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?
These are some of the deck plants. There are also 8 window boxes on the railings, 3 large box planters & other assorted containers around the corner from these. What was I thinking!
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.
This is the plant room just before I began to bring the deck plants in for the winter. Choices have to be made.
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.
This hemlock trunk has been healing for over 20 years now.
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 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.
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.
My grandson CJ taking a break from chasing dinosaurs in our woodland garden on April 26, 2006.
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 crawling under our stumps and stones? We talked with them, we enjoyed the experience of learning and sharing. We made the garden the center of their invented stories, their imagined dinosaurs, the strolling around the paths that led to nowhere but really everywhere.
My Uncle Teddy passed down to me the mysterious and exciting world of nature and the gift he gave me keeps giving. As my grandson CJ completes his Eagle Scout project of creating a woodland path through a nature preserve dedicated to native plant species with the eradication invasive species, we see how we generationally share our knowledge and continue to contemplate our universe.
My grandson CJ Ahern sitting at one of his favorite spots in our woodland garden on April 29, 2018 just before he started his Eagle project to restore a neglected woodland area at an animal sanctuary in Seaford NY.
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.
This azalea and tree peony combination bloom in my garden together every year. Their colors match perfectly and are so inspiring to me!
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 of a lived life. Morning light offers tender ambiance while afternoon colors not only light the scene from a different direction, the colors are deeper and warmer.
My garden brings consciousness and meaning to me. It keeps me grounded. The ephemeral beauty of an unfertilized blossom studied up close with magnifiers and macro lenses is a representation of a miracle. The world of possibility. The beginning of a story I represent in my Art. I walk through my garden gathering ideas. Stories I want to tell. Suggested ideas I want to convey.
In my garden I spend time designing the landscape or I spend time closely and intimately with a singular specimen at a particular stage of growth. In my studio I may paint a vignette or a full landscape view of a part of the garden I’ve designed, or I may choose to paint a small portion of one flower that has moved me. The minute miracle. This is my work. Outdoors and indoors. These are the stories I tell. This is my Art. You can see more of my work in my online Art Shop.
There are some plants in my garden that just demand to be viewed together. In my front garden bed is a Fire Flame Tree Peony that for years has bloomed at the same time as a perfectly color matched azalea. Together they light up their niche in the world for a week or two each year if I’m lucky.
These Fire Flame Peonies blooming in my May garden along with the azalea inspired my original painting.
Keep the rain away from the peonies and the heat away from the azalea & I’ve got a perfect vignette. I love the way the focal points shift around my garden all year when either color takes prominence or form, as it does in winter.
I think of my garden as a theater production where spotlights guide your eyes around the action on stage.
If you want to extend the season of the colorful joy of these planting combinations you should consider buying one of my pieces of Art. Visit my Art Store to see your options. You won’t be disappointed!
Fire Flame Peony – Available in the Mary Ahern Art Store
In October of 2012, Superstorm Sandy felled 4 large Oak trees in my woodland garden. We were lucky that was the only damage we suffered in that severe storm other than loss of electricity. Instantly my garden went from full shade to sunshine a dappled shade. What a transformation for it and for me.
Oak tree lost in battle with Hurricane Sandy
After a period of mourning, I started rethinking, planning and studying what to do with this newfound daylight.
One of the mighty Oak trees was left with an interesting sculptural remnant which I originally planned to keep in remembrance of what had been. As usual, I changed my mind as I started designing and replanting. Like most gardeners, I change my mind all the time as I work in my garden.
I decided to plant a Heritage River Birch, Betula nigra “Heritage” in memory of my Uncle Teddy who introduced me to gardening. As a child visiting him in Schenectady from my treeless home in Brooklyn, he one day found me peeling the bark from one of his many white birch trees. When he asked me to stop as I was pulling the “skin” from the tree and hurting it, I looked around with tears in my eyes and realized that the entire garden was alive. I was transformed!
Theodorus Hendrik Gerrits, 1914 – 1991. Thank you!
This tree is for my uncle who shared with me his garden and his love. Thank you!
Sandy came to visit and in a fury broke, smashed and tore away some of my garden friends. These huge and venerable trees were here before I moved into their space many decades ago. They’ve provided me with the backbones of my woodland garden. They helped me design the paths I carved out of the thickets. They offered the strong verticals of a towering garden design.
These old oaks shared their shade keeping me cool in the summer. This shade offered me the opportunity to explore the great variety of plants and shrubs that thrive in their speckled light. Shredded oak leaves of these generous trees have been the basis of the garden mulch that nourishes my woodland garden.
I am mourning the loss of what was.
But now I’ve planted bulbs where the oaks once stood.
I look forward in the spring to enjoying their sunshine.
So now, after an unusually warm & snow-free winter, the weather has already skimmed the high ’80’s during the month of May. As I sit on my deck exhausted from the heat, wondering how I’m ever going to be able to do all my planting after I’ve indulged at our plant sale & exchanged plant trophies with my gardening girlfriends.
