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Opinion | Leila Philip

Hope, beauty, and disappointment in the home garden

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OUTSIDE IT IS NOT quite spring, that season of thaw and stillness, our dirt road scarred with ruts and ice, a biting wind, the trees swaying in unison like giant metronomes. But finally it has arrived, my favorite seed catalogue, the one I’ve been waiting for all winter. Here at my desk, as I turn the first pages, summer begins.

Chard and early spinach, arugula with the milder leaves, cilantro and cutting lettuces, herbs, and French marigolds for their color and the pungent cinnamon mint of their leaves, State Farm Zinnias, to pop up among the garlic in bursts of orange, yellow, pink, and that heart-stopping red. Now I see the heirloom tomatoes. I savor the gorgeous weight of their names, each a story: Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, and Rose de Bernee. Then I look down at my growing list of seeds. This is ridiculous, this must stop. There is no way I can fit all these plants in my modest garden.

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I know the water limits of our well. But it’s too late for reason now. I pull out my guilty gardening pleasure — that full-color catalogue of flowers and shrubs hidden under my desk. Soon I’m staring at the pages of Dahlias. I am in love with their showy blooms: peach and yellow-pink, white and gold — flowers fat as mittens. Then the extravagant names: Rebecca’s World, Wizard of Oz, Bishop of Llandaff, Sunrise Explosion. I want them all. Is this my version of a midlife crisis — showy flowers that I don’t have time to tend and for which I don’t have enough water? Or just a way to briefly escape the larger darkness of our social and political landscape?

Why do you garden? I ask my friend, a professional gardener, a few days later. “It’s about hope and beauty, isn’t it?” she says, “and disappointment too.” She laughs, meaning that the color photographs in my flower magazine don’t take into account pests and weather and, more to the point, climate change.

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Climate instability in the form of extreme weather, caused by warmer overall temperature, has actually been affecting gardens and farming in the Northeast for some time. Ironically, unlike other parts of the United States that now experience extended drought, here in the Northeast we have begun to have patterns of rainfall in short, hard downpours that are followed by extended dry spells. Periods of hard rainfall result in flooding, and oversaturation of the soil, which leads to root disease and fungus, like the powdery mildew that wiped out my squash and cucumbers last summer, not to mention soil impaction. Periods of drought necessitate watering.

From Roman times on, the rural in the form of an agricultural landscape was considered a necessary escape from urban problems. On an even more basic level, the garden of the Bible is that place of divinity. Anyone who has even planted one seed knows that it is always an act of faith. A farmer’s daughter, I grew up with an attitude toward the land located in harnessing its potential as resource, but my parents also had a deep love of nature beyond its practical ability to feed us. They kept large areas of meadow in the orchards unmowed so that by late July these fields spread out in a gorgeous abandon of wildflowers, creating nesting areas for birds. For my parents, the farm was never an area for absolute control but a place where the domestic and the wild meet, and I try to practice this in my own garden by avoiding pesticides and using hardy native plants. But gardening in a time of climate change brings new challenges. How much do I need to worry about water here in the Northeast? How much should I be adjusting my planting habits?

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Adapting to change is never easy. I don’t yet love the ornamental grasses and coneflowers that I put in to replace the perennials that needed more water than we could provide. But once we begin to change, there are unexpected surprises.

Last August, coffee in hand, I stood outside looking at my new “prairie” when a swoop and flutter of orange and black landed in the center of a purple coneflower. I could barely believe my eyes — before me was a Monarch butterfly, resting like a jeweled hinge, its wings slightly pulsing as it fed. A creature that had flown hundreds of miles on those impossibly fragile wings, borne on air currents, most surely buffeted by storms and rain, had miraculously migrated here to sit on a flower in my yard. The wonder of it took my breath away. Let the summer’s light come. I can’t wait.


Leila Philip is a professor in the English department at the College of the Holy Cross. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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