“It is not given to every man, when his life’s work is over, to grow old in a garden he has made, to lose in the ocean roll of the seasons little eddies of pain and sickness and weariness, to watch year after year green surging tides of spring and summer break at his feet in a foam of woodland flowers, and the garden is like a faithful retainer growing grey in its master’s service.”
Sir George Sitwell, “On the Making of Gardens” , Robert R. Godine, Boston, MA, 2003, page 115.(first published in 1909)
I’m not sure if it’s me or my garden that is working to death in the “master’s service.” If it’s me, it’s not such a bad way to grow old. This past weekend, I spotted the shy white wisteria, as usual the last of my wisteria to bloom. It purposefully bloomed last to assuage the last of winter’s pain and weariness.
I find that the lavender purple Japanese wisteria (W. floribunda), twines clockwise. Not only that, but the blooms generally fill the leafless plant, and leaves emerge as flowers begin to fall. My Japanese wisteria is my flamboyant leading lady.
This year, my 25-year-old Japanese wisteria, in mostly northern shade, was finished blooming long before taxes were due. And again this year, by the time the white bloomed, the lavender purple’s blooms (and our meager refund) were spent.
The white, Chinese wisteria (W. sinensis ‘Alba’) blooms are usually shorter, and the leaves generally open with or before flowers bloom. It’s also true that Chinese wisteria twines clockwise.
In the younger Chinese wisteria’s white blossoms began to peak out from beneath new leaves (compound pinnate), lime green leaves just within the past week. My Chinese wisteria is my shy, upstaged understudy.
The 8-year-old adolescent white Chinese wisteria lives on the other side of the house, in mostly morning sun.
Observing their similarities and differences, I see other advantages of growing old in one’s garden. I love Sitwell’s lyric description of the grateful rewards and contentment gardeners reap in their gardens, as we mark our dwindling seasons with increasing poignancy and sentiment. Age somehow connects me more with the Victorian gardeners of 100 years ago, or with the Eastern cultures where age is revered. Watching and chronicling my wisteria also connects me to the garden traditions of Italy, so beloved of the Victorians.
Although somewhat different in scale from the gardens of Italy, I am working to cultivate in my own backyard, an atmosphere of benign neglect, where mossy greenness slowly softens edges, where the crumbling ruins are burnished by age…
“But for him who may live to see it, there shall be a wilder beauty than any he has planned. Nature, like a shy wood-nymph, shall steal softly back on summer nights to the silent domain, shading with tenderest pencillings of brown and grey the ripened stone, scattering wood-violets in the grassy alleys, and wreathing in vine and ivy the trellised arbour, painting with cloudy crusts of crumbly gold the long balustrades, inlaying the cornices with lines of emerald moss, planting little ferns within the fountain basin and tiny patches of green velvet upon the Sea-God’s shoulder.” (ibid)
Planting annuals for the colorful, visual, big bang your garden gets before the heat and the drought set in, is like living paycheck-to-paycheck. It's like having to do your banking today – on the first of the month. I don’t have to stand in line at the bank today. Instead, I can admire the parts of my garden that will survive me into the future. Today, I was able to admire the less lush but enduring parts of my garden. I invest today to reap better long term benefits tomorrow. My garden will, I hope, age well.
“As the years pass by and no rude hand disturbs the traces of her presence, Nature becomes more daring. Flower-spangled tapestries of woven tendrils fall from the terrace, strange fleecy mottlings of silver-grey and saffron and orange and greeny-gold make the wall a medley more beautiful than broidered hangings…” (ibid)
Good gardens should be nurtured to outlive their gardener. After nature recycles me, I like to think my ghost will return to gently haunt the wisteria vines in my yard.