The Self-Taught Gardener: Time travel

For our Self-Taught Gardener, plants are mnenomic devices, connecting him to past places and people and helping him take them into the future.

Working on an essay for a friend’s book on garden design took me on a nostalgic tour of the landscapes and plants that inhabit my memory from a lifetime of gardening. To my mind, plants play a synaptic role; they connect the present with our memories of places we have been. They move us between the past, the present and the future with amazing dexterity.

As I scrolled past an image on my hard drive of a woodland peony from my Ashley Falls garden, I was instantly connected to the first time I saw this plant, at Plant Delights, Tony Avent’s North Carolina garden and nursery. I purchased a plant, which still resides in my old Connecticut garden. Using seeds from that original peony, I grew the next generation of plants, one of which now lives in my garden here in the Berkshires. The sight of its flowers this spring (the plant takes a few years to reach flowering size) took me on a figurative road trip, not only to North Carolina but also back to the stony ravine next to a stream in my old Connecticut garden where its mother plant still resides.

This emerging woodland peony will always connect back to earlier times while it continues to inhabit an ever changing present.

The interconnection of these sites in my mind made me wonder if gardening will help me maintain my memory in the years to come, in the same way that an old rose or a clematis climbing up the side of my mother’s house carries her back to our summer home from decades ago where we gardened as a family. I can see that old place reflected in her eyes, and I can also see her love for my father who passed away many years ago. These memories are enlivened by the sight of these plants. When she smells the scent of a lilac, she cannot resist talking about the lilac that she claims filled their entire postage-stamp-sized Chicago backyard in the first home they had together. For her, now in her ninth decade on Earth, this fragrance is the scent of young love and always will be.

This clover relative always connects me back to my dear friend Michelle who was excited about passing this plant on to others and me.

I am never certain of the accuracy of such memories. Like all memories, things evolve in the retelling that may be just good storytelling—although if there is a lilac that grows to fill a quarter-acre lot, let me have it. But the connection is powerful in bridging past and present, and in giving our lives a coherence that calms us in the ever moving and ever changing present. This connection also provides us with a sense of comfort for the losses that occur over a lifetime.

As I work on this essay, I review images of plants that have filled my life. These plants serve as mnenomic devices that give my life connection and coherence. And, as I head to Chicago next month to celebrate my mother’s birthday, I know I won’t come back without a division of the orange lilies that fill her garden each summer and will now inhabit mine.  They will enliven my life as well, for years to come, wherever I am. Such touchstones carry us forward in even the most difficult times.

This flowering quince reminds me each spring of my long departed friend Russ, who planted them with such abandon. In bloom, they call to mind his exuberance.

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.

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