The Spiritual Gardener: We Will Carry On As Always

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Do you remember that fun but far too dangerous game of “jarts” or lawn darts of summer, those missile-finned bomb things with metal points that you threw into the air to land hopefully in a target ring and not in the kid next door?

Well, they got banned for turning backyard fun into mayhem and pain, and I was reminded of that last weekend when a terrific gust of wind was blowing in front of a summer cloudburst.  It picked up our huge green garden umbrella and twirled it like a pinwheel toy, hurling it from the patio to the lawn, where it was smashed to pieces. We were so happy there were no injuries except to the umbrella. My wife and I had just walked out the back door and we witnessed the whole “Wizard of Oz” scene. On close inspection of the damage, I thought we might be able to glue the struts back together and sew up the canvas fabric of the tarp.

Other family advisers, not as frugal (cheap) as the gardener, strongly recommended instead that a trip to the garden center was indicated, to just buy another. So it goes, at our house. We can’t be expected to agree on everything, after all.

Like on the question of what is and is not a weed, for example.  There is a certain amount of marital strife at our house on this vexing question. One of us (the broad-minded and worldly one) likes to collect mullein seeds and seedlings and plant them in our garden for their beautiful leaves, tall sculptural spikes and their profusion of tiny yellow flowers.

But a certain other party thinks they just look like monstrous weeds and wants them removed immediately, if not sooner. I am pretty sure I can win this, but at what cost, I wonder? I shall try to stand fast, and pay the price, come what may.

In more conventional gardening, the beautiful canna lilies, which are definitely not weeds, are coming up all over the place and the young peach tree is now heavily freighted with small peaches for the first time, so much so that I had to put in supports for the overladen branches.

The hostas on the patio are having a strong year and are all flowering just now.  The perfect weather so far has advanced the blooming schedule so much that the autumn sedums are already sending up jolly bloom stalks. Good heavens, the gardens will be shutting down for the year before July 4, and a lot of the garden is already starting to look a bit leggy, green and shaggy already.

There was a break in the fine weather yesterday and late last night there was a furious rain shower; I lay in bed, listening to the mysterious, aqueous language of the downpour, like a Somerset Maugham character with a complicated secret, lying awake and alone one night out in Malaysia, a homesick English planter in the monsoonal tropics.

And it just wouldn’t be summer without the fat, dark and cool leaves of hostas.

My garden here in the Mid-Atlantic region now seems to be a two-stage garden.  The first stage is late spring, when there is a riot of roses, irises and peonies all going off at once, on top of a few remaining tulips, lilacs, columbines, lupines, azaleas and rhododendrons.  Then the garden goes into a relatively quiet phase, a sort of green respite that pivots on the solstice, and emerges from it into the second dramatic phase: daylilies, lysimachia, hydrangeas, lilies, foxgloves, cannas, dahlias, and so on.

We have our two large flags out, as we do every year from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and the patio has a strong central carpet of red and white impatiens, with blue petunias nearby in planters for a patriotic display, and darcaenas, whose spiky, shooting leaves and long arching flower stems are meant to provide the effect of fireworks.  I think it all looks fabulous, but I am sure it is completely lost on everyone else, a too characteristic experience of the gardener, as we all know.

Getting ready for the Fourth of July, with red and white impatiens and blue petunias, with dracaenas for the look of exploding fireworks.

The day lilies are in fine form this year, providing a strong river of yellow down the spine of the yard, looking like the Mekong River flowing through the dense verdure of Vietnam.  If you like yellow in the garden, or like Vietnam for that matter, you might think this is a fine effect.  Personally, I find it merely striking but am willing to settle for that.  We can’t have utter gorgeousness everywhere all the time, after all; it would be too tiresome.

In the oval bed, I moved some formerly very unhappy tiger lilies out of a shady area to that more sunny location, and two years later they are rioting there noisily, the wild, vulgar kind that grow happily in profusion on the roadsides of Virginia and Maryland, so guess I can’t expect much credit for their thriving.  I suppose I have to be happy about their successful relocation, but of course it means a lot of dreadful orange in a prominent place in the garden.  Orange is the only color less lovely in the garden than yellow in my opinion, but there you are, a gardener knows he can’t have everything and neither himself nor the things he grows is perfect.  Far from it, in fact, in the case of himself.

