TERRITORY OKC Magazine Article: The Soul of a Garden

Cover page of The Soul of a Garden Article by Linda Vater in Summer TERRITORY OKC Magazine next to a tuft of mullein.
My article from the current edition of TERRITORY OKC
Since I am in a literary state of mind, I thought I would share another article I have out this month in the uber OKC-hip magazine TERRITORY OKC.  (Find out where to locate a free copy and more information about them here).

Cover of the Summer edition of TERRITORY OKC
 The whole crew was absolutely a joy to work with, and I am so happy they are encouraging gardeners of all stripes to pick up their trowels and start gardening in Oklahoma. It's quite a different muse I was channeling in this article. My garden and this gardener have interior lives as well as the public face you see in books and magazines. Here, if you will, is a peak through the branches. I hope you enjoy it. Leave me a comment and let me know.
~~ Linda


Looking back, I don’t know what the tipping point was.

Where and when I crossed the line from ‘I love to garden’ toI HAVE to garden’Or when I began to look at everything…my family, my life, my routine, my very self… through a garden lens. All I know is that everything about gardening: its marvels, its hardships, its creative expression, its very essence, became a metaphor to my life and to living it. Its lessons of patience and devotion and attention to life’s large and small miracles, became more than just Hallmark cliches and became truths to live by. They took seed in my soul and with varying degrees of success, I try to live them.

I started my family when I started my garden. I am humbled to admit (and my family will agree) that almost immediately my garden became as important to me as my husband and sons. My obsession and love and anxiety for family and garden happened both in parallel and cross-hairs.

Looking through sculpted branches of redbud tree toward boxwood enclosed potager.

When my boys were very small ( and when I could steal time away from them to work in the garden) I remember thinking that I would come to know my garden as intimately as I knew the contours and folds and marks on my babies’ bodies. And I would reflect on my anxieties and concerns for both. Where and under what conditions would they flourish? What was just enough, and not too much, tending and hovering and intervening? What strengths needed encouragement and what weaknesses needed time and attention? And boy! Did I learn in both parenting AND gardening, how important it is to pick your battles. 

Frequent drought and intense heat make our gardens work harder for the moisture and nutrients they need to grow and thrive. We hope and pray that our grass, our trees, our flowers, respond to this stress with deeper roots and tougher constitutions. So when my boys would experience challenges and heartaches: the game not won, the friendships not reciprocated, or the application denied, my garden reminded me that these disappointments and heartaches would make them stronger and tougher in the long run. Gardening isn’t always easy or pretty (duh), and neither is childhood. It makes me love and appreciate them all the more for it.

Looking through branches and picket fence into box enclosed potager.

I wrote a blog post once on the value of high, dappled shade in our Oklahoma landscapes (here). No matter the sunlight requirements on the plant care tag…  this is Oklahoma. In the hot afternoons of a scalding summer, every plant, every gardener is grateful for the gentle protection of a green, leafy canopy. Not enough to suffocate, or keep out light, but enough for comfort, growth and maturity. 

Its the same degree of shelter and comfort I try to give my boys…when they want to change their major or drive home late at night; to live in New Dehli, or backpack through Asia. Just enough parenting for growth and maturity, but with a modicum of shelter and room for mistakes.  

My boys are young men now.  I am proud of them, and more importantly perhaps, they are proud of themselves. Now my garden as teacher has set her sights on me. Revelations about my character and habits and priorities…the good and the bad… are gifted to me daily as I stroll the garden, coffee cup or wine glass in hand.  

As I age and the world becomes less certain, I find I want more structure and reliability in the garden. An inclination towards flowery profusion and color has given way to a desire for a stronger planting foundation, more stability, and (an illusion, anyway) of control. Stalwart and sturdy evergreens are replacing finicky roses and high maintenance perennials. I have become simultaneously a more understanding, yet tougher and stricter, garden steward. 

Oklahoma’s volatile, bring-you-to-your-knees weather is teaching me resilience and resignation, if not graceful acceptance. I am finally learning to work smarter not harder, and to learn the value of asking for help. I used to think that , in some way, it didn’t count unless I did it myself. (Though I don’t know who I thought was keeping score)All of it: design, planting and maintenance; all encompassing and absolute, had to be a product of my own labors. 

Not so now.. I love my garden more than ever, but at this juncture of time and space, 

At sunrise, looking through arbor into potager.

