June 6th is one of the many days I think of my Uncle Teddy, the man who introduced me to gardening at the tender age of 6. Because of him, I began my long journey into gardening. I’ve written about him in previous posts.
This year on June 6th, I opened my garden to benefit the Huntington Historical Society. It was so fitting that it fell on Uncle Teddy’s birthday since, in the garden, he and I are entwined together. For five hours straight I taught, explained, identified plants, offered historical references, shared my knowledge, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Between 200-250 people came to enjoy my creation.
I helped them to understand that my garden is one of my artworks. It is an installation, an assemblage of art, plants, hardscape, and sculpture. It is a conceptual work that embraces the garden as a metaphor of the universe. There is a community of cooperation, of symbiosis and that of opposition, of parasitism in the garden. There is a quest for resources, for nutrition, water, sunshine, and shade between the multiple worlds of humans and animals, plants, pollinators, insects, and the microorganisms of bacteria and fungi. There are lifecycles of birth, maturity, senescence, death, and rebirth. There is a cyclical life experienced by all in the days, the seasons, and the years.
My garden has two major themes beyond this metaphor. I designed my garden as a journey. It must be walked through to be fully appreciated. There are no dead-ends, just options at each intersection for the choice of a different journey. No visit through the garden will ever be the same. The paths selected, the time of day, the week, the season, the year make for new appraisals. New adventures. New sights to be seen and new revelations to experience. New meditations on life to be contemplated.
Repetitively featured throughout the garden are circles and spheres. Circles have appeared in my art for decades in many different mediums and imagery. To me, they are the beginning, Eve’s apple. They are Woman. They are the enclosing arms of protection & nurturing. These circles are present in the navigation of the garden, the design of flower beds, sculptures placed strategically in vignettes, as well as found objects collected for decades and hidden as treasures between and around the plantings.
I call this my “girlie” garden. The plant material is practically devoid of sharp pointy thorns & leaves. I look for soft and frilly foliage when selecting plants to include. The colors are pinks and pastels. I think of little girls spinning in their frilly birthday dresses with joyous abandon when I pick my plants. They are safe plants spreading a gentleness of spirit.
Talking with people about the meanings and thoughts behind the choices in my garden opened many eyes on the garden tour. I don’t think anyone who visited the garden could have enjoyed it more than me, except my long gone Uncle Teddy. It all began with him. And I thank him every chance I get.
I am a gardener. So in 1989 I bought the garden with the home I could afford in the zip code I sought to live in. It’s the first house as you enter my town but some have needled me and said it was the last. I know better.
That gray day in February, the realtor brought me to five different properties. It was the first day I was actually house hunting but when we pulled into this particular gravel driveway I knew I was home. The house didn’t really interest me all that much because I knew the garden had good bones. The giant oaks and the abundance of understory shrubs of mountain laurel spoke to me. I particularly envisioned how beautiful the spring would be when all those dogwoods came into bloom.
I was home and I knew it. So I made an offer below the asking price. As a single parent of two teenage sons, I reserved enough cash to modify the living space so they could have a room of their own. The offer was too quickly accepted which dismayed me since that meant I could have bid even lower. But, oh well, what’s done is done. I had the garden I dreamed of.
That winter I would walk in the garden pulling dead leaves from the shrubs, picking up twigs, learning, and looking. Eagerly I awaited the new growth of spring the flowering of the dogwoods. Fingers crossed there might also be some perennials bursting with color in the beds.
Well, that didn’t happen as I expected. As the weather warmed and the leaves began to unwind from their tightly bound buds, eight of the dogwoods quickly announced to me that they were dead markers of what had been. No perennials decided to surprise me with an abundance of color since there were none. And the large shrub that I viewed outside my window turned out to be a pile of dead branches with ivy vigorously covering the mound.
Waves of disappointment layered over my expectations. All I saw was so much work and expense ahead of me. The trees needed to be cut down and piles of brush removed. The feeling of mourning that spring still resonates with me. A reminder of all the other hopes and dreams I’d had in my life to that point that had been crushed. The lost expectations of joy. Happiness masquerading the death of dreams.
I took my credit card to Sears and bought clippers, an electric saw, and a gas-powered wood chipper. Rakes, trowels, and shovels followed. And I began to clear the dead and diseased plants and shrubs from the property. I sawed and chipped and raked and dug so by that summer I developed muscles I didn’t know I had. The property became my garden.
