The Ghosts of Gardens Past
Recently, I have been reading through old journals, trying to recover the history of my Maine garden. What I have found there tells me as much about my own development as a gardener as about the development of the garden.
I bought my property here in 1990, about a year and a half after I moved from Maine to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for a new job. Although the position as a faculty member at Gettysburg College and the first director of its fledgling Women’s Studies Program was exciting, I soon found that I missed Maine and that I needed to maintain my connection there; out of that realization came the decision to buy a small house where I could spend summers and other school breaks. I came up to Maine during my spring break in March of 1990, looked at 11 houses in three days, and made an offer on one at the end of the week. Two months later, I was a homeowner.
For the first three years that I owned the house, the longest periods I spent here were the 10-12 weeks of summer vacation. Although I did quite a bit of work on the outside of the property during these summers, there is almost no mention of it in my journals. I know I built a flight of stairs (with a lot of help from my father) up the hill from the driveway to the back door in 1990 and had new entry decks and stairs built at both the front and back doors in 1991. During one of these summers, I also created the garden area known as the “back slope” and planted, among other things, a division of rhododendron and several divisions of hosta from my mother’s garden; but there is no mention of either of these activities in my journal. The first (brief) allusion to gardening comes in June 1992, when I noted that I spent a weekend “trying to get the outside of the house spruced up” and that this included creating an herb bed by the back door and planting annuals on the back slope and in flower boxes.
Gardening made its first substantial appearance in my journals in 1993. That year, I was on leave writing a book manuscript in the fall, which allowed me to spend 7 consecutive months (May-January) in my Maine house. During these months, the house began to feel like home to me, and gardening seems to have been part of making that home. In July, I created a 5’ diameter circular flower bed by the turn into my driveway and planted it with annuals. Then, in an August entry, came these words:
I seem to have been bitten by the gardening bug this summer – partly, I think, because I am going to be here for an extended period … and have some time. My circular flower bed at the end of the driveway is a great success. I have also laid out the front walk and hope to get it finished next weekend. I have grandiose plans for fall: transplanting perennials, putting in a bed of irises in a semi-circle created by the front walk, planting wildflowers and lupine down by the well, and setting hundreds of bulbs. I can imagine even more: raised beds of cutting flowers in the front yard; perennial borders to frame a deck out back.
In the months that followed, I dug two new flower beds, the semi-circular iris bed under the bow window at the front of the house, and a narrow perennial border under my bedroom window. This was also the year that my friend Joyce gave me divisions of lilies, daylilies and Siberian irises from her garden. The Siberian irises were massed in the iris bed, and the lilies and daylilies were planted on the back slope and in the circular bed (beginning its transition from annuals to perennials). I did order and plant bulbs, many of them in in the bedroom border (where I lined them up in straight rows like crops in a vegetable garden ). I never did plant wildflowers by the well or make raised beds of cutting flowers, but the deck out back framed by perennial borders did eventually become a reality.
In the years that followed, gardening came to occupy the center of my journal during the summer months. Many of these entries include lists of flowers in bloom or plant purchases; the chief fascination of these lists is their ghostly reminder of plants that no longer grow in my garden. (If truth be told, most of those plants didn’t grow in my garden then; few lasted more than one season.) Slowly, however, I learned to focus on plants that were happy in my garden conditions, and the pages of my journals as well as my flower beds filled up with varieties of daylily, hardy geranium, spiderwort, Siberian irises, and coreopsis. The journal also documents other lessons learned, as in this June 1999 note: “I … realize that I need to plant multiple plants of the same type together instead of one of this and one of that.” The journals document some expansion of the garden during these years, including a row of daylilies planted along the front of the property in 1995 and a row of lilacs added behind them in 1996. They also document the inspiration I sought from reading gardening books and from visiting gardens. In June 1998, I treated myself to a 50th birthday trip to England and came back with a photo album full of pictures of gardens and flowers in London, Cornwall, Oxford, and Brighton. In 2000, I visited both England and France in May and June, designing a “garden tour” for myself that included Hampton Court Palace, the Chelsea Flower Show, Kew Gardens, Sissinghurst, Versailles, and Giverny; and I came back inspired with ideas for my own garden.
The next big leap in my education as a gardener came in July 2001, when my gardening friend Joyce treated me to a garden tour in Otisfield, Maine sponsored by the McLaughlin Garden Foundation. It was a glorious day and I learned a lot from the gardens visited; but the most important event of the day for me was the purchase of a book called The Adventurous Gardener: Where to Buy the Best Plants in New England. (See The Gardening Book that Changed My Life.) This book introduced me to the world of small, specialty nurseries, and I spent the rest of the summer visiting as many of the Maine nurseries as I could. The vast majority of plants growing in my garden today come from nurseries that I learned about from this book.
2001 was also the year when I turned my gardening focus from the front of the property to the back. I began to make serious plans for adding the long-dreamed of deck to the back of the house and began to design and dig the large flower bed that would become the deck border. In 2002-03, when I was on sabbatical from teaching and able to spend 15 glorious months in Maine, the back garden really took off. In 2002, the deck was built, most of the deck border was dug and planted, and the blue and yellow border was begun. By the time I returned to teaching in fall of 2003, the deck border was complete and the even larger blue and yellow border was about half dug and planted. This was also the year that I began to keep a systematic garden record.
In the years that have followed, I have continued to develop the back garden, building a flight of garden stairs at the entrance and a long walkway from the stairs to the deck (2005-2007), installing a 12’ section of fence and creating the fence border (2008 –2009), and creating my newest garden area, the Serenity Garden (2010-2011). During these years, I also deepened my understanding of garden design, learning the importance of mass, foliage, and focal points in the garden.
Reading through almost 20 years of old journals has been both enjoyable and instructive. This time spent with the ghosts of gardens past has reminded me that the development of a gardener, like the development of a garden, is a process that takes place over many years.