Although the summer solstice isn’t until June, many consider Memorial Day as the beginning of summer. Gardeners, in particular, use this weekend to begin many of their yearly tasks in the garden. They bring out plants grown over the winter under fluorescent lamps in the basement; they buy annuals that will survive the minor fluctuations of temperature; and they open the perennial gardens and begin to repair the damage caused by a long, cold winter.
I am one of those gardeners with yearly traditions, which start with purchasing yellow primroses on Mother’s Day, while watching eagerly as each of the perennials in my seven gardens begins to surface. One of the first books I found walking the stacks in the Phillips Library was My Garden by Alfred Smee (1872). I turned to his section on perennials and found a wonderful discussion on primroses, which he considers “one of the most perfect of wild flowers . . . and one of the most beautiful in cultivation.” He adds that “The harmony of the colours and of leaf and flower is perfect and the whole plant, with its multitude of flowers, is particularly beautiful.”
I was nervous this year about the significant snow cover in the northeast and was not sure how the perennials would fare. Since I live on the north side of the street, the snow banks take much longer to melt than those on my neighbor’s lawn across the street. Yet, when they finally did, the Lenten Rose began to push through the ground and bloomed during the week of Easter as it always has. (The Lenten Rose mentioned is on the right side of my favorite garden, displayed above.) And when the vinca I plant as a ground cover blooms, I know the gardening season has begun.
I grew up with an invalid father who loved gardening but was no longer able to work in the gardens as he had earlier in his adult life. After we moved to a new home, he spent the winter collecting seed catalogs and planned a three-season garden to be positioned under a tree on the hill he could easily view from the front porch. He planned the garden with individual beds for each flower specimen he had chosen. He had spent much time watching the sun move across the hill to determine where to place each flower according to the number of hours of sunlight it required to thrive. Not only did consider the light requirements, he also planned the flow of color from one bed to another. Walkways were created to connect each of the beds. According to Alfred Smee,
The true principle in the construction of a garden is to obtain the utmost possible effect, by taking advantage of the leading features of the landscape and the most striking natural objects.
My father had done just that – by placing the garden under the tree, he created a strong focal point from which the eye could wander through the well-chosen color scheme.
The Book of the Garden, a two-volume text by Charles McIntosh (1853), includes a section on “Harmony of Colours” in his chapter “Laying Out Flower-Gardens.” According to McIntosh, “variety of colour is obtained by the introduction of different hues of the same colour, and of different degrees of brightness.” He includes a beautiful design of a summer and autumn flower-garden using the three primary colors in a geometric design, similar to the garden designed by my father.
Since Dad could not do the physical work himself, I was asked to do it; the soil was packed clay and I actually turned over the entire garden with a pickaxe! I may not have appreciated the task I was asked to do as a teenager but I learned the value of tools and how to choose the correct tool for each task. Smee states, “A skilled gardener will do more with bad tools than an unskilled one with good tools; nevertheless, it is desirable that the garden should be supplied with the best mechanical appliances.” Smee identifies the pickaxe as one of the tools required to turn over a garden with difficult soil. Although the soil at my home originally included much clay, thirty years of adding peat moss and cow manure have softened the soil and made it much richer to grow my perennials. Now I work in the garden with a good hoe, a spade, and an edging tool. Yet, over the many years of working in my gardens, I have come to realize that my best tool is my hands.
I am one of those gardeners who do not wear gloves, who relishes playing in the dirt, and loves the smell of the soil in the early spring. Charles Dudley Warner writes about celebrating the soil in My Summer in a Garden (1871):
To own a bit of ground, to scratch it with a hoe, to plant seeds and watch, their renewal of life, — this is the commonest delight of the race, the most satisfactory thing a man can do . . . Let us celebrate the soil . . . To dig in the mellow soil — to dig moderately, for all pleasure should be taken sparingly — is a great thing. One gets strength out of the ground as often as one really touches it with a hoe.
As I dig in the garden, remove the weeds, divide plants, and plant newly purchased perennials, I can feel my body release the stress of the week and gather strength from working in the soil.
When I first started to garden, I was very excited about the prospect of growing vegetables. I actually planted my first garden in the rain. I had decided that since the plants needed to be watered anyway and only the Witch of the West melts in the rain, why not plant in the rain? I had misjudged the amount of sun on my property and the plants that survived yielded very tiny tomatoes and cucumbers. A vegetable garden was not meant to be on my one-acre property with too many red oak trees. The rocks that I found digging that first garden were placed alongside the original garden to create a rock garden – forty years later, the rocks are still there and the rock garden flourishes with some of the original hens-and-chickens I planted that first year.
Since I could not grow vegetables, I changed my focus to shade perennials, with annuals that will grow in shade or partial sun, each of which blooms at different times in the spring, summer, and fall. My three-season garden is not as successful as my father’s, but I am making progress toward the goal I set for myself when I first started digging and playing in the dirt. As John Abercrombie identified the flower garden in his book, Every Man His Own Gardener, I have thoroughly enjoyed “The Pleasure, or Flower Garden.”