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The Ghosts of Gardens Past

December 28, 2012

journalsRecently, 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.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. December 28, 2012 9:33 pm

    Jean – this is the most delightful and inspirational post!

    Your garden journey & “The Ghosts of Gardens Past” reminds gardeners, verdant and veteran, that each and every one of us starts with little knowledge and great enthusiasm. (some of us also have a sprinkling of “impatience”…but I’ll leave me out of it!) 😉 The links to your “Gardens to Visit” are so poignant. Nothing is more meaningful that a real life walk-through professionally designed gardens. (Note to self: plan more garden tours in 2013)

    Happy Holidays & Happy New Year !

    • December 31, 2012 11:01 pm

      Shyrlene, Last year, I promised myself that I was going to get out regularly in the spring and visit gardens, but somehow I only managed to do it once. I’m going to try again this year, and lets hope that I do better. Happy New Year.

  2. December 29, 2012 5:47 am

    that was a delightful journey. My first garden was recorded in books – keeping a double-spread page for each week. There are huge chunks of blank pages, nothing happened, no gardening. Garden journaling is so much easier and more effective with blog posts and digital photos. But our new garden plans are being drawn by the Ungardener, with pencil on paper.

    • December 31, 2012 11:03 pm

      Diana, Even in this digital age, I, too, plan new plantings with pencil on graph paper. I have another spiral bound notebook of graph paper that has nothing in it but garden plans (including my own flower beds and plans for a garden that I designed and created for my mother).

  3. December 29, 2012 7:37 am

    I love to garden, and it most certainly has been a journey for myself and my gardens. Just so you stay in touch, this week on the NH seacoast we picked up 13″ of snow and there is suppose to be another storm today with 2-3″. Your Maine gardens are picking up some moisture while you are away.

    • December 31, 2012 11:05 pm

      Judy, Happily I get to Maine for Christmas each year. (We have a break of about one month between semesters.) We didn’t get as much snow inland where I am as you got on the coast, but I am happy to see something that is looking like a real winter this year.

  4. December 29, 2012 10:39 am

    Jean it seems you might have another book in these journals to chronicle your lovely gardens and your gardening…I admire folks who are true journalers something I hope to practice more regularly. Happy New Year.

  5. December 29, 2012 10:52 am

    There is so much to be gained by keeping a journal and reading it from time to time, isn’t there? I love how you trace your gardening enthusiasm and adventures through the years. They pass so quickly when you’re having fun. I treasure sharing your path. God bless you and yours in the new year!

    • December 31, 2012 11:08 pm

      Donna and Shenandoah, I’m feeling like a bit of a fraud here. I was never as constant in keeping my journals as I intended to be. (Sometimes a whole year would go by without an entry.) By 2008 and 2009, pretty much every entry was about the garden, so I gave up writing the journals when I started blogging. Recently, I have been wanting to write about the experience of retirement planning and retirement; but I’m planning to start another blog for those reflections rather than going back to paper and pen journals. (All of this reminds me that I haven’t backed up my blog in months, and I need to do that so that I have my own record.)

  6. December 29, 2012 11:16 am

    I loved this post. I tend to want everything done immediately, but then, where would the fun be in that? It’s a push-pull – the desire to have things the way I want them vs. the fun of constantly working at it.

    • December 31, 2012 11:11 pm

      Thanks, Sarah. I am quite willing to put in the hard work to make my garden visions a reality; but the real push-pull for me is that so often the reality is quite different from the vision. I am looking forward to getting rid of that border under my bedroom window when I put an addition on my house next year. I have revised/refurbished that flower bed several times, but I’ve never been happy with the result; time to start over from scratch!