The good news is that I’m a shade gardener. (That’s not to be confused with a shady gardener.) If I play my cards right I never have to bow down in the bright sun, slather myself in sunblock, or supply myself with a straw hat. The sun, which in my youth was my friend, now entices me only from sheltered nooks.
I garden in full shade, dappled shade, high shade, mostly shade & some minimal shade. Because shade is an elusive distinction, my garden is a type of laboratory. Often I’ll divide a plant in order to test the shade tolerances of specific species or cultivars. I document my garden with extensive photos & data as part of my enjoyment of the Art of gardening.
Shade gardens are about subtleties. Textures of leaves, the size & scale of those leaves, the shiny leaves versus those with indumentation, rough to the touch or smooth as suede. Color in the shade is not blinded out by the harsh sunshine. One can appreciate the varieties of green, the blue-greens, the lime-greens, the purple-greens & how about green-green. The color of an emerging stem or bud versus that in its maturity is quite an event to observe in the shade garden.
My shade garden is zen-like for me. It’s about savoring the space, the sounds of the birds singing for their supper, the smell of the soil on moist mornings, the wandering on my woodland walks.
Oh, and one final thing, because of the shade there is very little weeding to be done. Sweet!
Woodland walkways with Ginkgo bench in the distance.
“Kansas Peonies” Art inspired from my Mother’s Day present.
Four O’Clocks were my first introduction to growing plants from seed. Uncle Teddy took me by the hand at his home in Schenectady and introduced me, the kid from Brooklyn, to gardening. I can still smell the soil as we dropped the seeds of Four O’Clocks into the ground he taught me to prepare. Four O’Clocks weren’t the only things growing in his garden, so was I.
The Kansas Peonies I grow in my garden was a Mother’s Day present from my son Chris. I have so many gifts he’s given to me over our many years together but I still cherish the bright pink of these robust plants each year as they bloom for me right in season. They return each Mother’s Day, expanding and adding to their beauty, as does he.
Japanese Maple a birthday gift.
One year for my September birthday, my son, Michael came swooping in proudly bestowing upon me a stripling of a Japanese Maple. Still dangling was the $9.99 tag placed on it from Home Depot. Now, this mature specimen holds court as a central focal point in my front garden.
A bouquet of Zinnias comes into my hands each year when my husband Dave buys them from the gardener with a stand up the street from us. The grin on his boyish face as he hands them to me with love is matched only by the riotous colors of the single and double flowers grouped tightly in his hands.
On Mother’s Day this year my grandson C.J. bounced up to greet me with a pot full of poppies. He shares my garden with me and helps to bring my attention to all the wonderful colors and shapes he finds there for fear I might miss them. These poppies are pink he told me and reminded me that we need to photograph everything so we’ll remember how they looked.
Today I was featured in a Newsday Business section article written by Arlene Gross. The excerpt focusing on my background and my life choices is copied below. If you’d like to see the article in it’s entirety you can see it on my website in the News section.
At midlife, taking lower pay to begin more satisfying careers
By Arlene Gross
Special to Newsday
11:07 AM EST, January 4, 2008
Mary Ahern had dabbled in art for many years, but had never been able to actually make a career of it. Until four years ago, that is, when she made the switch to full-time artist.
“I had always been a creative artist,” the Northport resident, 60, explained. “Life, however, intervened, and as a single parent, I was never able to create my art on a full-time basis.”
Changing careers at midlife is no small feat, and switching to one with substantially less earning potential is more difficult still. According to Randy Miller, founder and president of ReadyMinds, an online career counseling service, downsizing a career can be a source of great anxiety.
Yet for some people, any fear or hesitation is mitigated by the yearning to follow a dream. Seeking more spiritually uplifting endeavors can be the ultimate challenge, and Miller said any attendant loss of income is often compensated with a renewed sense of purpose and newfound happiness.
“There are a lot of people who go through life and think, ‘What if?'” Miller said. “With a strategic plan, coupled with the new passion and ultimate objective of doing something different, one can more easily achieve their ultimate goals.”
For Ahern, a new husband provided the impetus and financial support to move forward. Income, the couple concluded, was less relevant to the quality of their lives than the legacy they wish to leave behind.
“When we married, Dave urged me to follow my dream,” she recalled. “The hard part at first was trying to find inside myself what that dream actually was. You spend so much time marching forward and doing what you do, you lose the essence of yourself.”
Once their five children — all from previous marriages — were finished with college, Ahern felt it was OK to follow her calling.
“My income from my art doesn’t yet come close to the money I’m used to making in either my career in computer graphics equipment sales or my own graphics design firm,” she said.
One of her greatest sacrifices was a big dip in retirement savings, which now come exclusively from her husband’s salary.
“We have a comfortable nest egg,” she said, “but by coming out of a conventional career, I no longer have the extra cushion to add to my existing portfolio of tax-advantaged savings vehicles.”
Despite her diminished earnings, Ahern says she is happier. “I am living the life I am meant to live,” she said.
Excerpt of Article posted in The Times of Northport
Artist cultivates her livelihood like a garden
By Arlene Gross
June 13, 2007 | 02:39 PM
Northport resident Mary Ahern is a successful artist who practices a unique technique she describes as. “Digital Mixed Media Painting”.
