My Enchanted Garden
My Grandmother Clark—Nana—received her rose catalogs in the late winter, their scented pages filled with color photographs of glorious blooming roses with intriguing names: Fragrant Cloud, Tropicana, Queen Elizabeth, Mister Lincoln. I’d curl up on the couch in my grandparents’ cozy, paneled family room, taking in the rose-scented pages. Was it the colorful photographs that inspired me or those unforgettable names? Each rose had its own character, its own story—or so my ten-year-old-self imagined then.
Is this where my association between inventing stories and gardening began? Is this why gardening is such an essential part of my writing life?
A Walled Garden
In The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, Laura Miller writes that “Gardens speak to people” with a “solitary temperament.” She adds that walled gardens are especially evocative, places where the natural world is structured, self-contained, and arranged with intention. Like stories, these gardens have shape, structure, and character. They intensify meaning.1
My garden isn’t exactly walled—like the garden Mary Lennox discovers in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. But it is surrounded on three sides by a dense, tall laurel hedge; the house forms my garden’s fourth wall. So like Mary’s iconic secret garden, mine grants privacy and solitude all year long. A green wrought iron gate, its design inspired by one at Beatrix Potter’s Hilltop Farm, provides entry.
Inside: a slate patio punctuated by big terracotta pots; an upper terrace of boxwoods, lavender, lilies, dahlias, and roses—Golden Celebration, Tiffany, Big Purple, Othello, Ebbtide, Just Joey, and Tropicana (for Nana). An unidentified climbing rose, a gift from a friend, shelters against the warmth of a stone wall. Below: an imperfect stretch of lawn where dogs chase each other, splash in the wading pool, or (alas) dig holes. A new boxwood parterre fills one corner; two raised vegetable garden beds nestle between the garage and the garden shed. Hydrangeas, lilacs, asters, a Hot Cocoa rose, and four o’clocks (descendants from my first gardening experiment in South Dakota forty years ago) provide summer color.
The garden hasn’t always looked this way. When my late husband and I moved into this house almost twenty-eight years ago, a sagging, fifty-year-old stone wall divided the upper and lower terraces. Piles of dirt and remodeling debris littered the lower terrace; English ivy and Welsh poppy threatened to strangle a single rosebush in the upper terrace: “Jackson & Perkins Sundowner,” the label said. A big wooden deck stretched across the length of the house, and the north and south property lines opened to our neighbors’ yards.
Still, the space had good bones. A giant holly, shaped like a Christmas tree, towered over the lower terrace. An old Gravenstein apple tree sheltered a weathered birdbath, both probably relics of the original owner’s vision for the garden back in 1940. A giant white lilac, probably also original to the garden, and a graceful mountain ash made the yard feel enchanted.
My husband and I went to work. Season after season. Year after year. A few of our ideas endured—planting laurel hedges along the north and south fence lines; building a garden shed; laying stone and brick pathways in the back garden and front yard; rebuilding the retaining wall supporting the upper terrace; planting rhubarb in one of the raised garden beds; filling in a troublesome area behind the garage with hydrangeas and building another retaining wall to keep them in place.
He surprised me with a vintage 1940s garden sculpture of Pan, purchased at a neighborhood garage sale. Pan went into the upper terrace border, under the mountain ash. The year before his cancer diagnosis, my husband created a special bed in the lower terrace for that Hot Cocoa rose. It’s still in place, magnificent, showy, fragrant.
Maybe in Forty-Six Years…
On my forty-sixth birthday, my husband gave me a card with a photograph of a beautiful garden—hydrangeas framed by a trellis with roses and boxwoods in the distance. “Maybe in the next 46 years,” he wrote inside, “the backyard will look like this.”
He died five years later. So did the mountain ash and the towering holly tree. The wooden deck rotted. The old birdbath leaked. As I began to research and write Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, I also began to redesign the garden. Both projects evolved simultaneously. Writing and gardening…. They helped me endure the inevitable grief and loneliness. Like Mary in The Secret Garden, after hours of work I found that I “had been actually happy all the time.”2
Slowly my garden began to look more and more like the photograph on that birthday card. Hydrangeas. Boxwoods. Roses. Even the anemic Sundowner rose began to thrive.
But as I worked on Pioneer Girl from 2010 until 2014, and then with three years of subsequent travel with the book, my garden suffered. I didn’t have time to look after it properly. Blackberry brambles invaded. The Welsh poppies and English ivy staged a comeback and threatened to overtake the upper terrace. It was all I could do to deadhead the roses, as Nana had taught me, and water during a string of unusually hot, dry Oregon summers.
A Soft, Early Spring
Then suddenly in January 2018, my Pioneer Girl travel stopped. I had time to write again, and finished a new young adult novel, a project that Pioneer Girl had delayed for almost eight years. And then—a soft, early spring. I had time to garden too—time to weed and feed the roses, plant the pots and garden boxes, cut back the blackberry brambles. I consciously took a break from writing—or so I told myself.
While I weeded and planted, fertilized and watered, however, I also wrote. Not on paper, of course. At least, not initially. But in my head, I outlined plans for two new novels, visualized their characters, created their distinct voices, and rehearsed their dialogue—sometimes out loud. Thank goodness my walls of laurel hedge muffle sound.
As the spring deepened, and I continued to work, as my garden began to look exceptionally lush and even beautiful, I realized that gardening is an essential part of my writing process, that it unlocks my unconscious, and frees me to think in new and creative ways. Then too, at the end of the day, I can now sit outside and think or read or simply take in what C.S. Lewis once called “a storehouse of forms and colors.”3
It’s early evening. I’ll soon go out to the garden to harvest peas and pick a bouquet of Othello and Tiffany roses. The mountain ash has been replaced by a katsura tree, but Pan still plays his pipes where my husband placed him. The boxwood parterre has replaced the holly tree and new life flourishes there. It’s home now to a pair of stellar jays, who nest somewhere in the tall boxwoods. Unlike a story, however, my garden doesn’t have a definite ending. It evolves with new characters and plot lines. A kind of never-ending story. Isn’t that the best kind?
1. Laura Miller, The Magician’s Notebook: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (New York: Little Brown, 2008). P. 42.
2. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (New York: Dell Publishing, 1984), p. 80.
3. C.S. Lewis in The Magician’s Notebook, p. 42.