Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Memory and Plants

I’ll I’ll be honest.  I had a hard time figuring out how to approach this topic.  As I have mentioned before, I am New Dirt and not Old Dirt, meaning I do not come from a long line of gardeners, but rather picked up this obsession at age 36 with no influence from parents or grandparents.  Like Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, my conversion to a life of gardening was sudden and complete.  (Whether or not Constantine was pruning Euonymus at the time of his revelation, as I was, is not clear.)

So I don’t really grow any plants because Granny grew them, or because I remember them from my childhood.  I am envious of those of you who can grow a certain rose say, or smell a lilac, and feel an instant connection to a family member long gone.  Like beloved family recipes, special plants can tie generations together, and I can see how growing such a plant would truly be an act of remembrance and love. 

Now, this is not to say that plants don’t figure in to my childhood memory at all — they’re just not garden plants.  I will always remember, for example, the orange and lemon trees that grew in our backyard in southern California, where I lived from age three to age six.  My most vivid memory is not of the tree, however, but of my mother hunched over the juicer, and of her exasperation that it took so many oranges to make “one blasted glass of juice.”

I also remember the gum tree from that same yard — the little Sputnik-shaped pricker-balls that littered the lawn every year — and, most significantly, the way the tree’s roots made the perfect little environment in which to create Matchbox Car towns.  With my three middle fingers squeezed together I would trace out Matchbox roads in the dirt between those roots, constructing peaceful, Matchbox utopias.  In my game, the Matchbox cars were all friends, and they all participated in parades and took vacations together.  The blue Pontiac and the Maxi Taxi were best friends, in fact.  Unfortunately, my older brother John would usually come along and attack my serene little town with Pricker Ball bombs or fire imaginary bullets at it from his model Messerschmidt airplanes.  “The Nazis destroyed your entire city!!” he would proclaim.

Another beloved plant from my childhood was the American Holly in the backyard of our Virginia home, where my parents still live.  Most kids are savvier than I when choosing a climbing tree, and prefer to scale trees with leaves that do not draw blood.  Looking back, I think I must have chosen that tree because it was the only one with limbs close enough to the ground for me to grasp easily (I was not an athletic child and could not “shimmy” up trunks the way some other kids could.)

 Many an hour I spent in that tree mulling over the deeper questions of life, such as: Will this thin branch support my 85 pound frame?  and I wonder if Mom knows John is over there sneaking a cigarette on the Sparkman’s back porch?  When I was in college my dad cut that old holly tree down, but very thoughtfully saved the section of trunk that had been my perch all those years before, sparing it from the firewood pile.  This is possibly the most sentimental plant-based interaction that has transpired between the generations of my family.  Sniff.

I often wonder what memories my son Charlie will have of our current garden, of the garden he is growing up in.

I imagine that, years from now, he will be sitting with his own grandchildren, and with a misty look in his eye, tell them about the garden of his childhood:

“Your great-grandmother was a fantastic gardener,” he will say. “Her planting combinations were simply exquisite.  You should have seen this one design where she combined toad lily and beautyberry with a purple-leafed astilbe…not only were the colors perfectly coordinated but it also created three seasons of interest.”

Oh, leave me alone, of course I know he won’t say that. 

What will stick with him, I wonder?  The drumset he constructed when he was three by wedging cracked frisbees among the stems of our old lilac?  The secret little wallows beneath our overgrown forsythias that only he and the dog can crawl into?  The red berries on my ‘Winter Red’ Holly that apparently make the perfect little grenades/missiles/bullets?

I don’t know if Charlie will become a gardener or not.  I have no idea if he will remember what flowers his mother grew or how she designed her summer pots or any of the other aesthetic aspects of the garden that we toil over so.  One thing that’s pretty clear is that, as long as he’s running around in it, the garden will be a part of the landscape of his childhood — no matter what it looks like.  And, just like any good gardener, he looks around at the trees and the rocks and the dirt, and he sees possibility.

Please check out what some other gardeners have to say about Memory and Plants:

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.

Rochelle Greayer : Studio ‘g’ : Boston, MA

Comments

  1. Lovely, Mary. Just lovely. Thank you.

  2. Mary, I’m like you – I became a gardener later in life and my only memory of anything in our back yard growing up (in Georgia) was a peach tree! My sons were in middle and high school when I started tearing up my yard and going to GW, so I think they will simply remember it as when I became “the mad gardener.” But perhaps if I ever have grandchildren, I will still be gardening and can introduce them to the joys of shimmying up a Riversii beech (if it’s grown enough by then . . .)

