On Leaving a Garden Behind

Thoughts on Moving

My wife and I are preparing to move, and that has me thinking about the gardens I will leave behind.   Our new house is only six miles from where we currently live, but it feels like another world.  We are moving from a third-story flat in the shadow of the nation’s Capitol to a one story house with a yard across the river in Arlington, Virginia.  For the last seven years, my “gardens” have been my container garden on our third-story deck and the parsonage garden I designed and maintained for my church. 
Moving is bittersweet.  The pain of leaving behind a beloved neighborhood is muddled with my excitement about the new house.  I mourn leaving Capitol Hill and above all, I mourn leaving my garden.  How many hours did I spend envisioning that garden?  How many backbreaking ours did I spend with friends installing it?  How many hours did I spend watering, maintaining, and loving it?  Each hour you spend invests you deeper into the place.  Cultivation is just another word for commitment.  You think you are just pulling weeds, but what you are really doing is writing a love letter to a patch of dirt.   

 
"The Gates" by Christo & Jeanne Claude, 26 years
in the making, but lasted only 15 days.

Several years ago, I heard the artists Christo and Jeanne Claude lecture at a local museum.  The artists are known for their monumental installations such as wrapping the Reichstag in canvas, or installing 7,500 saffron-colored gates in Central Park.  Most of their projects take decades to execute.  They patiently sit through community meetings, get environmental permits, and fund the entire projects themselves.  Yet their projects last only a few weeks.  It’s heartbreaking.  Can you imagine making something for three decades, only to rip it out after three weeks?  But their art is designed to be ephemeral; its brief life is central to their work.  “All of our projects have this fragile quality,” says the late Jeanne Claude, “They will be gone tomorrow.  They have total freedom.  That is why they cannot stay.”
And it’s the same with gardens.  Last year, I waged a mad campaign to make the parsonage garden last.  Knowing that I could not maintain it forever, and knowing it would never get the love that I had given it, I had to do something to make it hold up without me.  So I ripped out all the high maintenance plants and replaced them with more drought tolerant species.  I transplanted shorter lifespan forbs with longer living grasses.  Beds that were interplanted were re-massed so that one species would not out compete the others.  I removed the most vigorous self-seeders.  I mulched.  I watered. 

The parsonage garden, summer 2010
Yet a few weeks of drought quickly highlighted the futility of this effort.  Within weeks, parts of the garden started to fall apart.  Even drought tolerant plants suffered without water.  Weeds went wild in one corner of the garden.  I spent hundreds of hours aimed at making the garden last for a decade, yet within weeks, all evidence of my work vanished. 
Gardens are monuments to our existence.  To garden is to mark the earth, to say “I was here.”  The impulse that drives gardeners is not so much an impulse to control or tame nature; instead, it is an impulse to control and tame time.  Moving shatters the illusion.  When we leave a garden, it reminds us that all gardens are just moments in time.  Gardeners are artists of the evanescent, experts of the ephemeral. 
At night, I lie in bed and in the darkness start planning my next garden.  Lawn must be dug up, compost hauled in, beds must be cut, and thousands of new plants must be added.  I have not spent a night on the property, yet already I can feel the dirt under my nails.  Already I know: I will fall for this one, too.  This place, too, will break my heart. 

For Melissa
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