Lessons from a mid-summer garden

The roses were in bloom in the Public Garden in June.
David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file
The roses were in bloom in the Public Garden in June.

The Deptford Pinks are blooming in the lawn, their five jagged petals a clue that they are in the carnation family. Their clusters of sword-like leaves look a lot like crabgrass unless you notice the tiny buds. The oregano has bolted in the heat, making the leaves bitter but sending up spikes of foamy white flowers. In another, more formal garden, these plants would be considered weedy or invasive, fit for the compost heap. But in my blowsy summer yard, weeds are just a social construct. The genetic differences between the wildflower pinks and the cultivated Dianthus for sale at the garden center are vanishingly small; only our attitudes create a divide.

This is one of the many insights I’ve received this year from the garden, my favorite spot for revelation. The slow, repetitive movements of snipping, digging, and mulching give rise to such reflection, as the mind settles down and makes way for new ideas. By mid-summer I have assembled a catalog of observations. Here are a few more:

Every living thing can be redeemed. Our bumper crop of bunnies this May nibbled the Echinacea down to a nub, and I hacked the lavender back by two-thirds, removing chunks of dead, woody stems that were still redolent with a dreamy scent. I thought both plants were goners, but the Echinacea fought back and even spread to new areas, and the lavender is better than ever, the long graceful spikes yearning toward the sun. A few yellow Rudbekia or bright pink Cosmos can be counted on to self-seed where no one intended them to bloom, making the most carefully diagrammed plot look like clown’s pants. A garden is unpredictable, unruly; we cannot control it. That is precisely its charm.


Not even perennials are permanent. It’s a bad year for mophead hydrangeas, a classic New England shrub, thanks to our polar vortex last winter. The thyme and tarragon I can usually gentle over with a judicious application of mulch also fell victim to the hard winter. And where are the bee balms of yesteryear? On the other hand, it’s been a great year for lilacs, irises, and the aforementioned bunnies. Years with a heavy snow cover are bad for hawks but good for mice. Which means it should be a good year for cats.

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Thinking about such seasonal vagaries, I am reminded of the familiar fable about the farmer whose prize horse runs away. “This is terrible!” says his son. The father shrugs. “We’ll see,” he replies. Some weeks later the horse comes back, bringing with it two beautiful wild horses. “This is wonderful!” says the son. “We’ll see,” says the father. The son rides one of the beautiful wild horses, falls off, and badly breaks his leg. “This is horrible!” wails the son. “We’ll see,” says the father. The next day the king’s army arrives, recruiting every able-bodied young man for war. The injured son is spared.

We’ll see. That’s the only attitude to take when it comes to the cycles of the natural world. When the hydrangea doesn’t bloom, we tend to take it personally. But it isn’t about us.

Nature isn’t good or bad. The hawk doesn’t kill the mouse out of malice — though I’m not so sure about the cat.

Sometimes all this garden wisdom seems contradictory. The caprice of weather — the droughts, blights, flash floods, and early frosts — reminds us that we can only have the present moment. You have to cherish every achy, sweaty morning on your knees in the dirt. And yet the very act of planting a perennial garden is a statement of hope in the future — the belief that we will be around next summer to smell the peppery garden phlox, the mind alive with possibility.


How do these truths reconcile? You can only tend to your plants today, but if you do it well, the present will take care of the future. This fall’s application of lime or aluminum sulfate is next year’s pink or blue hydrangea. Well, maybe. Growing things teaches us that conditions are always changing. Like a moving river or a perfect August day, we are never in the same garden twice.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.