The Spiritual Gardener: When Magic Happens in the Garden

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Sick of winter and the never-ending “polar vortex”? Yeah, me too. But we gardeners know there is magic in the garden and spring is only a few weeks away.

Another classic February morning: very cold, clear and bright, snow piled up everywhere, the air sharp and sparkling. We had yet another heavy snowfall earlier this week and it snowed hard all last night, so that by morning we had about a foot and a half of heavy, wet snow. Our dog Cosimo was as excited as a little boy when he looked out the back door and saw the winter wonderland. As for myself, I am trying to be upbeat and positive facing this unusually hard winter. My first chore was to beat the snow off all the terribly bent and freighted yews. And one 20-foot holly, which has put on at least half its length just since we have lived here, was bent literally double, with its top touching the ground, the poor thing.  The big yew that stands next to it had its very efficiently designed snow-catching needles and branches loaded with so much snow that they were all bent to the ground too.

In ancient times, it was on a byre of fragrant yew boughs that Queen Dido of Carthage was cremated in The Aeneid.  My own yews, I think, will not be called on to perform such a sad task. They should weather the snowfall in good order; the superb flexibility of their woody sinews is, of course, exactly why the ancient English used yew wood for their very deadly English longbows. They have, in fact, a long association with death in English literature and cultural tradition. They are the traditional tree of English graveyards, where they were thought to consume the bodies of the dead and give off poisonous exhalations into the night air.

In modern times, they have played a more affirmative and healthful role. Did you know this graceful and admirable tree cures cancer? Well, it does; I am not exaggerating here, you can look it up. The powerful chemotherapy drug taxol was isolated from the bark of the Pacific yew tree (taxus brevifolia). So next time you walk past a member of this benevolent family, please show it some love and respect.

After beating the snow off the heavily over-laden trees, I had to shovel a path on our long sidewalks on the two frontages of our corner property. Finally, I started digging out the driveway.

All this with a snow shovel, mind you, as I am far too cheap I am told by another member of the household (frugal, in my version) to spring for a snowblower and have nowhere to put it anyway. Each wet shovelful weighed about 25 pounds. Ugh. The elusive teenage boy we have somewhere about the place helped some too but, as teenagers this day are apt to do, he soon gave me the slip and resumed his deep and mysterious communion with the Xbox. Whatever that is. So, the old gardener did far too much of this heavy work himself.

When, by early afternoon, we were largely dug out, the old man (by which I mean me) had to come in, take a hot shower, then go to bed exhausted and sleep for an hour in the middle of the day … but what a great workout. Just inside our mudroom door, there hangs a small garden placard that someone gave us, that reads: “There Is Magic in The Dirt”.  And indeed there is, though it is hard to find the dirt under all this snow. There is magic in the snow on top of the dirt, too, I hope.

By the way, have you noticed that they just don’t make nostalgia like they used to?  Or, ‘Où est la nostalgie d’antan?’, as we always used to ask, rhetorically, in the old days. I was thinking of this while trapped indoors this afternoon; I was leafing through a garden book and was surprised to come upon a picture of a wonderful beast called a magic lily (zephyranthes grandiflora), which gave me quite a start.

Do you know this excellent flower?  It is related to the amaryllis, and like its relative has long stalks with extremely large and impressive blooms; and though it eventually produces the family-standard strap-like leaves, it often emerges from the ground just on its large stalk and opens its huge, magical bloom, hence the common name. I had not seen a picture of this creature ever, I think, and the only time I saw one in person was for me a truly magical moment. I was a boy, living in a small town in the West, and was just getting interested in gardening. I had a tiny garden I was tending, really just a child’s planting area, where I was mucking about with a few plants, nothing very sophisticated certainly.  And then one summer this enormous stalk emerges from the ground, bearing this tremendous bloom.

The magic lily looks very like the popular amaryllis, here in bold red; it has the same flaring trumpet flowers and tall bare stems.

To a child, nothing in the garden could be more impressive or surprising.  If you have ever noticed the surprise and delight children show when walking down a sidewalk and seeing a lovely, broad and colorful spread of crocuses for the first time – it was like that, only magnified for me many times. At the time, I was lost in amazement at this miracle.  Today, I wonder where  this exotic flower came from.  I mean, how was such a thing even possible?  It is not liked we lived in a city teeming with exotic gardens. In fact, we lived in a dry, rather barren area on the edge of a scrubby, wild geography, and a flower such as the zephyranthes grandiflora would not just show up out of the blue one day. Unless possibly it took a taxi. No one near us would have grown such an amazing thing.

Except, perhaps, our one neighbor, who was a very serious gardener indeed.

Later, I worked for him as his garden assistant and I came to know his garden very well, but I never saw these lilies in that garden. Had he grown them previously, and perhaps a chipmunk (we had no squirrels or other rodents to speak of who might have been considered, in a sort of line-up of rodent suspects) moved a bulb to my little garden? Unlikely. Or had the master gardener next door perhaps planted this on purpose to amaze and intrigue me, either to get me hooked on gardening or just because it amused him to think of my surprise when it bloomed? He never struck me later as capable of that kind of whimsy or sly humor, but I only knew him as a child, so it is impossible to be sure. Certainly the appearance of this exotic thing in such a wild and improbable locale is very hard to explain. I don’t really believe in magic, or leprechauns, or garden fairies either for that matter, but on the other hand, I have no explanation for this occurrence, which I consider most fantastically improbable.

                                 The delphiniums I so admire. These are not, I need hardly say, shown growing in my own garden, which for some reason the delphinium has never cared for.

Sometimes every gardener has the experience of the unplanned and the inexplicable, the downright mysterious.  I tried forever to grow delphiniums, for example, and finally gave up, bowing to the gardening law that says just because you want something very badly does not mean you can have it, so there.  Annoying, that.  My repeated attempts stemmed partly from the fact that I greatly admire these flowers, but mostly because they are the favorite flower of She Who Must Be Obeyed, and life runs much more smoothly, I find, if the local authorities are humored as much as possible.  Cravenly uxorious propitiation is what my daughter airily dismissed it as; she is studying for the SATs and I detect she is working on vocabulary words, as much as she might pretend otherwise.

In any event, long after I despaired of ever growing any delphiniums, several gorgeous ones appeared in my garden, volunteered from nowhere, or rather from seed brought by birds, as I suppose.  I studiously ignored them, pretending not to notice them as they grew and flourished, and they bloomed gorgeously, improbably just the vivid color of blue that I had always longed for. Then they finished and never returned again, and that was that.  It was as if it had never happened, but they were really there all right. I saw them, and they were spectacular. And I had nothing whatever to do with it, except to be their dumbstruck witness and their bungling, incompetent but grateful beneficiary.

How typically humbling, to think that one of my greatest and most delightful garden triumphs ever, owed nothing to me. And so life sometimes seems to bring us what we really need just when we really need it, and our role is the seemingly simple one of standing back and cooperating with this grace by letting it happen, and then being appropriately grateful for these small and possibly meaningful surprises.

Enjoy these last weeks of winter. Nothing lasts forever, you know.


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