I am a gardener. I am self-taught, I am impatient, I am headstrong (I don’t winter over my dahlias after the “dreadful, moldy, dead tuber alien pods of 2012” episode). I am also blowsy, floppy, scented, undisciplined…and I like right angles. All of this to say that I am both my mother’s gardener and my father’s. My father planted the same thing each year in Zen-like rows along a Hockney-blue swimming pool: disciplined, clean, orderly—pleasing in the spareness. My mother planted too many zinnias, dahlias, cosmos and Shasta daisies so that just beyond Dad’s meditative garden, colorful cheery chaos exploded. I’ve already confessed to inheriting my mother’s nocturnal, neighborly pruning habit in The Constant Gardener. I’ve shared the story of my father’s outsized joy at the cherry tomatoes, spotty beans and wonky, pasty peaches he harvested one summer before the deer and birds got to them: “The crops are in,” he crowed holding three tomatoes and a basil leaf. I’ve made it clear that, tempted as I am, I will not use a pesticide in my garden in Not So Silent Spring… I will, however spray soapy water all over those damn earwigs. Now, with spring upon me, it is time for my dreamy plans to take shape in the salty, windy, chilly reality of my Cape Cod garden.
Here’s what will happen (it’s already happening…): I will start getting seed and plant catalogs. I will begin stockpiling them as if I was a survivalist and the catalogs were canned goods. I will knock over the squirreled away catalog tower next to my bed several times in the middle of the night on my way to pee. I will fold down so many corners you’d swear I was an origami-ist. Then I will plant my usual seeds and seedlings, in the places I always plant those seeds and seedlings. Why, you ask? Why be so hide-bound and unadventurous. I guess it’s because I am, in fact, pretty set in my ways. It’s kind of like that song from The Fantastiks; “Plant a carrot, get a carrot not a Brussels sprout…” Or in my case, plant a sweet pea get a sweet pea not a marigold—those are always planted around the tomatoes and basil. The carrots are next to the radishes, which march along nicely next to the arugula. The peonies and shrub roses (I’ve just ordered seven new highly-scented English roses—one is called Shropshire Lad!) play together hugging the old barn and the climbing roses and clematis scale the shingled wall behind the raised dahlia bed. Oh! Those! Dahlias!
Dahlias are my kryptonite. I am helpless before their steamy little bags of tubers and dirt promising giant blossoms in eye-popping pinks, purples, peaches and reds. I’m not much for the white or yellow ones, but if pressed…step away from the display, Ellen. I have never met a dinner plate dahlia I didn’t at least tolerate. There they are, flowers as big as a child’s-head, calling to me from the—misleading–photographs on the packaging. There they are, Otto’s Thrill so deeply pink it could be an exploding star, and Cafe au Lait, creamy, peachy, delicious and impossible in it’s perfectly spiraling petals. I’ll just grab one bag, or maybe two I tell myself as I start to pile them into my arms until I give up and grab an empty basket and fill it.
This is spring, then. The ever hopeful, overenthusiastic practice of putting bits and bobs into the ground and expecting the miracle of growth. And this is creating, isn’t it? Come with me while I stretch this metaphor to the breaking point. So, we look through our colorful catalogs. In my case for both The Sparrow Sisters and the new book, The Forbidden Garden I began with an idea of a story and then I began to think through the flowers and herbs I knew. In my case the ones my mother and father planted years ago and the ones I have nurturing for the last ten. Once you know what you know, you realize how very little you know at all! So library, magazines, gardening sites down the cheeriest of Internet rabbit holes and finally, books on the history of medicinal plants, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets and a few just a little wack-a-doo websites about witches and fairies, ghosts and myths. Such fun I had!
Only after I’ve chosen seeds and prepared the soil can I set loose the gardeners who will tend them. Sorrel and Nettie and Patience Sparrow, all smudged with dirt, armed with trowels and twine, clippers and cuttings, mortars and pestles. And set them loose I do. I start every writing day with “Once Upon a Time” because those words draw me into the story as if it is a fairy tale waiting to be told. So, there go the Sisters and here comes the town, the Wiltshire countryside, the boys who love the girls and the darkness that must come right along with the light. There will be failures in the writing, the telling and the story but, just like in my garden I am afraid that I am a bit headstrong and simply rip out the weeds and the duds and plant something else.
It is spring, or nearly so and I am ready. Come along, then, let me tell you a story…