What I did that summer of 1989 set the tone for the life I am still leading. Each year the garden provides me with disappointments, with a sense of loss and despair. After a period of sadness and mourning, I recover with renewed energy to create a new reality. New plantings. New approaches. New plans, hopes, and dreams. The garden lives in optimism as do I.
The garden has taught me patience. The closer I watched the garden the more it taught me lessons about life. About renewal. About resilience. About how nothing in the garden or our lives is truly in our control. Tending the garden has helped me to adjust my expectations, to accept that my best intentions and plans can and often will be brushed aside.
The garden also taught me that there is a season and a time for things to happen. It has also taught me that nothing lives forever, perhaps many years, but not forever. That we only have a certain amount of spring times to get it right and we don’t know how many springs we have ahead of us. So time is precious and a gift that I choose not to squander. I still have too many seeds to start and plants to place and flowers to paint. My garden keeps me alert to the cycles of life and the benefits of endurance. I am my garden now.
My Art Starts in the Garden.
To see my art that has been inspired by the gardens surrounding my home,
I had to take a break from the hours I had just spent weeding in the garden in the heat of the summer. I was bone-weary. Thirsty enough to pour a gallon of water down my throat. My back ached from all the hours of bending and lifting. I was dirty. Actually I was muddy with sweat.
I sat back, sinking into the cushioned deck chair in the shade, my fingers wrapped around a huge glass of iced coffee. As the dizziness started to subside, I looked down towards my feet stuck into filthy work boots and next to them I spotted a carpenter ant. Now, as you know, carpenter ants are the big ones. But size is relative. Compared to me it was really, really small. This tiny creature was carrying on its back what looked like a giant white breadcrumb that was twice the size of her own body.
This little ant had a destination in mind and was determined to get it there. Well, as I sipped my iced coffee and began to cool down I watched this creature travel across the deck, board by board. It managed to carry this load on its back over every crevasse and never drop it. Occasionally she met with another carpenter ant but after acknowledging each other they each went their own way. My ant never shared its load with others to make the job easier.
As she walked her circuitous path across the length of the deck I became fascinated with the comparative distance and wondered if this was the equivalent of me walking to town or across state lines. And the ant didn’t stop. Didn’t put down its load to rest.
When the ant began to get too far outside my line of sight I ever so slowly lifted myself up out of my comfy chair and followed it to the far end of the deck, iced coffee still in hand. I followed my ant down the steps into my garden. Almost lost it in the grass but was able to find it again because of the big white load on its back.
I followed my ant through my garden to the a pile of sand at the opening of the anthill. After carrying this load all that way, across what seemed like continents to her I presume, I watched it struggle all by itself to drag the large load into its home. She had to widen the opening since her bundle was so large. Other ants were coming and going, some bringing home their own loot. Others leaving to go on their own expeditions.
This little ant got me out of the chair, across the deck, and back into my garden, I put down my glass of iced coffee and got back to work. I wasn’t going to let that little ant out-work me. I think I could hear her chuckle as she dove into her home thinking about the huge load she had just carried out into the garden.
Every year I’m faced with decisions about where to spend my energy. Each year that decision shifts as my available time, available focus, and available interest fluctuates. Those issues don’t present themselves in linear time. There is no steady march towards some undetermined goal. No inevitable trudge towards downsizing.
Now I’m facing another decision point, one that I face each fall. I ask myself if it’s worth it to continue my seasonal shifts of bringing the garden indoors and outdoors again next spring. Do I let nature make the decision and just buy all new plants when the season begins again? And if I do decide to harvest, what will I bring in, where will I put it, is it worth the effort this particular plant will present me with, and what is the value of each choice given my limited space?
I’ve had years when I lost all interest in saving my deck garden. Sometimes I was so disappointed in the performance of the plants or the mutilating attacks on them by critters. Other years I was far too anxious to retreat to my studio to recreate the colors and ideas of summer on canvas. There have been a few years when a surprise frost beat me to the job and there was nothing left to save. Somehow, after the mourning is over, there’s a sense of relief of sorts since there’s more time leftover for new endeavors, new experiments.
