My beagle Fred who died just about a year ago, right before the pandemic.

The Self-Taught Gardener: Moving forward

On the anniversary of his death, I remember my beagle Fred and recognize the connection between life and death in the natural process.

As the days lengthen, January always seems to signal movement forward. The added minutes of sunlight with each passing day provide us with hope, and this year is perhaps unlike any other in our need for that sense of progress. Politics, social unrest, and the isolation that we feel as we near the one-year mark of the pandemic, not to mention that atomization of our universe as we divide off into smaller and smaller subgroups, leave us hungry for what once was and what we hope will be again. And these feelings of hope and promise are not new, they are what we feel each year as spring nears

Last year, my own world burst asunder when my beagle Fred died suddenly a few weeks before the pandemic took us all down. The loss, which seemed insurmountable at the time, was soon dwarfed in the months and weeks ahead as we took to our homes and isolated ourselves from the world we knew. But an image from Fred’s passing has stayed with me throughout this time. I found him, inert and lying in the snow, as if asleep, on a hill of snow that covered a patch of double-flowered snowdrops that come up each spring. Bringing his cold body back to the house, I was brought back to my childhood, when my father, who loved to grow vegetables, allowed me to put my nine-year old hand on that of my grandmother who had just passed away. I remember that her skin felt like cool, spring earth, the first soil one touches at the beginning of the gardening season.

Snowdrops will always remind me of my beagle Fred and his love of being outdoors.

I do not know if my father realized how he was connecting life and death as part of a natural process by allowing me to touch my grandmother, but this memory has stayed with me throughout the years, comforting me in moments of loss. Fred has been gone for a year now, my father for thirty years, and my grandmother for almost half a century, and yet, like the plants in our gardens that come and go, they are with me always.

This month is usually a time when I contemplate what to add to the garden and begin to determine what might not have made it through the winter. I dream of plants old and new, cherished and not yet known, and realize that as much as we move forward, what has been will always be.

The reticulate lilac I hope to add to the garden this year connects me back to the lilac hedge that surrounded our cottage and came into bloom each spring. Every few years, I worked with my father to rejuvenate the hedge to promote its continued flowering, because one should make efforts to care for the things one cherished. I still prune with the same ethos in mind. The new patches of grass that need to be sown where a few dying trees have been removed remind me of the bowls of wheatgrass my grandmother grew each holiday season. She gave one to each of her grandchildren at the New Year. It was an Old World custom that promised prosperity for the year to come. And the patch of snowdrops that will undoubtedly show themselves in the weeks and months ahead will remind me of Fred and provide me with the courage to find another dog to love again.

Lilacs benefit from regular pruning to promote flowering in the years ahead.

It is with this spirit that we move forward – each day, each season, and each year with the hope of preserving what we love and making the most of what the world can be in the years ahead. And, perhaps, we need to learn a lesson from my grandmother, and sow a small patch of grass with health and prosperity in mind.

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.