The Gardener's Apprentice


For millennia gardens and gardening have been used as metaphors for life.  English author Edith Pargeter, who wrote under the name Ellis Peters, created a many-volume series from that metaphor when she wrote her Brother Cadfael mystery books.  Her sleuth/protagonist, Cadfael, tended his herb garden in the same intelligent, methodical and patient way that he ministered to the humans who needed his herbal medicines and solved the mysteries that arose at the twelfth century Benedictine monastery where he lived.

I thought about metaphors last week as I approached the overwhelming number of garden tasks that screamed at me from my beds and borders.  We have had a long, cool, rainy spring this year, interrupted by a disastrous—at least to the hydrangeas—late frost.  The abundance of moisture has been good for most of the plants and especially helpful to the chickweed, onion grass and other weeds that infest gardens at this time of year.  To be very fair, the ordinary violets that I love and lawn fanatics hate, also prospered due to the rainy weather.  Gardening is full of compensation.

But confronting a large garden that is awash in weeds and winter debris is not for faint hearted people.  My garden and lawn were also littered with hundreds of tiny maple seedlings from the tree in front of the house.  The maple, which is distinguished by its excellent fall color, is also distinguished by the fact that its seeds seem to have a 150 percent seed germination rate.  The deer, groundhogs, rabbits and other wildlife that pass through the yard every day may love my tulips and phlox, but they clearly dislike the maple seedlings.  Any satisfaction derived from bending down and pulling out five of those seedlings is immediately contradicted by the discovery of 20 more just out of sight and reach.  It will take me until the end of the summer to get them all out of the privet hedge.

“One bed at a time,” I said to myself as I fumbled for the garden tools and groped for the metaphor that would inspire me to tackle the first of a million urgent garden tasks.  Getting down on my knees and attacking the rampant chickweed in the upper back garden, I finally found one—the path.

I decided that the best way to start was to set a time limit on chickweed eradication and focus on one area, creating a weed-free path through the desirable plants.  I worked fast, with gloved fingers and the Japanese garden knife, yanking out the undesirables and freeing the good plants from chickweed strangulation.  At the end of 15 minutes, I had made my path and a little section of the upper back garden looked civilized once more.  Using that new path, I could get farther into the garden later in the day and make more headway.

Path creation led me to all kinds of discoveries.  While on my knees I found tiny Helleborus foetidus or stinking hellebore seedlings. I moved them gently to a place where they were  less likely to be trampled.  Weeding around a rosebush that I thought had been killed by the late frost and cold winds, I discovered that it was busily sprouting a new cane from a spot just above the bud graft.  This was a revelation, because I assumed that one of my next chores might be digging up the rose remains and flinging them into the composter.

Of course, I could have gone into that bed with my electric string trimmer and created the same path in about thirty noisy seconds.  My knees might have been happier, but I probably would have obliterated the hellebore babies, whacked the tops off the sprouting spiderworts and missed the regrowth on the old rose.  All of those things would have been a shame.  While pursuing the path metaphor with mechanical equipment, I would have deprived myself of the embedded sub-metaphors about taking a more leisurely route in this life, the better to find new growth and rebirth.

Having learned patience in the upper back garden, I did use the lawn mower to get the grass in the front yard to a desirable height and eliminate the forest of maple seedlings sprouting brazenly in the lawn.  I am not sure there is a life lesson in that single act, but my heart felt a bit less heavy when I considered my maple-free lawn.

Of course, using the mower allowed me the time and energy to confront the truth of the privet hedges, which is that some of the unplucked maple seedlings from last year have sprouted to a height of three feet or more.  I am going to have to get on my knees at the base of each hedge and risk scratches and bug bites by reaching in to clip those self-sown trees.  The job will almost certainly involve exploring some pretty dark spaces.  And that is another metaphor.