Exile from the Garden




My wife and I recently bought and moved into our house.  It is a single story 1950’s rancher that does little to combat the idea that all post World War II architecture is crap.  The location is killer, and the house was incredibly priced.  After almost seven years of trying to get into the DC market, we made the plunge.  Of course, the house was incredibly priced precisely because it was so run down.  The previous owner had some issues with hoarding and an apparent aversion to maintenance.  The listing called the house “ignored not abused”—one of those euphemisms that only a realtor could spin.

Since we closed on the house in December, our lives have been absorbed by the enormity of the projects.  Every surface of every room needs to be replaced, re-covered, and re-done.   The bathrooms and kitchens must be scraped down to the studs and rebuilt.  The floors have to be refinished or replaced.  Every window, door, and heat register must be made new again.  It's not because we're perfectionists; the place was just nasty.  And because we dumped all of our savings on the down payment, we are doing the entire renovation ourselves.  Thanks to the epic kindness and patience of my father-in-law, who comes over almost every weekend to help us, we have been able to do things I never imagined doing myself.  But the scale of the project, combined with the care of a seven-month old baby, is overwhelming. 

We live in the midst of the construction.  The rituals of domesticity merge with our construction projects in confusing ways.  Our “kitchen table” is a piece of plywood set on two sawhorses.  The other day at dinner, I reached for my fork and picked up a wrench instead.   I brush my teeth and wash dishes in the same sink I clean my drywall knives and fill up the tile saw.   And I’m beginning to think of our Shop-Vac as our family pet (we call him Vacu-saurus, and he’s always at my side).


We buzz around the house like little bees, all the while the yard outside is ignored.  For years I have dreamt about a yard this size, all flat and sunny and full of possibility.  April brings the first few days of warm weather.  I long to be outside.  I look out the window at the overgrown yew hedges and imagine the shapes that I will carve them into.   A stare at the blank lawn next to the busy street and compose a shrub border in my mind.  Every few hours, I redesign the patch of lawn outside the kitchen where I want a perennial meadow.   At night, I flip through my library of garden inspiration images, mentally dismantling and constructing the garden over and over again. 

A wild garden? A pumpkin patch? A perennial garden? A shrub border? 
Every week that goes by, I miss precious preparation time for the garden.  I need to transplant several hollies, but that should have been done last month.  I am smothering several thousand square feet of lawn underneath cardboard, newspapers, and compost, but that should have been started in January, not March.  It’s becoming obvious: the garden will have to wait until next year. 

So I remain in exile from the garden.   But perhaps this exile is a blessing.  Some of the greatest works of art were produced while the artists were in exile: Dante produced the Divine Comedy while exiled in Rome; Ernest Hemingway his best work while in Paris; and Antonin Dvorak was a flurry of creativity during his three short years in the U.S.  Absence from the place where our hearts long to be sharpens and intensifies our understanding of that place.  Will this time away from the garden enrich my concept of it?

A year of thinking and no doing . . . can I stand it?  Of course, that is the fundamental tension of gardening: thinking and doing.  Thinking without doing is pure abstraction; doing without thinking is just yardwork.  A garden in its very nature resides somewhere between the two.  Being a garden designer makes that struggle even more acute for me. The garden is a mediated state between projected possibility (concept) and objective reality (site). Too strong a concept can obliterate the subtle details that make a site special.  But a strong site or context can swallow a timid concept.  The best gardens hold this tension throughout. 

Perhaps one year of exile is exactly the sentence required to turn a garden designer back into a gardener. 
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