It takes a lot of looking to build a garden. When moving to a new region or into another house, so much must be observed that a full round of seasons can easily pass before one is ready to position and thrust home the shovel.
The practical and aesthetic -- how trees intercept sunlight, drainage after downpours, the right proportion of tilled soil to green lawn, natural walking lines for paths -- require reflection before action to get them right.
With a garden, point of view is crucial. As with painting, there is usually a focal point for survey, where the painter stands.
My father understood this. I had often mentioned to friends who admired my first garden -- a neat grid of flower, vegetable, and fruit plantings in Massachusetts -- that I should really tear the whole thing up and bulldoze the site two feet lower, so it could be viewed better from the driveway at the base of the house porch. No one could grasp why I would undo the weeks of pick-and- shovel labor I'd put into laying out the beds, when the garden looked fine to them.
But on my father's first visit to my home, he immediately went to the driveway vantage point, studied the garden, and remarked that the hill should be lowered a couple of feet and the garden tilted so it could be better viewed.
Not that Father and I built gardens the same way. He planted things more closely, in the Italian manner. Yard space had always been more of a premium in his lifetime, as it is coming to be again in ours.
I like wood-framed beds, with wood chip paths to stroll through and work from. I have a leaf shredder for making mulch, to minimize watering and weeding. Father was a weeder and hoer. Using both of my little hands, as a boy I could never weed as fast as he could with one. I detested weeding.The tops of the weeds would break off, leaving them a second chance. Dad's grip never slipped.
We grew different things. I added blueberries, leeks, French herbs, columbines.He grew roses. I used an old painter's ladder (Father was a painter) to trellis cucumbers in my New England garden, cylinders of concrete, reinforcing mesh, in Illinois. Like Dad, I collected Christmas trees after the winter holiday, raked off their branches with a sharp hatchet, and used them for tomato stakes in late spring. After experimenting with a dozen tomato varieties early on, I am now down to his two -- Rutgers and Italian plum -- for this annual staple.
And I am down to one parsley, his. Primo's parsley, says the vial of seeds, still viable though collected from his Detroit garden some years ago.
My father's garden.
I feel closer to my father when I contemplate growing things than in my money- making routine. He was a hard laboring man. Only with his garden was he patient. With small children he could heartily laugh. With his church he was at peace.
This Maryland garden will be my third, the second Father will not have seen.
I am in no hurry. To the inch I know where the beds will go. Tall trees will crowd the beds almost to the house wall. A flat of romaine seedlings, potted herbs we brought last summer from Illinois, and amaryllis bulbs that need setting out for the summer argue for an early start.
But there's no rush. Gardening has less to do with time than with thought. Looking is the important thing. I've discovered a nest of cardinals here, in the holly by the fence.
Cardinals were rare in Detroit, welcome to Father. I remember one summer evening he took me outside to watch as a brilliant red male looked over his tomatoes from a telephone wire in the alley. Suddenly the bird flew down, plucked an unsightly green tomato worm off a plant, and flew away.
My children perhaps wonder why I stare so long and do so little behind the house. When the work starts it will go quickly. The children do not come around after I begin. I do not like to miss a step while tilling with the shovel.
Building a garden is slight effort compared with the force that makes things grow, that gives us a lifetime and more of wonder. It is worth the time to set the stage right.