The Spiritual Gardener: Imagining a Smaller Garden

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The warmer spell of the past several days could not, of course, last long, and alas, we now return to the deep freeze.  The robins continue to feast on the holly berries and I put half a piece of bread out for the wrens every few days. Normally they peck at it until it falls onto the ground where they prefer to feed, and my dog is fairly thorough in watching for that on his regular rounds, and then cleaning it up.

I have been reading Henry Mitchell’s Essential Earthman, as I so admire his dry, amiable voice and advice in the dark chill of winter. I am also looking at a hot, colorful picture book about Tuscany that a friend gave us for Christmas. These strategies, plus plenty of hot, milky coffee, working out furiously every day and taking a long steam shower most days, keeps me warm and upbeat.

The working out is important because after the holiday season of sitting around drinking and eating Christmas pastries and cheese like there was no tomorrow, I see I have fattened up very satisfactorily, like a prosperous bear settling down for a long winter’s hibernation. I came back to my office from the gym last night at 5:30 and saw that there was still considerable light left in the evening sky, and I felt that the days are lengthening perceptibly, though just a bit.


Nothing in the world of flowers says middle-of-winter for me more than paperwhites. In a sunny kitchen window, there is a dish filled with paperwhite bulbs, and they are now fully in bloom, filling the kitchen with their strong scent that my wife and I both grew to like, fortunately, as many do not care for its unusual perfume. It has a distinctive and astringent sort of scent, rather reminiscent of overheated electronics or the scorch smell that results from a short in the toaster, and it is easy to see why many do not care for it.

Then, by the back door, there is a small rosemary plant wintering there and it is so happy not to be outside in the bleak weather that it is breaking out in tiny purple flowers.

And that is about all that is happening in the world of flowers, as far as I can see.

Nothing is still blooming in the garden, of course, though I have noticed that the pink dogwood on the patio is covered with buds and will flower strongly again this spring. Which is nice because, mysteriously, it did not flower at all last spring; there must have been something about the previous summer or fall that was not congenial to it so that it did not set buds for the spring. Under-watered, I suppose. Also, the two magnolias (soulangeana) are covered with flower buds and they are already very swollen, so a bold spring is indicated.

Wouldn’t it be great to see some purple and pink tulips under a clear pink azalea bush, under a magnolia soulangeana blooming purple-pink, under a pink dogwood and next to a purple Oklahoma red bud, all blooming superbly at the same time?

The timing would be hard to pull off and my own experience of schemes like this is that they never work out in real life to be as gorgeous as they are in the gardener’s mind, but then again, what else in life ever does? And the general absence of flowers from the frost and snow-lined landscape calls one to think about how much flowers mean and what life would be like without them.

Rather dull, I would say.

We are thinking about selling our house some day, with a view to downsizing, and hopefully getting a bit lighter and leaner in our old age. Dotage, our children would say, the fond dears. So in my mind I have been gradually turning over what it would be like to leave this acre of mature and complex gardens and move to a place with a much smaller and simple garden. And I can’t help but wonder what I will miss.

Are there plants and trees without which life would not be worth living? Well, of course not, that is an absurd thing even to even say.


But my plant enthusiasms do divide fairly naturally into two classes: those I would really regret to do without, and those that I would not.

In the former class, if I try to be strict with myself in imagining this privation, I would be willing to give up most trees, but would really need to have a peach tree for its wonderful blossom when forced in winter and its fruit, if you are lucky and the creatures who share your land also share its bounty with you (and this is most unlikely in real life, I find).

Plus, I was raised in a peach-growing area, so this tree has strong nostalgic attachments for me. The dwarf size is very practical, even in a small yard. I would also want to have a magnolia soulangeana; there is little in the world of gardening that is more lovely than this creature with its large, waxy flowers blooming gorgeously like orchids on it its bare limbs in early spring, especially when there is a dusting of late snow about.

A dogwood or a holly or a Sargent crab apple would be nice if there were a tiny bit more room for small trees, but I would not press my luck arboreally.

In bushes, if similarly strict with myself, I would really regret not to have an azalea or two, perhaps one white and one clear pink, to stay modestly away from the more intense and promiscuous shades of reds, purples and magentas that are available. Azaleas are so stimulating in the early spring landscape and their flowering lasts for a long time. They have a Zen-like tranquility and graceful branching habit that make them very peaceful and sculpturally intriguing. A Japanese cut-leaf maple has these same qualities, I think, and I would definitely want to have that as well.


And then, not to be greedy, one or two hydrangeas for their intense flowering habit and the way they last for weeks in the otherwise somewhat insipid weeks of late July and early August. Not all climates are favorable for these three favorites – none ever did well in our former garden in Colorado, for example – but it would be nice if they could come along with us wherever we go. They are such good, durable and reliable friends in the garden.

For bulbs, I would be willing to limit myself (assuming I could always be allowed to force paperwhites and other bulbs indoors to my heart’s content) to tulips, daffodils and crocuses, without which life on earth would seem not impossible, but severely impoverished. I quite understand how tulip-mania for example rocked the world’s economy at one time. Isn’t it nice for us now that they are freely and inexpensively available, and so easy to grow?

For flowering plants, I would be willing to be very strict here too, and grow only those that it would really grieve me to do without: irises, for their gorgeousness and wide range of color; roses for the same reason; peonies for their exceptional blooms, despite the heartbreak of the heavy spring rain that spoils them three years out of four; and dahlias for their range of color and for the cheer they bring to the late summer garden.

And perhaps I would stop there, if I am trying to be severe with myself, though of course I could go on and on with a list of things I would like to have. If I had these few things and perhaps some sort of small water feature, I think I could bring myself to be content with a small garden.

And looking back at what a short list it really is, I am a little surprised to think that leaving this grand old house and garden might actually be easier than I thought.

I could cram all that into a fairly small garden, I think, provided you didn’t care for grass at all.



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.