Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Pocket of Joy

Life is a series of challenges interspersed with pockets of joy, one of which I was blessed to experience on a recent March weekend. Thanks to the intervention of our mutual friends Barbara and Les Seigman, very accomplished gardeners in their own right, Ron and I, along with our neighbor and friend, Jane, found ourselves invited to spend the day with them and Pamela Harper. Mrs. Harper has been a major force in garden writing for many years, and is the designer, creator, and curator of one of the finest gardens it’s ever been my pleasure to visit. I have always loved Mrs. Harper’s writing, and our time together in her garden (and mine) that day convinced me more than ever that great garden writing requires a rare combination of intelligence, good humor, and, most of all, the knowledge and skill acquired only through many years of hands-on, trial-and-error, take-no-prisoners gardening. This is a woman who writes about gardening from first hand experience rather than relying solely on research (although I’m sure she’s done a prodigious amount of that as well); this is nowhere more evident than in the impeccably maintained and organized garden which has shaped her life and work for nearly 40 years. Mrs. Harper’s most recent book, Time Tested Plants: Thirty Years in a Four Season Garden, verbally and visually (she’s also an accomplished photographer) chronicles her efforts to transform two sandy acres in Seaford into what is surely one of the finest gardens in southeastern Virginia.

Thankfully, this progressive garden tour began in our own crowded, overgrown mess of a garden, woefully neglected for several years now due to the demands of work and family obligations. Our guests, being kind, polite people, struggled valiantly to find nice things to say, and no injuries were sustained as we picked our way cautiously along the uneven pathways which snake among the jumble of pots, hoses, and makeshift structures which litter our property. I should not have invited them to the house at all, except that I felt it was the polite thing to do; if I were not interested in having these people as friends deserving of full disclosure, we’d have met at a restaurant for lunch and had done with it. At any rate, they’ve seen “the jungle”, warts and all. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I do know all the rules of garden design, grooming, and maintenance, but knowing and doing are two different things. Good design, timely pruning, and weed-free borders will just have to wait until family situations change, or until I can retire.

After lunch (which I, since I like these folks, did not prepare), we drove to Seaford and began touring the amazing Harper garden. Seeing the garden itself would have been magical enough, but having a personal tour, complete with anecdotes and observations gleaned over years of loving labor, made this easily my favorite two hours of the year so far. I took my camera, but gave up trying to capture the effect of this paradise photographically. The sight of an ocean of Ipheon spreading under Magnolia stellata (which is pictured in Harper's book much better than I could ever photograph it), of Cyclamen hederifolium better than a foot in diameter each (issuing from corms which must easily be the size of dinner plates), and of the spectacular yellow Magnolia ‘Butterflies’, backlit and glowing in the diffuse light of a drizzly afternoon, are memories to carry somewhere other than on a computer hard drive. As we explored each of dozens of intricately designed and maintained island beds, Pam (as she’s known to her friends) kept up a running commentary and helped us to envision how the plantings would develop over the coming months.

It’s rare to meet someone so gifted in the use of plants and words; I realized later, on re-reading her last book, that many of the opinions and observations I’ve been making to anyone who’ll listen were Pam’s rather than mine. When I admitted this, by way of a clumsy compliment, her gracious response was that even Helen Keller had been accused of plagiarism for restating ideas internalized from the writings of others; I can’t, however, claim Miss Keller’s excuse for this behavior – only forgetfulness and a measure of attention deficit deficiency.
My reactions to the great gift of this tour have been mixed. Some hopelessness, I have to admit, that I will ever manage to get my garden under control enough to even deserve the name after seeing Pam’s; encouragement that I was able to keep up to some degree with her vast knowledge of horticulture and to identify a large percentage of the botanical treasures on display; the delight of receiving some choice plants I’ll treasure for many years to come; and, mostly, gratitude to these wonderful people for taking the time to spend the day with us and share the joy of their experiences as friends and gardeners. I was reminded of one of the great joys of my childhood and adolescence – long Sunday afternoons spent rambling through the woods of Southampton County with my grandmother as she identified and taught me to appreciate the indigenous flora and fauna. I can’t imagine a better way to spend one’s time.


Les, Zone 8a said...

You were indeed priviledged to experience such an opportunity.

Phillip said...

Thank you so much for telling me about this post. Awesome indeed! I have the HGTV gardening show, 'A Gardener's Diary' recorded on a dvd in which her garden was featured. I love her books, in addition to her great photographs and remarkable insight, I think she is a very witty writer as well. Do you get that impression as well?