Mary Ahern enjoying her garden peonies.
But Ahern, who… (was) among the exhibitors at Arts in the Park in Northport July 8, (2007) was not born an artist. “I didn’t come to paint until I was older,” she said. “I didn’t even know I had a facility for it.”
As a young girl, she focused on music: playing trumpet and saxophone for the high school band and conducting her Fort Hamilton High School graduation in Brooklyn with a rousing rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
“I’ve been in the bleeding edge of those kinds of issues,” she said. “In those days, girls didn’t conduct.”
A life-changing moment came in her 20s, when a friend gave her a coffee table book of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings.
“I opened it up and turned the pages and wept,” she recalled. “It was completely transforming. I could only look at 10 pictures a day, it was so overwhelming.”
From that moment, Ahern knew she must study art and, then a resident of Queens, attended Queens College.
Although she was influenced by O’Keeffe and painted similar subjects, such as close-up and sensual florals, Ahern said she did not mimic her idol’s technique. Whereas O’Keeffe painted with direct and rapid strokes, Ahern’s traditional paintings were created in grisaille, or gray scale, and layered with washes of pigment on top, giving the subjects a glow through the optical blending of glazes of pigment.
After divorcing her first husband, Ahern took a job at Barnard College’s career counseling office, where she herself was able to get some career guidance. Through her Barnard position, she attended Columbia University for free by working there while raising sons, Chris and Michael, then ages 10 and 8.
“I knew if I couldn’t stay home and be a mom and paint, I had to make a decision: I’m going to make as much money as possible,” she said.
With profit in mind, Ahern went into technology sales, selling computer graphics and eventually becoming Northeast regional sales manager at Chyron Corporation in Melville. Then she started Online Design, a digital graphics company.
For Ahern, feminism was not a word to bandy about but, rather, her day-to-day reality – working as a single mother in a male-dominated industry.
“My single-minded focus on providing a good life for my sons enabled me to ignore the tremendous obstacles, prejudice, emotional assault and loneliness that comes from breaking through social barriers,” she said. “I, like my father, pulled myself up by my bootstraps. As a woman in a male industry however, I, like Ginger Rogers, did everything in high heels and backwards.”
In 1989, Ahern fulfilled her dream of buying a house with a spacious garden in Northport, which she said, “was like a step back in time to a slower and more gracious lifestyle.”
“The center of town with a Main Street embedded with trolley tracks leading to the harbor breezes and music in the gazebo captured my attention and insisted upon my attendance. I needed to move here.”
Eleven years later, she renovated her home, adding an airy, second floor art studio, and now natural light trickles throughout.
The garden, which Ahern designed, encircles the house, with its artfully designated focal points and meandering paths, everything flowing gracefully.
“I practice nonviolent gardening – no rose bushes to stab you – all soft inviting plants,” she said.
Seventeen years after her first marriage ended, Ahern married David Ruedeman, an engineer at Chyron. The couple worked together there but got to know one another only when he became a client of Online Design. This year will mark the couple’s 10th anniversary…
Early on in the second marriage, wishing to reinvent herself, Ahern got a degree in horticulture from SUNY Farmingdale in 2000, with the idea of becoming a landscape designer, which she did for a year. “It was too much for my … body,” she said, of the many hours spent working on bended knees.
From there, it was a two-year course studying botanical illustration at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.
Her (Mixed Media) painting, a culmination of expertise paralleling her life’s progressive journey, combines a passion for the fine arts, gardening, computer graphics and botanical painting.
“To be creative, you need to know your medium,” Ahern said of her computer graphics skills. Through her paintings, she seeks to make people look around them and become more aware of the nature surrounding us.
Dr. Roberta Koepfer, her friend since 1971, said, “She’s like a phoenix. I have seen her rise up from a fair number of devastating experiences. Every time she comes back, she comes back more dynamic, more focused on her art and with an increased zest for life and personal growth.”
When it came time to sell her art, Ahern’s business savvy came in handy; she started in Northport as an exhibitor at the annual Arts in the Park series (in 2004) and now participates in about 15 art shows in New York and Connecticut between May and September, with her husband lending a hand.
Ahern’s work has also been the focus of several gallery exhibitions, including a one-person show at Greenlawn’s Harborfields Library this past February.
Susan Hope, gallery coordinator for the library, noted that Ahern’s exhibit was well timed: her cheerful florals brightened the gloom of winter. “It has an eye catching appeal,” she said. “People really enjoyed it, whether they were art savvy or just seniors on their way to their meetings.”
Today, Ahern is either painting her botanicals, selling them or lecturing on the business of art at libraries or schools, although her business persona has changed radically over the years. “I did trade shows in high heels and silk suits,” she said, “now I’m doing business in Birkenstocks and shorts.”
To anyone seeking career guidance, Ahern advised, “Don’t throw away anything you’ve done because you want to transform yourself. Take the good portions, the positive elements and try to incorporate them into this new self you’re creating. That’s how I’m living my life.”