I grew up around gardeners. My grandmother, nostalgic for Puerto Rico, kept a lush greenhouse of orchids on the plains of north Texas. My grandfather tended a peach orchard in the sands of northern New Mexico. I, though, have never been a gardener.
Growing up on three continents, an isthmus and an island, or six countries and five U. S. States, childhood was a series of leavings. I loved aspects of places – the sound of the ocean, the lambent light of dusk in desert mountains – but never attached myself to any. The beauty of places was to be enjoyed, not tended after.
Beside our first house in Santo Domingo was an overgrown sitting park, turned neighborhood dump and bathroom for drunks. My father, with machete and fire, cleaned it up and then planted Spanish Dagger and Purple Heart. I never understood why.
Six years ago we moved into a two story house with a postage-stamp front yard on an east/west axis in Lexington, Kentucky. Its placement ensures sun hardly touches the front lawn. Years of chemicals on poorly drained clay had left the ground hard, inhospitable. Only clumps of moss grew on this shady plot that thirty years ago had been a horse farm in the heart of the Bluegrass.
A gardener friend told me, “Take a jackhammer to the lawn. Bust up the clay; mix in compost and good dirt. Plant sun-loving perennials where you can and shade-loving everywhere else.”
So two summers ago I busted up our lawn and then folded in five cubic yards of compost and dirt. Two yards came from our backyard bin. We’ve planted: Heuchera, Euphorbia, Sedum, Spiraea, Aster, Hydrangea, Coreopsis, Lavender…
Much about this garden work I don’t yet understand. But I’ve noticed how close attention to the land has slowed time down. Seasons are no longer marked by the surprise of the lateness or earliness of dusk. They are now a cluster of discrete moments: shrubs leafing, buds setting, panicles of flower; the visitation of bees and butterflies. A garden is promise. It says, “I’ll be here.”