And having divided and moved all our daylilies a few times, I must say I finally have enough of them at last; while most gardeners are pretty famously greedy in their lust for ever more of everything they like, I find in my old age that it actually is eventually possible to grow a plant to surfeit, or at least to sufficiency.  This will sound like madness to a young gardener, but it is true all the same.

Hundreds and hundreds of irises is what it took to surfeit me, plus 83 peonies (Silas Marner, yes, I actually counted them, in my miserliness, and gloated repulsively as I did so), plus scores of the day lilies, and so my heart’s lust is assuaged somewhat.  Likewise with hydrangeas; I could never get enough of them formerly, but now I have.  They can’t of course grow very well in Colorado and they grow so well here in our nearly marine climate that a few years ago I planted them everywhere for their wonderful, long-lasting midsummer color.  What a great idea that was, and now this year for the first time they are all large enough and are just beginning to pour their gorgeous colors of pinks and blues and purples onto the sprawling garden canvas.

Hydrangeas “grow so well here in our nearly marine climate that a few years ago I planted them everywhere for their wonderful, long-lasting midsummer color.”

Roses and hollyhocks and foxgloves I have definitely not had enough of yet, and in fact for some reason I have had the hardest time to coax hollyhocks to grow here.  I don’t know why, because they have famously modest requirements and in the old days they used to love to grow in waste ground in alleys standing in about an inch-wide bit of gritty soil at the backs of people’s gardens, peeping over fences and by their height and beauty pretending to be part of the garden party, when in reality they were only standing in the alley outside the fence looking in, like Cinderella outside the ball.  In Colorado we grew them in extremely poor soil, construction scrape-off soil really, and they flourished greatly there.  How charming it is to find a plant, or a person for that matter, who flourishes cheerfully in poor circumstances and is happy with their lot in.  A lesson of some kind in there, no doubt.

Another plant I could never get enough of formerly is lilies, so a few years ago I stuck them in all over the place in this garden, so that finally they are coming up everywhere now, mostly the pure white ones, but several are a very dark red that is exactly the shade of the sofas and carpet in our reading room.  Their masses of cut red blooms are so gorgeous in that room that they look almost gaudily artificial, too much really, and people are always amazed to see that they are real.  In the porch bed we have half a dozen white lilies (“Casa Blanca”) that are not blooming yet, but their stalks are already six feet high, so you can see they are going to be pretty spectacular.  The patio’s green curtain of canna lilies is now taller than the stone wall and in front of them are our three large pots of dahlias, which are covered in bloom buds.

Monday I was in Chicago, to speak at the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow-PUSH coalition annual meeting.  I got up very early that morning and went to the gym to work out and there was Jesse Jackson himself, working out on a treadmill. We were the only guys there, so I introduced myself and we talked for a while.

While some of his ideas diverge significantly from mine, he has become an icon in our country because of his friendship and discipleship with Martin Luther King, so I am very glad to have met him and talked with him. I was just a boy in April of that terrible year, 1968, when King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated, but how well I remember my anger and shame the day King was killed.  I felt our country had been disgraced and shamed before the world again, and nobody can feel that pain and shame as intensely as a feeling, patriotic boy.

I remember visiting the National Civil Rights Museum years ago and standing in the doorway of Dr. King’s room at the Lorraine hotel. It is preserved just as it was at the time of the shooting.

People stand on that threshold and look at what the room looked like when those shots rang out and every single person is silent and awestruck.  From across the way, you can see where the sniper hid and you can see the balcony where Dr. King fell and where Jesse Jackson stood in the iconic photograph that we all remember.  How odd that almost half a century later we were working out together in a gym in downtown Chicago before going together to an event about multi-cultural television, where we were both speaking.  Life is so strange and the longer one lives, the decidedly stranger it seems to become.

And today still, the world seems to be as plagued with difficult problems as ever.  I worry about them, but I find I have my hands full managing the simple editorial task of having more pink and purple in my garden and less yellow and orange, for heaven’s sake. When the world’s problems weigh me down, that is when I go out into the garden on a hot midsummer day, deadhead and stake what needs to be cleaned up, water what is dry, cut some unusual arrangements of fresh flowers for the house, and await the coming of the end of the world with a smile on my lips.  I am happy in the knowledge that at least my garden is in order and that, on the small part of the earth that I am responsible for, all is well, all is as it should be, there are lovely fresh flowers in the house and we will carry on as always.


David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at