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Monday, December 14, 2009

Garden of Gifts

Giving a garden tour is a learned skill.  When guests come to our home, especially return visitors, we  are often asked for the garden tour.  My sister, a fellow gardener, was the first one to start asking for "the tours."  While at another home you may merely go "look at the flowers"  at our homes we "take the tour."  If you heard us talking you would assume you were at an estate, visiting a manicured, effeciently managed tour.  If you have ever been on the "tour" here, you know that is not the case.
In my garden, flowers are mixed, sometimes far too comfortably, with weeds.  In several cases, such as in the instance of the airy purple aster, the weeds have actually been promoted to the status of flower. I just cannot bear to pull them out and give up their delicate purple flowers that brighten the late August day eventhough the tall, gangly wild plant is out of place amid the low growing periwinkle.

The garden tours here on the hill started about 29 years ago.  My husband and I had argued, yet again, about what could be planted and where.  Many a gardener has had versions of this same argument which centers around  mowing convenience versus creativity and art.  Everyone knows it is easier to mow long, straight  lines and some people prefer the neatness that comes in straight edges and a line-of-sight that is not interrupted by bushes, flower beds and trees.  Let's not even talk about weed-eating. It is my opinion that those powered string trimmers are ruining our borders.

It is very hard to use trimmers without cutting the "weeds" all the way to the dirt, allowing access to the sun for broad-leaf plants and vines which soon replace grass.  It is also hard to keep from nipping off the stems of beloved flowers which disappear at the speed of light to the tune of  the high-pitched whirr of a gas-powered weed eater.  The result is that flower beds are often edged in black plastic walls that hoove up out of the ground with each freezing and thawing cycle, needing to be replaced every spring, or, in many cases they come clear out of the ground lying there until gradually cut up and worn down by the mower.  
Anyway, it was one of these "discussions" that resulted in me bargaining for a plot of land that would be under my stewardship.  I could plant anything I wanted and would be responsible for all the caretaking within the boundary of my plot. 

I had great plans and alot of patience.  When mom and dad, or any other family member would visit, I would lead them through my "garden" starting with the entrance gate, visible only in my mind's eye.  I would implore them to avoid flower beds which would not be seen for years to come.  We would follow non-existant garden paths until we came to the exit gate at which point they would pass under imagined yellow roses, cascading over the trellis, yet to be built. 
Through the years, many of these plans have come to fruition, some were redesigned and others amended, but the garden is growing toward that basic plan that was in my head those many years ago. 
My sister started requesting the "tour" during her visits. We now take turns at each other's home giving and receiving the garden tour.


I believe I said it before that there is a learned skill to giving a garden tour. The skill is a learned response to the art of listening.  As I take visitors through, I pay attention to their responses, both verbal and physical.  If, when describing a plant along the path, I receive a response of "uh-huh" then I know to cut short the descriptions and just keep moving.  I want visitors to savor each spot, to take in the meticulously planned ambience of a particular arrangement of plants with its harmonious interaction of color. ". . .uh-huh . . ."
I've learned that some people don't really care about what is where.  All they care about is the feeling they have when visiting the garden.  It makes them happier for whatever reason.  They don't notice that some plants insist that you look at them, or some color combinations draw your eye forward along the path. Some visitors don't even realize that there are choices in directions.  They just follow their feet, not caring that they have bypassed the heartleaf ginger, or missed the soft droop of the trillium blossoms that, once bright white are now gray with a slight maroon tinge to their veins. They travel through, oblivious to the mole tunnels undermining the hostas or the lone bumble bee seeming to float from blossom to blossom.
I don't mind these people. In fact I love their visits and accomodate them, glad that the garden has made them happier through subtle mind games of color and juxtaposition of shape, size and plant placement.
A different kind of reward, though comes from the visit of a truly interested guest.  This guest may be another gardener, or just a person who in curious about what is happening around her, wanting to dig deeper into the garden responding to my plant description with, "Are they native?" or "How deep do you plant them?" or, "Are they hardy?" This tour may take up an entire afternoon as we move from the periwinkle bed to the fern garden to sit on benches, content to watch the gentle sway of spruce branches, listen to the cardinals "chip" through the shadows or mindlessly move the zen rocks on the stone bench.
It is also an art to receiving a garden tour.  I've been to the home of several gardeners who take pride in their choice of plantings.  Some have made a concious effort to lay out a garden area or landscaping,  purposfully selecting plants for their color and, growing habits or for their benefits to ecology.  Other people plant according to the advice of friends or photos from magazines, perhaps not knowing the names of the plants chosen. I enjoy them all, listening to how each person describes his personal landscape.
Perhaps you are one of those rare individuals who doesn't even care about plants.  But even if you do not care much for plants, you probably care about the person who is with you.  By listening and asking the right questions, you will learn about the hopes and dreams of the gardener.  What are her favorite colors, muted or bright?  Is he a free spirit or very organized? Adventurous or good at research and learning from what others have found.
Friendships and familial relationships are nourished in my garden. People give and take according to each of our personalities. The best relationships  depend not only in giving what is needed, but in recieving what is given. We take what our friends and family offer, not always because we like the gift but, also, because we like the person.
Like many of us, I have spent the past few weeks buying and wrapping gifts for friends and family members, hoping that I have chosen wisely but also knowing that some of my choices will be wrong. There should be grace in giving a gift, but it is also important to have grace in receiving a gift.  Whether it is a man receiving a purple flowered clock, a teenager opening yet another pair of socks, or a grandparent receiving an ugly hand-painted plaster basset hound, relationships depend upon how the gift is received.  We could say.  "What am I supposed to do with that?" or "Thank-you; I love it." knowing that we really do, because we care for the giver.
This Christmas I will stroll through, usually following set paths, but remembering to turn aside to see what might be waiting in another direction. I'll try take the time to listen, to sit with a friend, to be calm and enjoy the colors, the ambience of a particular arrangement, the relationships throughout the "garden" wherever tha garen may be.

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