  7. December 29, 2012 12:41 pm

    Thanks for sharing all this with us, Jean. It certainly illustrates the benefits of journals, although if you enjoy writing them they can easily become time-consuming – but then they become part of who you are, of course. When we came here in 1996 we took loads of photographs of the house and garden as we renovated, built our extension and then developed the garden, but then digital photography came in and so many photos ended up hidden in the depths of the computer. Starting the blog, though, not only meant I was able to start keeping a written record of the garden, but the also that the photographic record was in better order – such a good way of ‘journaling’, as Diana of Elephant’s Eye says

    • December 31, 2012 11:15 pm

      Cathy, I’m also finding blogging (along with the spreadsheet garden record I began in 2003) a more effective way to document the garden. One of my frustrations from those early years is that (even though I had a camera!) I never took any photos of the outside of the house; so I have no visual record of what it looked like before I started or in the early stages of garden development.

  8. December 29, 2012 1:04 pm

    Great post! I think we all have gone through a similar evolution. The process of learning, including the mistakes, is half the fun.

    • December 31, 2012 11:17 pm

      Jason, There does seem to be a similar arc of learning through mistakes that is part of becoming a gardener. Do you think everyone goes through a period of planting flowers in rows instead of in clumps? 🙂

  9. December 29, 2012 1:49 pm

    I remember some of the wonderful nurseries in Maine including Hidden Perennials which was a bit of a find – ha. I’ll have to check out that book! I tend to sketch my ideas more than write about them, and add little notes. I still have all my old sketches of my Maine garden. It’s wonderful to now have a blog that journals the making of my garden here in NY but I still have and keep sketchbooks of my ideas and plans. It is great to go back and look through them, especially on a winter’s day. I love your excerpt from your journals. I love to hear how your garden has evolved.

    • December 31, 2012 11:20 pm

      Kathy, Is Hidden Perennials the nursery in Searsport? I visited it once on one of my “nursery tours,” but I haven’t been back there again. I had heard a rumor that Ruah Donelly was working on a new edition of this book, but it hasn’t been forthcoming — which is too bad, because quite a few of the nurseries in the first version no longer exist or have moved to new locations. I still love to get the book out and look at it, though. I agree that going back and reading garden journals is a wonderful activity for a cold, snowy day.

  10. December 29, 2012 3:55 pm

    What a great look back at your gardening evolution. How wonderful to be able to see how your property and ideas have changed over time. I love your comment about your grandiose plans and how you can ‘imagine’ even more. I have that problem in spades! You have done so well with all the work you have accomplished and holding a full time job in another state at that.

    • December 31, 2012 11:22 pm

      Marguerite, I am much too good at making plans. (I used to joke that if I washed out of academia, I could go work for the Kremlin writing 5-year plans!) At this point, I have imagined garden plans that I think will carry me through to my 75th birthday. 🙂

  11. December 29, 2012 7:20 pm

    My garden would have been one of the ones you visited on that Otisfield garden tour, and again a few years later. It, like yours, undergoes changes each year, all documented in my journals. For next year I am going to write my journal on my computer rather than by hand. It will make searching for things easier since now I have to read through pages and pages to find things I am seeking.

    • December 31, 2012 11:25 pm

      Harriet, It’s so neat to think that I visited and was inspired by your garden more than 10 years ago! I’m trying to think back to the gardens visited on that day. Was yours the one up on a ridge with a view off to the west (can’t remember if the view was of mountains or lake)?

      • January 1, 2013 9:22 am

        Yes, mine has a view of the White Mountains. Ten years ago it had a swimming pool. During the “Gardens with a View” tour a few years ago, the pool was filled and in its place was a garden with many peonies and daylilies. You are welcome to visit this summer. A new book out might interest you, although it is more for beginners: Lisa Colburn’s “The Maine Garden Journal.” It lists favourite nurseries along with lists of plants Mainers grow.

  12. December 30, 2012 12:01 pm

    Jean, your story is a true inspiration for someone who loves documenting and stories, i can imagine how you should feel when taking a walk to your gardens, I guess the energy you put into the creation of your gardens are now going back to you rewarding you with a delightful place, enjoy it as much as you can. Happy new year!!!