Deciding to bring in the plants, in whatever form, means a commitment to months of work. Just like having pets, such as the cats and dogs my friends adopt, my plants need regular attention. They need the proper amount of water, food, and light. Some need dormancy. Others require bright lighting to flourish. Still others are just taken in as cuttings and need to develop roots. Some require complete darkness for periods of time in order to bloom. Learning the needs of individual plants takes study and attention to detail.
And then there are the critters that come in for a free ride. The spiders. The whitefly. The caterpillars. The cotton balls of mealy bugs. Let’s not forget slugs, earwigs, aphids, stink bugs, thrips, and stems covered in scale. I’ve found all these on my winter indoor plants at one time or another. I ask then is it worth it!
And then, in the winters when I decide to commit to the work, when it’s gray outside and I slowly wander downstairs to my former darkroom, now my plant room, the magic happens. As I open the creaking door to this unheated former root cellar, the smell of soil wafts towards my nose. The daylight adjusted lighting fills me with echoes of summer. My eyes shine with the reflection of colors blooming in the sink, on the countertops, and on the floor.
New growth, new optimism for the coming year. New plans of where these plants will go when the time comes. Gifts shared with friends. Donations to just causes. And some will remain with me to start again another season. A glance into the future. New opportunities. Renewed hope.
In my garden I have hundreds of shrubs and trees. I’ve designed woodland walks that encourage immersion in the garden as you journey along the different paths. Each time I walk the garden I meander a different trail to observe the small and big changes that occurred since my last visit. Sometimes it’s a new tiny shoot emerging from the soil just seeing daylight. Sometimes there is a plant weakening and a slipping into senescence. But each time the garden tells me its stories.
Twenty years ago when I was designing this garden I hired a company to help carve the terrain. Soil was to be dumped behind the row of trees along the edge of the property to make a berm, thus creating a buffer to the street and more privacy in the woods. The driver of the bobcat had the sensibility of a construction worker rather than a gardener. There was a carelessness to his treatment of the trees. He didn’t respect their majesty. At one point he drove his bobcat forcefully into the trunk of one of these, he didn’t blink, he didn’t stop, he just backed up and kept going, Concerned only with his job at hand.
I walked to the tree truck and gently covered the gouged bark with the palm of my hand. I spoke to it as I often do while amongst the plants. Over the roar of the machine, I softly apologized and told the tree I was so sorry. I felt its hurt personally. It felt natural to me to nurture that injury as I’d cared for the scrapes and cuts on the bodies of my young sons.
Over the years I often caressed the wound as I wandered throughout the garden. Watching the healing happen. Slowly, very slowly, that tree began to heal. The inside of the gash began to close, the bark covered the wound by millimeters each year. But I noticed also, that the tree was left with a scar. It would never completely disappear. It would last throughout its lifetime as a reminder of the accident, the injury.
I too have scars that I carry on me. A lifetime of damage both big and small. Some of those scars are from physical injuries but I also carry inside of me the scars of emotional damage. Like the tree, I didn’t succumb to these many wounds. I grew scars, some of them thicker than the surrounding skin. But reminders of my resilience. My ability to heal enough to move on, move forward in spite of the pain. Like the tree, I still stand proudly against the vicissitudes of life.
At the end of the darkness of winter, I start from infinitesimal seeds the hopes and dreams of a new season. Spring is about optimism, plans and possibilities for a future of glorious beauty meant to nourish our hearts and our bodies.
Dreaming of meals, the simmering soups bubbling on the stove, the roasts in the oven. I am transported by the seasonings growing in my herb garden, warmed by the sun. These meals will nourish those who gather together.
Parsley, chives, cilantro and dill flourish. Varieties of thyme sit comfortably next to rosemary. I can inhale the fragrance of food and family.
Watering can in hand, what happened to all my parsley! It’s gone! All of it! What! It can’t be! My bubble bursts!
Then I saw movement. Lime green, stripes, slithering. A fat caterpillar. And no not one. Many were gorging to devour my dreams quickly.
Enraged I plucked each writhing caterpillar with my gloved fingers & threw with the speed of the playground training practiced in years gone by. I cursed as I hurled each and every destroyer. What a waste of my good intentions. Why my parsley? Why not the other thousands of leaves of greenery in my garden that mean less in the grand plan?