I want it to be the backdrop of my life, and not my life itself.  

(A verdant and well-clipped backdrop, but a backdrop nevertheless.)  Consequently, I am trying to become more the master than the servant in my relationship to the garden. 

Reclusive by nature, I am learning to let others in…
to lend a hand, to advise, to plant the shrub and sculpt the trees. I am learning that, quite surprisingly,
I don’t ALWAYS know best, and I don’t have all the answers. I am trying to loosen my grip on the ‘how’, and better communicate the ‘what’ of my garden aesthetic and personal desires..

Ironically, by letting go and allowing and asking for help, it is more beautiful, I think, than ever. My garden, and my life, have more texture and nuance now. Both more sense AND sensibility. In many ways, giving back more than it takes. To me and to others. A garden not just to tend and enjoy, but a language with which to communicate and connect with others. Or so I hope.

Looking through stems to mossy path of flagstone.

 I spend an incredible amount of time just observing and strolling through what is, in this most remarkable of springs, incredible lushness and bloom. Often mesmerized by the seedlings of a hellebore or the appearance of a bleeding heart thought lost. Completely immersed in thought, and captivated by the sheer loveliness of what Mother Nature and a gardener can create.  

I sometimes, rather self-consciously, wonder what those who drive by must think about the amount of time I spend so subsumed in garden reverie. And my, do people drive by! They take pictures, they ask questions, they say “I promise I am not stalking you; we are just admiring your garden.”  I smile and tell them I am so happy they enjoy it. When I go inside, I grin to myself as I often see them drive away… then circle back and stop again. Looking so carefully, so thoughtfully, as if trying to decipher a secret code.

Not that long ago I was a fledgling gardener and would do the same. Often intimidated by the skill required to create such a space, but always appreciative when the homeowner or gardener would engage….sharing ideas, inspiration, encouragement (that even in our harsh environment, beauty is possible). I try to remember this, the importance of sharing and being gracious when garden gazers stop by and want to visit…about the garden and other matters. The garden provides a reason to meet, to share and to identify with one another. A mutual language with which to communicate.

Recently, a neighbor whom I had not yet met told me that whenever she gets depressed she walks by my house to cheer herself up and we had a short, but nice visit about the restorative nature of a garden. No greater compliment could have been paid me. 

Another friend and neighbor that lives on my street, and with whom I often chat when he drives by, stopped as usual, but after something of an absence. I inquired about his wife who is undergoing treatment for cancer and is very ill.  Hospice had been consulted, he said.

He told me that he had just been to the gym to work out, then to Whole Foods for some shopping. “I find that I am drawn to happy places now, and these are happy places to me,”  he said. I asked if there was anything I could do. A few days later, he contacted me and asked if I would give them some suggestions on their landscape. I was thrilled to have a way to maybe inject a little joy into a grim situation.

This reminded me of another story. A number of years ago, at a family reunion before my dad died, my older siblings and I were asking him questions about a topic seldom discussed in our growing up years: the death of our mother at the young age of 36. Far too young to die and leave a 1950’s-style dad in an Indianapolis suburb with seven young children, ages 1 to 12. I was five at the time.

Even then, he didn’t say much. The subject had been taboo for so long that details had been forgotten, his memory dulled by grief and time. But he did share one memory that I think of every now and again when I am working out front and people stroll by.

“In the evenings”, he said , “after your mother died , I would take you younger ones on a walk. Barb in the stroller, you and David by my side. You would pepper me with questions like: How will she get a drink of water? and Who will take care of her when she gets sick again?  and other questions I can’t recall”.

And then he continued with a kind of puzzled and far off look on his face:

“But what I DO remember is that the neighbors down the street, working in their front yards,  would see us out walking, a sad little foursome, I am sure.
 But then, as we approached, when we got closer… they would hurriedly go inside… before we got near enough to exchange words and I wondered why. I guess,” he said, “It was just too much for them to handle. They didn’t know what to say. 
They just didn’t know what to say.”

Stand of daisies.

So I think of this when people, both friends and strangers pass my garden… some looking for ideas, some for inspiration, others for weeds I may have missed. Maybe looking to see if I will raise my head, acknowledge them, say hello. Or maybe looking for something less tangible, but something I think, that is in my, or any garden's power to provide.

Hosta bloom resting on basket.

Connection. Respite. And, maybe, a happy place.

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