The author with handmade gardening tools

I am happily surprised by the joy I derive from gardening. My father would have observed dryly, ‘I told you so’. Long ago, when I had my own yard, in suburbia, it felt like a burden—one more space that required my attention to maintain community standards and that distracted me from preferred activities. Amidst career-building and child-rearing, I resented the time yard care demanded. Of course, yard maintenance differs from gardening, but back then, I’m not sure I knew the difference.

Every May, as my young family prepared for our three- to four-month-long summer absence in Europe, my father would remark—at first encouragingly, later hopefully—’Perhaps next summer you’ll stay and plant a garden’. And every August, when my daughter and I visited my parents to celebrate her birthday, he’d repeat his heartfelt wish. Now I realize he’d have been thrilled to advise in a joint project with his daughter, since all the others except Scrabble evenings when I visited—walking in nature, sketching, playing tennis, helping in the garden—had fallen by the wayside. Still, there weren’t enough hours in the year, or so it seemed to me. Perhaps, if I’d lived in a place that I loved, his wish would have been realized.

Hanna was born, propitiously, at harvest time and delighted in seeing peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes in their varying sizes and stages of ripeness. She walked hand-in-hand with my father as he patiently explained (as I imagine he had done with me), how he planted seeds in the winter and nurtured them with warmth, light, and moisture, how he transferred them to the raised beds he’d prepared, spacing the seedlings just right (learning that different species have different requirements to thrive), and watching them grow during the summer months. She learned which vegetables to pick first, and which should be left for another meal. I imagine my father, a born pedagogue, treasuring this experience partly for the knowledge he imparted, partly for the transgenerational bond he forged. And it probably explains why I was growing beans hydroponically while in elementary school – on my initiative and not as part of a school project.

As an adult, I spent little time in my parents’ beautiful garden. My father devoted significant energy to planning flower beds so that perennials of varying heights and colors would blossom all summer long. It must have been magnificent! I didn’t experience his botanical creation since leaving home at 17. My father also wrote (he was very funny), drew, sculpted, and made things (notably a magnificent doll house based on a photo of a farmhouse near the Swedish village where my daughter’s paternal grandfather originated), but I never thought of his garden as an expression of creativity.

Until now. This is the second summer in a row that I’ve spend a long stretch in a garden that demanded care. Not in a doing-the-minimum-so-neighbors-won’t-complain kind of way, but rather like many enthusiastic little dependents doing their best on their own but you know they’d benefit from intervention. Like an adorable child with a runny nose or their shirt on backwards.

The garden was created by Jürgen, my adopted-by-mutual-consent-as-an-adult father. It’s a large and, to be honest, overplanted garden. Darwinian survivalism among its dwellers thrived during the several years before his death, when he finally permitted mowing assistance, during which time the rest fell into a state of benign semi-neglect. In the herb garden, parsley, chives, and mint encroached on one another’s territory, grass and vines ruptured the mortar holding stone steps together, thorny, invasive, climbing roses ventured into forbidden territory, enfeebling all in their wake.

Now that I’ve spent the months of May-August there, I now comprehend the exquisite planning involved in fashioning this raw plot of land initially graced by a few trees (walnut, winter linden, birch) into a seasonal garden of earthly delights – well, not all of them! Color harmonies, textures, heights, and perfumes transition smoothly from spot to spot with always something beautiful (and later delicious) to enjoy. As last summer, I’m spending many hours helping to bring back Jürgen’s garden (together with his grandson, who lives 200 km distant and is its principal caretaker) back to what I remember it once was.

If it’s a sunny day when I awake (and mostly it is), regardless of my good intentions to keep work-related promises written or intended, off I go into the garden; the grass feels so good on my bare feet! Then, a survey of the garden to see what most needs doing and a visit to the barn to select the required tools. I’d been lamenting the lack of modern ones – pitchforks with hand-forged tines and a handmade handle that ends in a T worn smooth by more than a century of use, and rakes, also hand made. Its tines consist of short dowels hammered into a flat board with small holes and held by friction. There’s a drawer with replacement tines. This implement works far better than the plastic versions we use nowadays. The curled ends of the tines on the one here had rubbed off leaving useless little stumps. But these old, museum quality objects worked extremely efficiently! Why did poorly manufactured rakes replace these sturdy veterans?

Sometimes, I’ll be sitting on the front or back terrace eating, reading, or working and then I look up and something in the yard catches my eye. That’s when my OCD surfaces. I keep it well under wraps, usually, although it does manifest when I see a crooked picture frame begging to be righted. When I’m surveying this garden where I have trimming rights, however, all bets are off, and I’m off like a suddenly triggered immune-resistant virus. I try to suppress the urge, but next thing I know, I’m traipsing to the barn to get shears, clippers, saws, spades, and the right thickness of gardening gloves for the task at hand.

As I work, Jügen’s intentions become visible. I remember him planting certain things and how he talked about their place in the garden and why he planted them there. Then, I notice the plants that don’t belong or that are encroaching inappropriately on others’ territory. And I get to work. Hours pass, mealtimes pass, night falls. I hardly notice. The moment I finish one task and admire my handiwork, another presents itself, pleading for attention. The gardening day ends when it’s too dark to see properly.

Did I accomplish what I intended? No. Did I enjoy every moment of my labor—cutting branches, pulling weeds, watching bees sleep in rose flowers, smelling the new mown hay, ignoring the insistent ‘end of workday’ bell-ringing from the village church—YES! And I also enjoy the beauty I help to maintain. The neglected garden reminded me of the Claes Oldenburg sculpture in Germany that a town didn’t property maintain, which caused the artist to disown the work. But now, the garden again looks like Jürgen’s creation, the place where he, his grandson, and I have enjoyed so many happy hours. And I have so much fun working in it!

By michellefacos

I am a multi-lingual art historian, consultant (art, travel, writing), editor, entrepreneur, lecturer, and writer who has lived along the shores of the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and Lake Erie, in New York and in Paris, and in the forests of Quebec and Sweden. While I’ve lived a semi-nomadic existence for the past few decades, I’m inching toward a life anchored in Europe.

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