Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Have I considered Right Action enough,
have I come to any conclusion?
Have I experienced happiness with
Have I endured loneliness with grace?
I say this, or perhaps I’m just thinking it.
Actually, I probably think too much.
Then I step out into the garden,
where the gardener, who is said to be a
is tending his children, the roses.By Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings
Poetry and plants… Can you think of a better combo?
During lockdown, I have become like the gardener in Oliver’s poem, content with simplicity. In a way, I’ve recovered a lost part of myself this past spring, buried beneath years of stress and ambition.
I have lived in the same house for nearly 19 years. Two of my four children were born here. When we moved to West Cork from New Mexico, our housing estate was new. There was a sprawling lawn and plenty of space for the imagination. That was it.
I spent much of my time outdoors planting and dreaming. I took great pleasure in creating a herb garden; we brewed tea from the chamomile flowers, made ice-cream with the mint leaves, and flavored food with the rosemary, thyme, and oregano. The flowers were my favorite: a colorful feast for the eyes, or “food for the soul” a friend once claimed.
Not all of my memories are joyful. This garden has also been watered with tears. When I was 27, not long after my second son’s birth, a close childhood friend of mine took her own life. We’d lived together in college and maintained a friendship afterwards, even when I moved thousands of miles away.
Her death came as a tremendous shock. I blamed myself. It was difficult to accept the news, especially because I couldn’t attend the funeral. The following summer I traveled back home to the states and visited her parents. They still lived in my mom’s neighborhood. It seemed as if they’d become smaller, shrunken by grief and a premature old age.
That July I made the decision to cut off my hair, symbolically letting go of my dear friend. At the time I had long dreadlocks which reached the middle of my back. I put them in a plastic bag, packed them in a suitcase, and carried them across the Atlantic Ocean. Later I buried them in my backyard. I had no other way, no language to express that particular loss. I planted a hedge, hair and roots mingling with the soil. The Escallonia grew… creating a boundary between myself and the world that lay beyond.
My first husband did not share my interest in gardening. Cutting the grass was enough for him. He didn’t care about seeing things grow. Once our third child came along, I had my hands full indoors. Homework, extracurricular activities, school committees and PTA meetings, meals and other aspects of childcare consumed all of my time. I let the garden go.
Once we separated, the financial strain of being a single parent weighed on my shoulders. Meeting mortgage repayments was near impossible during the Great Recession. It was a struggle to make ends meet, and for many years we couldn’t afford anything extra. Court cases, counselling, and worry dominated those years. My garden grew wild with neglect.
It has been over 5 years since my first husband passed away, and nearly 11 since we separated. The process of transforming pain into something else has been grueling. Back then I could not have envisioned the life I’m living now. I refused to give up hope though, even on the darkest days.
A few weeks ago I spent a day clearing brambles. My arms and legs hurt as the thorns scraped my skin, and my hands bled even though I wore gloves. Still, it was strangely satisfying to beat back the tenacious plant, clearing the ground for something new. I experienced an emotional release of sorts. It was as if residual energy from the past was also cleared.
I was happy to uncover a blueberry bush in need of care. Many of the plants that once lived in that part of the garden are gone now. I was surprised to see a lily I once loved still beneath the butterfly bush. I’m especially fond of the plants which have survived the years of hardship and neglect.
That same day my partner began to build the rockery for an herb garden. (The herbs of the past did not survive the Great Neglect). There was a big drop from the patio to the ground since my house is on a hill. Christy had thrown a lot of weeds into a large pile. He then covered it with cardboard. He’d been saving rocks from his digger work for quite a while. He used these to create a spiral. We used quality soil mixed with well rotted manure on top of the cardboard. Then we planted sage, strawberries, chives, mint, thyme, parsely, alongside a hosta and a few flowers (rock cress, campanula, and violas).
It’s been nearly 3 weeks since he completed the rockery and we planted it up. It will take time for everything to grow and spread out. Slugs have been slightly problematic but the plants are still establishing themselves. I’m looking forward to watching this area develop.
The raised beds of vegetables have struggled a little with this unusual drought. The spinach has already started to bolt and the kale went to seed. There’s a hose ban in Ireland so we have to use water sparingly. It rained once last week which was fantastic! The ground still didn’t get wet enough though. Still, it made for easier weeding. Christy created a lazy bed for the butternut squash, courgettes (zucchini), and pumpkins. The soil is actually subsoil so it’s atrocious for growing anything. The builders took the topsoil all those years ago, leaving behind rocky clay. We’ve had to add a lot of nutrient rich composted manure.
Another challenge has been the amount of weeding necessary. The soil used was full of seeds from brambles, stinging nettles, dock leaves, buttercups, and more. I was unfamiliar with one of the weeds (or wildflower, depending on your perspective), which was later identified as wood spurge. Apparently the sap is highly toxic and is a severe eye irritant. Who would have known?
In addition to clearing brambles, we extended the flower border in that section of the garden. I’ve planted perennials such as lupins, sweet william, geraniums, and society garlic. I absolutely love cottage gardens and the sorts of flowers you find growing in them.
Last weekend my partner decided to tackle another project. Rather than paint the ugly wall, he decided to construct a wood fence to cover it. He mills his own wood for projects and is a carpenter of sorts. Once he got going, he was inspired to create another bed in front of the fence. He thinks it’s for tomatoes… but it’s clearly destined for more flowers. We’ve agreed to compromise and plant both.
We finally got around to planting seeds. Some were collected last autumn, others were bought recently or stored from previous years. There are Hollyhocks, Morning Glories, Sweet Peas, Nasturtium, Snapdragons, and Sunflowers. Blessing had fun helping me with the planting. Yesterday I found a few Cosmos seeds in the shed which I also want to cultivate.
We also have a new fire pit, suitable for mini bonfires to keep us warm on chilly evenings. As you can see, we’ve been making the most of quarantine time! I didn’t manage to complete all of the craft projects I had planned, but I’ve enjoyed being creative outdoors. When the sun shines I can’t bear to be inside, especially since warm, sunny weather isn’t the norm here. The beautiful spring has helped us all cope with the anxiety of Coivid19.
I feel truly blessed to co-create a new reality with my partner. This garden has taught me about renewal and hope. It’s never too late to start again. With a little attention and care, old wounds can be healed. The love you give will be returned tenfold. For this I am very grateful.
What has brought you joy during this unprecedented period of global unrest? I’d love to hear about what has inspired you these last few months in the comments section.