    • I think my son will also have memories of my “madness”. For example, sometimes when we’re driving I’ll say, “do you want to go home a different way today?” and he’ll say, “oh, is it because you want to drive by some GARDEN?” Ha, he’s totally onto me.

  3. Even ‘Old Dirt’ (beautifully encapsulated) children, have those memories. I had the roots of a large Norway maple as the superstructure of a whole fairy town.
    I am still finding abandoned Matchbox ambulances and army men in the beds around the house from my children’s adventures.
    Serendipitous and best of all is a weeping Katsura. The most wonderful retreat ever according to number 4 child.
    Number 2 child preferred the top of an old pin oak that others were not agile enough to attain.
    I had the top of a pine tree – sticky business that.
    Raised with the opportunity, children will find a way to interact.

    • Thank you for the great comment. Lucky you….Weeping Katsura is the tree of my dreams. They have three planted by the little pond at Meadowlark Gardens, and that little vignette — those trees by the water — is THE most heavenly design ever & one of my favorite places to sit…..as long as there isn’t any goose poop on the ground.

  4. That photo with the matchbox cars brings back so many memories! Great essay.

  5. Brilliant, as always. I love “new dirt” and “old dirt.” Had me chuckling quite a bit. Your balance of humor and poignancy is always perfect. Immensely enjoyable post.

  6. Awesome way to connect to memories even if your history as a gardener is shorter. Douglas

    • Thanks, Douglas. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything, but it worked out okay. It seems just about every kid played Matchbox underneath a tree, so I managned to hit on a Great Universal Experience. :-)

  7. I guess I had the best of both worlds – gardening was in my DNA and we had a big pile of dirt in the back yard where a matchbox city was built. Of course I had to cut small pieces from my mom’s garden to make miniature trees and shrubs to landscape with.

  8. I don’t know, Mary… I think what you’re saying goes right to the heart of what I believe, which is that plants touch us all, garden plants are no. Everybody has that gum tree, or that American holly, or that frisbee lilac, and these are the stories that are usually my favorites.

  9. Mary, I truly admire how your writing is so personal. I more than admire your ideas-your process. Your essay on this topic-I lingered over every word-no kidding. Any person’s memory and connection to the natural world is of interest. But what and how you write is singular-original. I am a fan. Thanks, Deborah

  10. Lovely, lovely essay, Mary! I heartily agree with the childhood connection to the landscape — both built and natural — and how it helps frame our memories. (With my daughter it was her herd of “My Little Ponies” under the apricot tree.)

  11. Mary, I always end up snorting with laughter while reading your posts, and this one tickled my funny bone more than once. You have such a witty way of writing, and you can turn any topic into a must-read memoir. I enjoyed reading your memories of nature, and they really resonated with me because I played outside a lot as a kid too — I had my own secret wallows and sticky pine trees to climb and spiky sweet-gum balls to throw at my sister. I fear for our children today, who prefer to stare at a computer or video game screen rather than mess around outside. Will they have any memories at all from the garden?

  12. Well, it’s never to late, right? I wish I had more of a legacy to draw from. My grandparents had a beautiful garden as I recall but I didn’t really learn anything in the few short years I knew them. I envy those generational gardeners too. … On another note, I have three yes, three large Sweet Gum trees in my front yard. I’ve never heard their “thorn balls” called “pricker-balls.” I LOVE IT !

  13. Oh. The matchbox cars takes me back, back, back.

    On our street in Detroit, we had old elm trees. Their roots flared out both tall and wide at the base, and made lovely little ‘houses’ for whatever I was playing with at the time. (Matchbox cars, yes. But also little plastic barn sets and horses, ever and always horses!)

    The elms had the added bonus of being host trees to cicadas, so every summer at least a few of these bugs would drag themselves out of the ground and leave their earthbound husks on the bark of the tree. On a really good year, we could watch the enormous bug ooze out of that husk and stretch, slowly, its wings while edging away from our eager little destructive fingers.

    My bare roots of memory, going back to when I was very young indeed.

    Thank you for this!

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