The Spiritual Gardener: Ah, Beauty

"They were a beautiful pale white, with a shade of almost bluish gray to them that makes them a fresh and cool foil to other irises, particularly all the classic blues and purples."

I have been dividing irises like mad in the garden, because September is the great time for this chore, although they will tolerate it any time, even in winter if you must. I am crazy about irises, I might as well admit it. I love them for their vivid colors in all the hues of the rainbow, which is what their name means in Greek. I love how gorgeous they look in flower, like orchids, but only more so. I admire them for their rugged heartiness and their drought tolerance, something unusual in a plant that is so beautiful and delicate. They are easy to grow, and they repay the effort with absurdly generous dividends, just the thing for a very young gardener.

My first irises were given to me as a boy, for helping to weed out and then divide a large established iris bed planted by our neighbor where I grew up. His name was Bob Jennings, a tall man of few words, who looked to me like a cross between Gary Cooper and Noel Coward, if you can imagine such a hybrid. He was a highly intelligent engineer and was a truly gifted gardener, having created an amazing oasis in a harsh, high and dry climate where we lived. He was a high-ranking civil servant in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that made our western deserts bloom.

Everything about Mr. Jenning’s yard and garden was a marvel, and he worked in it whenever he could, from the first to the last daylight. As he got older, however, the tedious chores like weeding and dividing choked and overgrown irises fell to me, and I was well compensated. I believe I received $.50 an hour for backbreaking work like that in the Colorado heat.

But I also got many of his cast-off plants for my own little garden and irises were luckily among the first plants I received. I must have been about twelve-years-old at the time, perhaps thirteen, and I was in love with them. They were a beautiful pale white, with a shade of almost bluish gray to them that makes them a fresh and cool foil to other irises, particularly all the classic blues and purples.  I think in retrospect they may have been the iris known as purissima, but sometimes to me they look like they have a bit more of a pale gray tone in them than the dazzling purissima.

I grew these in my garden for many years; then eventually, as kids do, I left home to go to college, studied law overseas, then began working in Washington, D.C.  Meanwhile, the backyard of my childhood home went through many changes, and my little garden was wiped out in a landscaping reform my mother implemented — turning the back yard into a large, grassy park-like area dotted with trees, that she called “Waverly”.  It was beautiful in its way, though rather idiosyncratic like most garden designs, and to my horror, my small garden disappeared in the general change over. In the middle of this park was a long kennel area and dog run for a pair of schnauzers my parents then had.

Many years later, while still living in the Washington area, I was thinking about those Jennings irises of long ago and longing for this flower. Bob Jennings had died in the interim and his widow had sold their beautiful house. Their miraculous garden was gradually neglected and dismantled by the new owners who had no appreciation for it; they thought it was too much work, which it certainly was.

So out went the magnificent rose garden with dozens of gorgeous mature plants, and with its ingenious irrigation system designed by the gardener himself. Out went the prolific strawberry beds, out went the sprawling tulip planters – one large area held nothing but hundreds of pink tulips under the deep russet of a fat berberis hedge – and out came the dark, prickly berberis themselves, eventually. The amazingly productive orchard died from studied neglect, tree by tree, and it was painful to see. The marvelous garden simply ceased to exist.

And that is that; gardens are necessarily ephemeral. They are different even from day to day, in subtle ways, as every attentive gardener knows, and certainly month to month and season by season.  They are wildly different from year to year, even under the care of the same gardener; the gardener is changing too, of course, and so are his tastes and skills and interests in the garden.

The fact that the garden designer has to operate in four dimensions and include change over time in his design is the very thing that makes gardening so extremely complex and challenging as an art. Youth and vigor are ephemeral, and so is happiness (and for that matter, sadness too, in case you never noticed). And so too is the gardener himself who, if he is wise, knows he is not trying to create in his garden a durable masterpiece or even something that will look familiar ten years after he has left it.  The certainty of the transitory nature of all things is one way wisdom begins in the garden.

And so one day, musing on these things, I was walking around in the backyard of my boyhood home, when I noticed a single, slim blade of an iris leaf that had woven itself into the wire fencing of the dogs’ old kennel, and that location had protected it from being cut down by the repeated mowing of the grassy park over the years. Eureka! I carefully dug it out, wrapped it up elaborately and took it back to my small garden in Northern Virginia. This single small survivor flourished and eventually flowered, and I cannot express the joy I felt when I saw that this was indeed one of the old Jennings irises, the only one to survive from that old time, a pale white one with the characteristic a blue-gray undertones.

All of my other irises had long since failed, all of its peers in the Jennings garden had perished, and even the original gardener himself was long gone. Only this single bloom remained, true to its nature and striving to fulfill its destiny in difficult circumstances, as we all are.  From it grew many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jennings irises, over the years, in my devoted care. I have divided them and moved them with me to every garden I have since tended. I have given them to many friends and strangers. At our former garden in Colorado, we had a huge patch of them and they were magnificent in bloom, perhaps a thousand at a time. I have a picture of that iris bed on my desk, as I write this as a much older man, in stupendous bloom. The bed of irises is in stupendous bloom, that is, not the man so much.  Plants come and go, the garden changes, gardeners themselves come and go, and the great and lovely cavalcade of life rolls amazingly on.

Ah, beauty.

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David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at www.TheGardenInterior.com. You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.