Throughout the growing season, I spent every spare moment on my garden – shopping, planting, weeding, fertilizing and watering deeply as the summer droughts began. I kept painstaking notes, recording weekly precipitation and temperatures and even forecasts, tracking what was blooming and what wasn’t, making copious notes about what days and weeks weren’t awash in quite enough color and would therefore require careful attention during the off-season.
Perpetual bloom was my goal, and a feature in a gardening magazine would be my ultimate reward.
Once the ground was frozen, I would head for the nearest used book store to stock up on back issues of gardening magazines and the most luscious new volumes by the leading garden designers of the day. I’d then spend the winter poring over this material, consulting my mud-spattered journal to identify the worst gaps, turning to resources such as the AHS Horticultural Encyclopedia and Botanica’s Encyclopedia of Roses and – by the end of January – the flurry of plant catalogues that had found their way to our mailbox.
My designs were breathtaking, IMHO, and when I was young enough I actually executed a few of them. Roses have been my favorites since I bought my first Olympiad a quarter century ago; at one point, I had over 150 hybrid teas, floribundas, grandifloras, David Austins and old garden roses gracing our modest lot. (This was long before the Japanese beetles arrived here in the Midwest to make post-June rose care largely a matter of executing the nasty little critters en masse.)
I wrote a bit about this obsession in Heaven Without Her (Thomas Nelson, 2008), describing my reaction to my mother’s annoying reminders about her God:
“I refused to dwell on [the subject]. Instead, I would shift the focus to what I thought of as my religion – horticulture. My favorite garden writer, Allen Lacy, summed it up beautifully, in my not-so-humble opinion:
“'I do believe that there is such a thing as a gardener’s eye and that it is a gift of what Christians call grace – a gift that comes from outside, that is apart from one’s own intentions, and that can never be entirely fathomed. Gardening is, in other words, something religious. And its religion involves a point in time, a moment of conversion that separates things into before and after … One was not a gardener … Then the gift comes, and one knows that one had been living in darkness, but that now there is suddenly a new world to see, a world whose beauties and wonders many lifetimes would not be sufficient to encompass.' (Allen Lacy, The Gardener’s Eye. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992, 3.)
“I can remember reading that passage to Mom one day in my kitchen, barely able to suppress my tears of joy over its beauty and power. Although I didn’t say it, my thoughts were running something like this: My religion – which is what it is, since Allen Lacy has said so – is so beautiful and life-affirming that it brings tears to one’s eyes. Whereas your religion is mean-spirited and discriminatory and altogether unfair. Besides, I have soil and a shovel and a credit card good at any nursery in town; you have this imaginary friend named God.
“Confused as I was in those days, I was quite sure that I was the winner in this little match up."
My life has changed radically since then. That’s partly because of the creakiness of age (what was I thinking when I converted all that land into flower beds?). But it’s mainly because of my realization that biblical Christianity is true, that this life is but a vapor, a preparation for an eternity in heaven or hell.
Ironically, my garden ended up getting that once-coveted feature treatment in a local magazine. But by that time, it didn’t matter. I just wanted to help my writer girlfriend add to her portfolio of articles, and to share the gospel with the garden photographer the magazine sent over.
I don’t spend too much time on my garden anymore. It’s overgrown with perennials begging for division and aggressive self-seeders like phlox and sweet autumn clematis. The weeping pine has outgrown its allotted space and that cute dwarf chamaecyparis pisifera is now taller than I am. The doublefile viburnum have croaked, along with about a third of the more tender roses (although that first Olympiad lives on). I don’t hang out at my favorite nurseries too much anymore, and when new plants do find their way into a bed, I just toss the tags into a drawer; their CVs rarely make it into my dusty old journal.
I now rejoice over the first hard frost.
It’s amazing how, once one starts worshipping the Creator, almost every aspect of His creation takes on a new beauty – even the wild violets and ground ivy, which once sent me running for the Roundup, look pretty nice to me now (and the little dears eliminate the need for all that troublous mulching). So far, only the Japanese beetles and bindweed still alarm me, and I imagine that they, too, will one day become just another metaphor for His eternal power.
I do hope this lack of earthly energy and interest won’t impact my heavenly prospects. I’ve already applied for a rose-tending post in Eden restored.