Friday, August 17, 2012

The Garden: Thirteen Lessons I'm Still Learning

Let your quiet heart lead you

                                                            ~I Ching

The Red Poppy


The great thing

is not having a mind. Feelings:

New Coneflower, 2012
oh, I have those; they

govern me. I have
a lord in heaven

called the sun, and open
for him, showing him
the fire of my own heart, fire
like his presence.
What could such glory be
if not a heart? Oh, my brothers and sisters,
were you like me once, long ago,
before you were human? Did you
permit yourselves
to open once, who would never
open again?...
                        ~Louise Gluck, from The Wild Iris

1.) All plants grow, heeding their own internal rhythms, timing, moments of unfurling. You can no more tell a flower when to bloom, than you can tell a person when it is exactly the right time to change or to heed the calling of his or her own heart.

2.) While all the love and nurturing you bestow upon a flower is a wonderful thing, it is not a guarantee that the plant will flourish or even survive. Insects devour the leaves. Roots don’t take. Risk and attachment go hand in hand. This is NOT a reason to stop loving and nurturing the living things of our world.

The Symmetry of Petals Unfurling, 2012

3.) The cycle of flowers deeply moves me.  How the colors change over the short course of the life of a bloom—the vivid lilac of a newly opened coneflower leaches to cloud gray in a matter of days. Or the expansive ruby geranium sifts petals into oblivion, dropping each one gracefully, like a red snowflake. Or the individual lemon yellow cosmos, almost indistinguishable in a crowd of tangerine and yellow beauties, quietly collapses over the course of a single day, until it is no more than a stem with a few quilled seeds. The restraint and stillness of the singular bloom’s demise strikes me as beautiful and sad. This morning, I noticed the range of a bloom’s cycle within my garden. A single zinnia bloom just started to unpack its folded radius of yellow. If I had a stop-motion camera and the patience, I think I might capture, over the course of the next couple of days, a kind of pop-up origami, so intricate and precisely packed are the individual petals. This zinnia is a miracle in itself, because out of four packets of seeds planted in rows back in May, this is the lone zinnia that grew. Meanwhile, the blue moon lobelia, exhausted from a long summer of unrelenting sun, crisps into nothing, its branch of blue pilot lights extinguishing.

Petunias in Window Box with Sol, 2012
4.) Flowers ask for so little: water, sunshine, and a good place to root. 

Tomato, 2012

5.) Paying attention to my garden, as day turns to night and seasons pass, has taught me more about the nature, play and mutability of sunlight than any art class. My stately maroon dahlias (“the color of dried blood,” my friend, Scott wryly commented) with their symmetrical petals, keep counsel with the sunlight. One minute the sun lasers the large face of the dahlia into pure architectural scaffolding—line, crease, and crossbeams— and the next minute, the maroon-color drains from its petals into shadow. Hours later, the sun fills and spills from every crevasse of the dahlia's conical petals. By late afternoon, the sun has transformed this same flower into a sacred bird: translucent red wings surrounding a gold corona.

Sunlight on Dahlias, 2012

Ivy Knot, ChainLink Fence, 2012
6.) Learning Patience. I have a tangle of morning glory vine and leaves overtaking my chain-link fence.  Each morning, as I go outside to drink my tea, I long to see the large trumpets of blue flowers open on the green tangle. But, this particular Celtic knot of ivy has been expanding for two months now and shows not a single bud. And summer is passing swiftly. The truth is: Flowers do not care if you are patient. Stamp your feet. Vent your spleen. But, my impatience will do absolutely nothing to bring to the fence the desired glories. And perhaps by coaxing myself to be more patient, I might just tune into how beautiful the sun is coming through the twisted layers of green.

7.) Take responsibility and care for what you choose to nurture.  And you will witness the palpable shift, when a plant finally gains root in the ground, establishes itself, and begins to flourish. It's so gratifying to be the audience to this small drama.

Blue Lobelia around Dried Flower
8.) Bees are invaluable to life as we know it. Do not Kill Them!!   Bees are a marvel of work ethic. ( I also think they’re quite beautiful.) How they stumble, in their feverish intent, on the upper petals of a cosmo!  How they dive head first into the throats of alstroemeria! When they have visited enough flowers and their leg-sacks are furred with pollen, they appear almost tipsy. Yet, their intense focus on the pistils and stamens of flowers, one after another, is powerful to observe. NPR recently shared an amazing article about how paper wasps and European hornets “may be the secret to the wonderful complex aroma and flavor of wine.” Duccio Cavalieri, a professor of microbiology at the University of Florence in Italy, who, along with his colleagues, made this exciting discovery says, “It is important because it tells me that it’s crucial to look at conservation and the study of biodiversity.” And he adds, “Everything is linked.” (All summer, I have had a hive of wasps that set up shop in the brick wall of my backyard. They climb from the holes in the mortar out into the heat of the day and mill in the mud of the watered soil, or they wander the flat leaves of the dahlias, eating destructive insects. In the mornings and afternoons, they fly very near and are everywhere around me. Not once, this summer, has a bee or a wasp tried to attack or sting me. They go about their lives; I go about mine.) We have no right to destroy these incredible, beneficial insects.