And what was I going to tell Sharon on Thanksgiving? My young new step-daughter who tentatively edged closer to me over time. We bonded over food. We had our own secret ingredients. The vanilla in the pancakes that no one but she and I knew. We whispered gently together.
Now where will she find the parsley when I hand her the small scissors on a cold Thanksgiving morning. To season the stuffing? To garnish the potatoes. To make our perfect family gathering complete. What will we whisper about now that the parsley is gone?
Still seething, I saw later that summer the butterflies fluttering. Dipping in and out around the flowers in my garden. Weaving amongst the petals. The variety of colors, spots and dots that dressed these delicate apparitions.
A gong sounded in my head from the baby books read and reread to the children. My parsley was eaten by some very hungry caterpillars. And they in turn became beautiful butterflies. Swallowtail butterflies in fact.
So now we had new secrets to share, Sharon and I. The mysteries of life, the transformations creatures are capable of and the flexibility we as humans have for reframing our hopes, dreams and expectations.
Our conversations expanded over time, beyond food. We still shared our secret ingredients but they expanded exponentially but remained nourishing.
I grew up in Brooklyn in an area defined by the brick of the houses and the gray concrete of the ground. The concrete sidewalks had slightly different textures depending on the amount of pebbles that were in the mix. Some of the concrete blocks were broken. I avoided walking on those since kids in my class had told me that if you step on a crack you’d break your mother’s back. That thought scared me.
There were a lot of fences I could run my hand along each day as I walked the 5 blocks to elementary school. The fences were mostly made of metal. Some had diamond-shaped patterns with sharp twisted points all along the top. Others were evenly spaced black metal spikes that were like the ones I saw in the killing traps in the Tarzan movies.
My favorite summer vacation getaway was to stay with my Uncle Teddy who lived in the country. The 4-hour drive to Schenectady always filled me with happiness in anticipation of seeing him again. Seeing his smile. Getting his hugs That excitement almost made my miserable car sickness worth it.
Uncle Teddy had no sidewalks in his neighborhood. You walked on grass to go places. There were no fences around the homes except for some cute short white wooden ones. There were no barriers between the neighbor’s houses.
One day shortly after arriving for vacation I was standing behind my uncle’s house in the woods. I noticed that if I pulled I could peel off sheets of this white stuff that surrounded the trunk of some of the trees. Some were thicker than others, some more nubbly with brown streaks. I’d never seen trees like this before. It was interesting to me. It felt good.
Uncle Teddy briskly came out of his house and I could tell he was not pleased at all. “Why are you peeling the birch tree”, he asked in a tone of voice he’d never before used with me. I just shrugged my shoulders & said it was fun to do. He told me that I was hurting the tree by taking off its skin, that the tree needed it’s covering to stay alive. The white I was peeling was the bark of the tree and it needed it to breathe.
I was shaken to the bone. I began to cry. Not because of him being angry but at the thought that I was hurting something that was living. For me, it was the Wizard of Oz moment when everything turned to color.
The garden came alive instantly for me. The grass was alive. The leaves were alive. The flowers were alive too. It was a magical world just opening for me. I followed Uncle Teddy around every day that vacation listening to him teach me. We planted 4 o’clock seeds and gladiolas. We raked and fertilized and trimmed and mowed together. That’s the summer I became a gardener.
I have spent my entire life since that summer learning about the garden. What grows the best in my area, with the climate I have, the winter and summer temperature cycles, the amount of sunshine and shade, the type of soil and the chemistry needed for my plants to thrive? What is the life cycle of the flowers, plants, trees and shrubs in my garden, is it a day, a season, a year? How can I grow responsibly and with respect for our environment? What plants encourage a community of pollinators to thrive and improve everyone’s lives? After all who doesn’t like butterflies!
I became an artist. But my art starts in the garden. I create paintings to express the infinite possibilities, the optimism and the happiness that comes from tending the earth. The garden teaches me daily the complexities and the interconnectedness of every living thing surrounding us. The garden is humbling. I share my garden through my art.
The birch tree planted in my woodland garden is a daily reminder of my Uncle Teddy. He, with his kindness and generosity, transformed my life by introducing me to the world of nature when I was just a little girl.
