obituary for a garden

We notice when a garden is born. Enthusiasm and anticipation beget the patch of fresh dug earth with string-rows of vegetable starts, or a grandly schemed installation of lawn and flower borders. Gardens are constantly being created in the gardener’s mind and in the garden dirt. But do we know or notice when a garden dies?

Gardens are not so immortal as we might think. Yes, some live beyond the lives of their creators. Colleagues and fans take up the challenge to extend and renew a friend’s garden, and even institutionalize it, making it a monument to the garden creator. And though some gardens persist after the gardener has gone, eventually little or nothing will remain of the original’s personality.

Though gardens live in nature they are not nature, and time will erase nearly every trace of human intent. The stone-paved path and perennial border will gradually succumb to the churn of time and weather, seeds that scatter may persist but in their own obscure design, and the work of the gardener’s hand will pass into dust as the hand itself. Gardens are human in birth, and die as we do, inevitably. Sad it may be, but as I observe the decline and demise of a familiar garden I am also revisiting the days of its birth, its youth, and its prime of life.

Some years before my mother died I wrote, “Mother’s roses are old, the canes gray. Her Victorian knot garden of clipped herbs is now more of a labyrinth, with bare spots in the hedges.” She rejoiced in fulminations of color, big blowsy rose bloom and confetti of flowers, purple and pink dahlias, floppy yellow bearded iris and stately blue flags, bright red and yellow striped tulips that had to be dug out and replanted each cold and muddy November; her lavender, sage, rosemary and lemon verbena knot garden took years to mature into visible geometry, and to completely enclose her signature sundial, “I count only sunny hours”. It did and she did.

Now that she is gone, the garden shows less and less of my mother’s hand and more and more of my father’s, who lives on alone. He prefers the solid perpetuity of non-blooming and, frankly, non-living things in the garden: jade plant, cement, redwood bark, and non-deciduous trees. The albizia and paper birch trees, once venerable and immense towering over the bird bath border and spring bulbs, are now stumps, brittle and decaying monuments in a bell jar of empty space that once contained their canopies.

So my mother’s garden has been hastened toward death a little faster than if it had been allowed to dwindle peacefully toward oblivion. Still, some life cannot be chain-sawed away or die of thirst, and survives because that is it’s nature – like the iris bulbs buried and forgotten until winter rains rekindle them, and the fountaining verbena fronds in June rising from their twiggy border of senescent rosemary. Or the rosemary itself, leaping out of its knot-edge confinement in one more rebirth of verdant pungency.

I note these changes as I walk the yard that, increasingly, appears to me in double vision–the garden I remember and the garden that I see. A brown and brittle camellia replaces the pale pink-studded shrub of last year. Jade plants sit like green gnomes where orange poppies use to crowd. But again Persephone has worked her magic and the garden’s lifeless forms of March now flourish in June: garish pink geraniums, tufts of Spanish lavender and pale blue salvia, wandering sweet alyssum, and the popsicle rainbow of tea roses are smaller islands than before in a sea of chunky redwood bark. The terra cotta pots are empty or host to twigs and bare soil. The gazebo awning is frayed and fading and the canvas chair seats torn. Nobody sits at the patio table to sip ice tea and gossip anymore. Family gatherings are done. But for the wind and a rasping wren the garden is silent.

Yesterday, pondering the weeds in the cracks of the brick patio, I looked up to see the old queen of Betty’s garden. The massive Rosa Madame Alfred M. Carriere, fallen over in a winter storm, has engulfed the raised border, the dwarf peach, and half the path and patio. Jutting out from its border, unfurling pale porcelain blooms, the old rose tilts into the sky like a maiden on a galleon’s prow sailing out to sea. My mother would have re-righted the old dame and pruned her to sobriety. But I rejoice in Madame Carriere’s sly refusal to accept either boundaries or death. And here, at last, I can put to rest the mortal remains of my mother’s garden. It is not a final resting place–there is no such thing in nature as every gardener knows. But on the imaginary tombstone it is written:

Here lies Betty’s Garden
Born 1962 Died 2009
“I Count Only Sunny Hours”


  1. #1 by cottonM on June 16th, 2009

    Some gardens past are now faded memories from a time when my appreciation and understanding had not germinated. My mother’s garden was sown in the margins of our yard and in her life. A very real expression of her simple love for plants. Her love was so idiosyncratic that when she moved the garden wouldn’t have lasted long. We gardeners know well the necessity of our attention even in the smallest ways and gardens. It is the essential truth that gives our efforts weight. It teaches us to pay attention and remember. Remember gardens & gardeners.

  2. #2 by Dianne on June 18th, 2009

    What a wonderful ponder on your mother’s garden, Briggs. I enjoyed it a lot…it made me think of my own mother and her love for all things green and growing. Also her ever-changing collections: scented-leaf geraniums, orchids, heirloom tomatoes. Her gardening life continued, even when her Alzheimer’s disease distracted her, and she always loved to sit on her patio and enjoy the colors and scents.
    I also remembered my large garden in Pioneer, with its 650 rose bushes of many heirloom types (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!)…and Mme Alfred Carriere, growing on the edge of the verandah there, and now planted to edge the verandah here.
    Thanks for giving me a lovely start to my cold, grey morning in Exeter…

  3. #3 by peggy on June 19th, 2009

    on this day after the death of our beloved Blaise I am yet again engulfed in tears with the visions of what once were. as I read my sister’s eulogy to our mother’s garden and I am so very grateful to have you to keep fresh and alive the memories that are my childhood and from where I evolved.

  4. #4 by Julie Brown on July 21st, 2009

    This obituary to a garden is a living tribute to your mother. Betty was colorful and fun to be around providing her friends as well as her family with many sunny hours. I’m inspired to take some time out of my day of summer errands to finally plant my waiting potted cosmos in hopes it brightens someone else’s day as your writing has mine.

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