    • December 31, 2012 11:27 pm

      Lula, It’s true; my hard work is paid back almost every day. Especially in the back garden, I sometimes just sit on the deck, look out at it, and am both amazed and delighted by the idea that I created all this with my own two hands. Happy New Year to you!

  13. December 31, 2012 6:39 am

    Jean, I commend you on journaling, I wish I were more faithful with it. I have journals from early on in my gardening addiction but not now. I’m using my website and blog to keep track. It’s nice to see that through trial and error you learned what plants were happy and filled your beds with them after all, Nature is the best teacher. You have accomplished a great deal at your Maine residence for not having lived there full time and your gardens are beautiful. I can’t imagine having had to dart between two states.

    I would also like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for so frequently commenting on my posts and choosing my blog as your Blog of the Month. I just received my year end report from WordPress and you are one of the top five most frequent commenters and also in the top five site referrals. I truly appreciate your kindness and wish you much success and good garden karma for 2013. Electronic Hugs to you! Sandi

    • December 31, 2012 11:33 pm

      Sandi, I’m in the same situation of having substituted blogging for keeping a journal. (I find it more satisfying to actually have other people reading what I’m writing.) One thing I realized as I read through these journals is that the big projects in my garden have gotten done during years when I’ve had a research leave or been on sabbatical and spent more time in Maine. I need to be more patient and realistic about what I can accomplish in the years that I’m only here for 3 months during the garden season. (Happily, I have only one of those years left and then I will retire and live here permanently.)

      Thanks so much for the electronic hugs and the wishes for good garden karma. Have a wonderful New Year at Crabtree gardens.

  14. December 31, 2012 6:47 am

    How interesting to get a potted history… I’ve never been disciplined about keeping a journal, my garden blogging being the only remotely successful version. May 2013 be a wonderful year for you and your gardens! 🙂 Jack

  15. December 31, 2012 7:30 am

    How interesting and enlightening it must be able to read about the history of your garden and the plants that live or lived in it Jean. One of my regrets is not being a regular diary keeper not just for garden record keeping purposes but for all aspects of life. Wishing you and your garden a happy and healthy new year as we enter 2013 Jean xxx

    • December 31, 2012 11:36 pm

      Jack and Anna, I think I’ve left the impression that I was a much more disciplined journal writer than I really was. It turned out that I hated writing about any kind of unhappiness or unpleasantness — which is probably why the journals are full of the joys of gardening! (When I was making all those lists of plants bought or blooming, I didn’t know that they were lists of plants that wouldn’t live in my garden :-|) Happy New Year to both of you.

  16. January 2, 2013 8:25 pm

    Hello Jean, Happy New Year, i hope you will be fully blessed! I am a little bit embarrassed and at the same time envious reading this post. With degrees in horticulture and plant physiology and been brought up in the farm, but not having a “garden” caused the embarrassment. I seem to know what to do, and many things to go in a garden, yet don’t have one, because i work in the big city living in a building, hahaha! The envy comes when people like you with different educational backgrounds become so successful in maintaining beautiful gardens through self-study, passion and diligence! At least blogging and photography assuage my lack in physical terms, because i can show plants and flower photos even not having a so called “real garden”!

    Keep up the good work Jean, and i will not be surprised if a coffee-table book will be on the way! But please don’t forget the photos of your garden, we from the distance will be more informed visually. Thanks so much. ..Andrea

  17. January 6, 2013 4:30 pm

    Hi Jean, what a lovely whistle-stop tour! It was very interesting to read how your garden developed. I’m fairly new to gardening so I don’t have a lot of history to call on but things seem to change so fast that even when I look through my older posts, I’m stunned at the changes that have happened since then, not only to the garden, but also myself in how my knowledge, experience and tastes have developed and changed since – I suspect its the same for most gardeners too.

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