I was delighted to open my local paper, The Observer, and right there on Page 3 upper right was a big and generous article about my Virtual Garden Tour Video. David Ambro the Publisher, outdid himself by putting into words the far-flung conversation we had of how people are coping with the Covid-19 pandemic. As an artist and a gardener, it was a natural for me to share my garden online since the many garden tours I’ve hosted over the years were not going to happen anytime soon. My garden provides the inspiration for my art but it also gives me emotional solace. This is what I love to share with my visitors.
I thank David so much for sharing my thoughts and my garden with a wider audience.
Now here’s the article David Ambro wrote.
My Art Starts in the Garden
I love to share my garden! This is a creation that I’ve been working on for over 30 years and what fun is it keeping it all to myself? That feels so selfish to me.
So the best thing I can do, since it’s hard for so many of you to travel here, is to take you on a garden tour around my 1/2 acre woodland walks in Northport NY. We’re Zone 7 here and this Garden Tour video is in the early spring on March 21, 2020 around 6pm in the evening.
I haven’t yet finished my fall cleanup at this point and of course, as gardeners well know, the garden is never perfect. At this time of year, in my neck of the woods, something new opens every single day. It’s a very exciting time for me each day as I walk around to see what’s new. Spring is about renewal. About optimism. About color. About surprises.
This is the first in a series of Garden Tour videos I’ll be doing so please remember to subscribe to my YouTube Channel to be alerted when I publish new videos.
My garden is the source material for almost all of my paintings. It is where I get my inspiration. It’s where I present yet another aspect of my creativity but this one is in 3D and seasonally adjusted over time and temperature.
When we need to “Water” ourselves we take a drink towards the top of our stem, our mouth. This water, sooner or later is then is eliminated, as if by gravity below the point of entry. Plants, on the other hand, take a drink at the very bottom of their structure, their roots, and then, defying gravity, eliminate the excess at the very top of their structure, their leaves. How is this journey accomplished? Pathway … Continue reading →
How do we grow gardeners? We start them young. We intrigue them with our questions about what they’re seeing, what they’re hearing. We let their imaginations run rampant. We celebrate their dirty hands and knees and when they grow up they already love their favorite garden spots. We pass on what our elders taught us that captured our fascination with the world around us. How did we come to appreciate the complexity of leaf edges and the critters … Continue reading →
That first sunny warm day in February seduces me into my garden to begin my spring gardening tasks before the last snowstorms of winter reappear for a brief visit. It is a happy day for me each year when I reach for my Felco’s, put on my gardening gloves, pick up my rake and head out to reunite with my garden.
I always start by trimming the hellebores since the longer I wait the more complicated the job becomes. Those stalwart evergreen leaves that have decorated my garden all winter are by this time raggy, spotted and brownish. Hiding beneath them are the brand new buds of the Hellebore flowers just waiting to burst through heralding spring. I love uncovering their light deprived lime green growth and freeing them to bask in the sunshine.
Cutting the old leaves at this very early stage makes it less likely that I’ll damage the new growth. The old stems are long and thick at this time and easy to differentiate between the short almost stemless new growth. On the years that for one reason or another I wasn’t quick enough to do this early trimming, the job took twice as long as I had to carefully select between the old and new growth leaves. Not easy to do without accidentally cutting off a few buds. Full disclosure: When I do cut or damage a plant in my garden I reflexively find myself apologizing to it out loud…sigh…
Not to worry about uncovering the hellebores when inevitably another bout of winter arrives since these are very hardy plants in my zone 6 garden. When the weather turns cold again for the next few weeks of winter I enjoy watching spring emerge through the windows in my home. Those hellebores burst through with so much optimism.
Hardy bulbs are planted in the fall and will come up in the spring. The reason they are called hardy is that they can survive and actually need a period of cold in order to bloom in the spring or summer. Given a period of 2-4 months of chilling, (perhaps in the refrigerator?!?) many of these bulbs can be forced into blooming early for a nice break in the dark of winter. Examples of Hardy Bulbs: … Continue reading →
My muse is my garden. Other gardens as well, but my garden in particular. I move in it, feel it, and hear the breezes whisper through it. I watch the lighting during the day as it slides over and around the textured surfaces. Lighting is so different on days with sun and with clouds. Lighting in the spring with the bright yellow-greens of optimistic new growth and lighting by the fall with ambers & tans … Continue reading →