The Self-Taught Gardener: Love in the time of corona

At a time when connections count, our Self-Taught Gardener Lee Buttala advises us to try Nature.

Isolation is not something new for gardeners. Many of us (although not me) are introverts who first turned to plants because plants do not demand conversation from us. But stepping into a garden or a landscape, whether it be our own backyard, Central Park (which is still open), or Bartholomew’s Cobble (which was closed to visitors in the past few weeks until further notice), is a form of conversation and, given social distancing standards, one of the few ways in which we can still communicate with the world around us.

Central Park all to ourselves.

I had to go into New York City last weekend to pick up some of my partner’s belongings (he has been working from up here while his office is closed) and to transport some plants to my friend Michelle (her nursery in Red Hook cannot get deliveries.) What a sight!! New York City devoid of people in its most glorious time of the year.

Spring in New York is one of the few times when the city provides habitat not only to its human residents, but to flowering trees and shrubs, perennials and bulbs, and an array of birds that are not pigeons. The magnolias and flowering pears were in full bloom in Brooklyn struck me as a scene either from a post-apocalyptic film about Gotham, or from a period film about New York in the fifties. For sanity’s sake, I chose to see it as the latter.

The hepatica at the Cobble, white-flowered this time, is one of the first flowers of the season.

Once in the apartment, sequestered away, the view into the garden behind the house was a full-on reminder of why I love to garden. Brian’s landlord, who lives upstairs, has planted a haven that allows one to be at once alone and yet in harmony with the rest of the world. Plants have a way of bringing us into the moment while also removing us from everyday worries, which right now are all too overwhelming. The sight of oakleaf hydrangea foliage unfurling and of hellebores shaking their nodding flowers in the soft breeze (soft enough that I was not worried about the what might be drifting in on it from neighboring gardens) made me realize where it is that I always turn for peace and comfort.

The magnolia and the daffodil flowers near the Belvedere outnumber the people we saw at a distance on our walk through Central Park.

The weekend before, Brian and I had walked the cobble in Ashley Falls, seeing the first hepaticas and Dutchman’s breeches coming up in the landscape. Looking at the spleenworts and ferns growing in the crevices of moss-covered rocks, with barely any soil to sustain them, was a reminder of how we all fight to survive, whatever our circumstances. These plants also provide us with hope, as we look around and see how these sessile creatures, incapable of moving from where they are, adapt to the changing conditions around them. If they can fight off storms and drought, and even adapt to diseases brought in on “foreign” plants, perhaps so can we.

These bluebells in Central Park remind me not only of the park, but of the woodlands of Berkshire County. Their flowers are awash in color and somehow match the spring sky this season, so clear due to the lack of pollution from cars and industry.

It was also a moment to celebrate that, even as we isolate ourselves in our homes and in the landscape, there are things all around us to which we can connect. Perhaps the phrase “only connect” is on my mind because of the play Inheritance, which we saw a few weeks back, or the fact that we started to reread Howard’s End. But it seems like the key phrase of the moment, even if the manner in which we need to do it is less than conventional.

As we left Cobble Hill on Saturday, after dropping off plants to Michelle (and purchasing a few to bring back), Brian and I drove through an empty Times Square with only one other vehicle on the road: an emergency fire truck. As we headed up Central Park West, we decided to stop and walk through a bit of the park, which tempted us from the car. The stress of seeing an empty city made us realize that we needed something to calm our nerves. On our walk, we saw bloodroot and bluebells blooming and the leaves of buckeyes unfurling in the Rambles and the magnolias and daffodils breaking into flower by Belvedere Castle, which was completely deserted. The park was relatively empty, with people managing their distance from one another as they ran or hiked along the paths by Strawberry Fields, figuring out, like the plants around them, how to survive the present moment and to keep moving forward. For Brian and me, it was a magical moment to at once be alone and amongst all that we love.

Dutchman’s breeches remind me of the Cobble and now, thanks to Michelle and her Gowanus Nursery, have a place in my own backyard.

I was saddened when we arrived home to discover that Bartholomew’s Cobble had been closed for hiking for safety and security reasons. I will miss my springtime walks through the Cobble in the weeks ahead to see what is in bloom. I guess I can look back at the pictures from previous seasons and imagine that I am there. Or, given that my car held a trillium and 12 pots of Dutchman’s breeches that Michelle had grown from seed and that I had purchased that morning to put into my garden, I can simply connect to the world around me by stepping out my own back door, perhaps with a copy of Howard’s End (or Brian) in hand.

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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.