The Spiritual Gardener: Perpetual Thanksgiving

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This year Thanksgiving in my part of the world was cold, rainy and very foggy.

It’s hard to be thankful for weather like that, but I am trying and I guess it does have a certain enveloping mystery. You can light a fire on a day like this and curl with an old favorite book.

Every few years I re-read Thoreau’s classic Walden. Every time I read it, I get more out of it.  And thinking of him reminds me of what he wrote a few years after Walden was published, in a letter to Harrison Gray Otis Blake: “I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.  It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence.”  My thanksgiving is perpetual – what a lovely concept for both of the great countries who celebrate Thanksgiving as an annual holiday.  Much the same sort of idea was I think intended by the great English gardener Gertrude Jekyll who said that the consummate achievement of a garden is “to lift up the heart in a spirit of praise and thankfulness.”

My Thanksgiving is perpetual, but my chrysanthemums are not. Still, you have to admire their vigor, to be still blooming when the first snows fall each year.

It is 45 degrees at 10 a.m. but I am in fine form, having had a lovely long steam shower and an eggnog latte from Starbucks. Imagine our luck, living on the one planet in the universe that has eggnog lattes! What are the chances of that?!  The first sip reminds me of every eggnog latte I have ever had, most often at airports around the world completing my last pre-Christmas travel and heading home with a light and happy heart.  The lattes also of course remind me of every sip of eggnog I had as a child and invoke the memory and feeling of what it is to be a child at Christmas, the pure magic excitement. I would lie in my bed downstairs, from which I could see the curved stairwell that led upstairs; it was lined with beautiful, gleaming polished walnut paneling that reflected the mellow glow of the Christmas tree lights in the living room upstairs.

Today, for some reason I am specifically remembering that eggnog latte in Madrid last Christmas, outside the Prado when I was finishing a long business trip around Europe and was longing pathetically for home, my family and the holidays. Odd how a sip of latte conjures up that whole complex of memory and emotion. We spent this pre-Thanksgiving weekend in the Pocono Mountains with friends at their lake house.  It was cold there, with drifts of snow on the ground here and there under the bushes where the sun had not gotten to it yet.  It was lovely to see the sparkling light of the sun glancing off the water of the lake.  The people all mixed well, we took several long walks with kids and dogs, and I was re-reading The Forsyte Saga for perhaps the fourth or fifth time, by a roaring fire.  Lovely.

I leave the dahlia tubers in the ground until we have had a hard frost or two, but now they need to come up and be moved safely to the basement, where they are stored for the winter in peat moss.

We came home a bit early yesterday to beat the traffic returning to the city and I worked in the yard while my wife emptied about fifteen Christmas boxes, giving the house already a decidedly festive air. I dug up all the dahlias and planted 70 hyacinth bulbs along the walk back to the side yard; they don’t look too plump, but I think they will do. I threw the annual chrysanthemums away that had been decorating the front and back porches. How spruced up the house and garden now look, with some of the dead and blasted vegetation cut away, the earth clean and dark for winter.

The golden leaves under the maples in the front of the house are about a foot deep and are fun to walk through, as one did as a child.  Cosimo was delirious to be in his own home again, positively whimpering with joy, and would not let me get more than ten feet away from him, the dear old thing.  Early this morning, going out in a drizzle to get the paper and let the dog out, I heard our old friend the cardinal in the hedgerow, but I could not spot him.

I admit it, I am a sucker for hyacinths: their cheerful bright colors in early spring are very winning, and their intense perfume is intoxicating.

Owing to some foul weather the weekend before this, I did a long series of winterizing chores, starting with putting up all the stripped and restored hardware on the reading room windows, the powder room and in the kitchen.  Also, I oiled all the hinges of the kitchen cabinets and buffered them with felt pads, so they don’t squeak and bang so annoyingly anymore; what a huge improvement that little chore has yielded.  I also I fixed my daughter’s bathroom door that had gotten smashed when a sleepover got a little too wild, sealed the attic vents, replaced light bulbs all over the house, cleaned the kitchen, did laundry, got groceries, blew off the patio and the garage, and finally took Cosimo for a long walk on what turned out to be a fine fall day after all.

On a nearby street, there is one grand, bearded iris blooming in late November of all things, defying the advancing dark and cold with its absurdly gorgeous, orchidaceous bloom.  I saw it as my son and I went to work this morning and it cheered me up enormously.

Today, it is sunny and not too cold in the late morning, though yesterday we had a chilling lick of frost; at least, we had enough that I had to scrape my car windows for the first time, but not enough to flatten the remaining impatiens, though this was a close call for them.  A few days ago, we were treated to one of the earliest snowfalls in the region since the Civil War.  We only received a slight dusting, and that was merely atmospheric and allowed us to light our first fire of the year.  We have our daughter home from college for Thanksgiving and she mostly hung about the lake house over the weekend, at one point wrapped up in a blanket drinking tea and watching the snowflakes come tumbling down, picturesquely.  It is good for her to have family cocooning time even though she is usually so far away, and we love having her home for a break.  Soon I will be taking her back to the airport to go back to Texas and I know it will be very sad.  I really do not like those times of saying goodbye to one’s children.   Melancholy plucks hard at the heartstrings, more and more each year.

The first snowfall of the year leaves a white mantle on our St. Francis in the garden, and on our red lava rock, what in Asian gardens is called a “scholar’s rock”

Leaves are falling in earnest now.  We did a second light raking this past weekend and put fertilizer down.  I was home with a bad cold in the middle of last week, so I mowed likely for the last time, made pesto also for the last time, and pottered about the house feeling sorry for myself.  I read Flying Colors, the romantic high point of the Hornblower saga, and loved it.  And speaking of romance, I notice that the grand white azalea by our front porch, what was in the old days called a “Delaware Valley white azalea”, has opened precisely one white bloom, to say goodbye to summer.  Also the white rhododendron outside the family room window has opened just a single white answering bloom.  What can these quiet floral semaphores imply?  And meanwhile the heartiest of the last roses are putting forth their last tentative blooms, while the frost yet holds off.  Though not for long, as a hard frost is predicted for this weekend, the first of no doubt many cold nights to come, and last night I disconnected the hoses and turned off the taps.  We are ready.

A “Delaware Valley azalea” in full bloom in spring, with a few irises.

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.