I recently came across this photograph that shows my first garden. The same summer I was married I planted this little flower bed at the very edge of our property near the driveway.
Silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row. Or in my case, a back row of gladioli, two rows of red salvias, and a front row of zinnias, all meticulously outlined in small stones collected from around my yard. Both gladiolus and zinnia were well known to me, but the red salvia was not and it seemed terribly exotic.
These little plants were a rectangle of joy that summer and so looking back at it now, I have to say this was quite a successful garden.
A year before our marriage my husband had bought a small house on a dirt road, down in a valley on a one-half acre, heavily wooded lot. The land was once farmland, but had returned to young pine forest by the time our house was built four years earlier.
The trees were mostly loblolly pines and unfortunately, over the years we learned a lot about how freshly broken pines smell after ice storms and hurricanes. Long after this photo was taken, the sweet gum tree visible on the left became a Hurricane Fran victim. The resulting light that streamed in after the tree was removed brought us an interesting surprise—after nearly two decades of living there a yucca plant bloomed for the first time in this little corner.
That yucca, discernible In the middle right of the photo, lay at the base of a large pine. It was planted before we had moved there by Dr. Harold, our neighbor who owned the adjoining property. His wife’s first name was Fern and perhaps to honor her or just because he liked ferns, he also had dug up ferns of some unknown type and placed them, earth and all, atop these two tall stones, where they thrived during our years there. Dr. Harold had a deep love of the land and often walked his property and the surrounding woods with a beautiful English Sheepdog and later, his Golden Retriever, Lance.
Though only three miles from town, my newly married self felt isolated and lost on this land “out in the country.” I did appreciate the azaleas and the many fine native dogwoods growing there, but being unused to anything wild, I did not even recognize what poison ivy looked like. Thankfully a wise friend finally took pity on me and announced one day she was coming over to walk me around our property to point out the poison ivy, so I could know what to avoid. It took a while but we eventually managed to get that pesky plant under control.
There were too many trees in my opinion and the soil—in addition to being covered with tree roots, the soil was heavy clay, quite opposite the rich, loamy soil of my parents’ vegetable garden.
The first year we were married my husband and I used large (and heavy) stones picked up from along nearby roadsides to create paths and to delineate islands around groups of trees. At the sunniest edges of these islands I tried to grow flowers, but gardening was not easy for me in this shady location. Everything I wanted to grow needed sun.
Though I did not consider myself a gardener at this time, somehow the few sunny spots in our yard soon became flower beds. They were mostly filled with irises that had been passed along by my across-the-street neighbor, Henrietta. Many years later when enough trees had fallen to allow plenty of sunlight through, I decided to turn the entire front yard into a garden with islands of perennials and these irises were the starting point. The garden I created at that time is still my favorite.
By that point I had learned enough to hire someone to bring in lots of planting soil and compost to form raised beds. No more scratching around tree roots in hard clay. The year before my good friends and accross-the-street neighbors, Bill and Cecy, had made a wonderful garden in their back yard, exuberantly full of shasta daisies and yarrow, among other things They had started with loads of compost recycled from the town’s food waste, so I took a cue from them.
When Janice, my friend who earlier had taught me how to tip-toe past the poison ivy, saw the beginnings of my perennial garden, she dropped off lots of ephemeral wildflowers and other natives, such as Monarda.
I am not sure what sparked the idea to create that perennial garden. Over time I think I had become a gardener without being aware it was happening. In my memory it stands out as a respite from work and simply a beautiful place to busy my hands and free my mind.
I was fortunate to have a true gardening mentor, though when she was living, I did not know to think of her in such terms. Through the years my mother’s cousin, VIrgie, shared dozens of plants from her garden, including sweet shrub, spirea, Turk’s cap lily, phlox, tradescantia, everlasting sweet pea. When we moved to our current home many of Virgie’s plants came with me. It was the wrong time of year to be able to bring Janice’s ephemerals, but her Monarda came along and so did Henrietta’s irises.
Sadly my digital images of my previous perennial garden were lost during a painful hard-drive crash. I am still hoping to come across a printed photograph of it sometime when I take time to go through my boxes of pictures. For now I remember it circuitously by looking at this image of my first little garden near the driveway—the beginnings of a love of gardening.