations of what is in bloom after a long day at Chanticleer, and my friend Richard opining on the landscape from his drafting board. I realize that, despite all they have taught me, I have learned the most from a man who lost most of his speech and a dog with no words whatsoever who was there mainly to teach me how to see. They are the teachers who have defined my life; their influence and spirit will live on well beyond their time on earth.

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.