Tangerine Coneflowers, August 2012

9.)With grace and humor, my garden reminds me each day that I am not the center of the universe. I play a small role in the grand design, as does every single human, animal, insect, plant on this planet. How did I get so lucky to be a part of this wonderfully interconnected natural world? Every single life gets to play out a unique life of its own. And I truly believe ALL of it matters. Though I am happy to be a steward to my garden, especially during these summer months, I do not delude myself into thinking that the flowers “need” me. There is integrity to each plant, each bloom and an inner agency that I will never see or touch. But, there is so much to learn from watching another life form live out its full life cycle.

The Bright Lights Cosmos! August 2012

Honeybee Taking a Drink of Water, 2012
10.) Gardening,much like life, is a lot of trial and error.  Work with what you have. I’ve grown gardens in postage-stamped size front yards and in massive back yards. When the yard is a full-sun yard, I’ve planted full-sun plants; when it was in shade, I planted shade plants. I’ve coaxed plants from packed clay soil, from soil embedded with glass and gravel, and from soil festering with poison ivy and weeds. I’ve always rented apartments in the city, and most people have found it odd that I’m investing my money and time into creating gardens in places I don’t own and might leave. I grew my first garden

when I was in my mid-twenties, raising my son 
on Northumberland Street. It was a postage-stamp size yard and I planted zinnias, nasturtiums, and cosmos and hoped for the best. By mid-summer that year, the garden was overflowing with color.
Neighbors would stop by and comment on how pretty it looked and one elderly Chinese couple asked me if they could snip some of the nasturtium flowers and leaves to eat. It was at this point when I decided that, no matter where I lived, I would much rather look out my window and see something beautiful and alive, than stare at concrete parking areas and shrubbery collecting litter.  When I lived in a neighborhood called Friendship, I planted an enormous garden—butterfly bushes, Russian lilac, roses, tiger lilies, cosmos, dahlias, coneflowers and Black-eyed Susans— along the length of a driveway that separated my apartment from the apartment building next door. Two young male graduate students, who lived in that building, teased me during the whole planting season, laughing at my labor and telling me how impractical I was to invest money into rental property. But, when summer came and all was thriving and fragrantly in bloom, guess who asked if they could set up their lawn chairs in my yard and study there near the flowers? 

11.) After a long, hot day, you will be rewarded if you water your flowers.  Within minutes of the water soaking into the parched earth, my coneflowers look visibly renewed: they lose the droop, stand taller, flex the full radius of their petals, and lift their leaves higher as if waiting to partner me in a dance. 
Snapdragons Emerging

12.) There are definitely things in our lives that are worth all of the labor we invest into them. This year’s garden took a lot of sweat equity: all the broken shards of glass picked up by hand, all the deep shoveling and clearing out of gravel—inches of it buried in the dirt. All the weeding, deadheading, and daily watering  during these excessively hot summer months. All the staking up of the massive dahlias and unwieldy coneflowers. All the bidding farewell to the delicate red poppy that died suddenly one day and the subsequent replanting of two new tangerine coneflowers to fill in the spot. I am a happy traveler, moving through the midst of these living things. Right now, each morning, just to look out my office window at the crowd of Bright Light cosmos that are all blooming (so many small suns fallen atop delicate stems, fluttering in the breeze) delights me.
Pale Pink Rose, 2012

13.) Flowers do not exist to make us happy or to fill our vases indoors or to make us realize the breathtaking variety of life in our natural world.  Flowers exist for their own biologically complex reasons and to nourish the pollinators and wildlife in our world. But, we are the lucky beneficiaries of such largesse. Once in a while, say thank you for these living things that bring such beauty and joy to our lives.

Lilac Coneflower, 2012

All photos taken by Sharon McDermott, copyright, Summer 2012


  1. sharon- lovely photos, lovely combination of two fo your passions...gardening and poetry. Great post!

  2. Sharon - Thank you for this lovely essay. Your Grandma Fagan would be so proud of you. Actually I kind of wish you were my neighbor, I'd definitely would bring my lawn chair over.And tomorrow morning I will take a slower walk in my yard and really look. I love your blog.