My garden keeps me sane.
I write that even though I count my blessings every day. Almost two years ago, I moved into this apartment, worried that it was too expensive for me. It was, really — and still is. The rent takes a significant bite out of my monthly income, and if you saw my apartment, you would ask why. It’s three rooms, a living room and two bedrooms, or rather a bedroom and my office, plus a small kitchen and bath. But it takes up the entire first floor of a house, so I have windows all around, and it comes with a back porch. Around here, that much space is a luxury. It’s close to parks, a town center full of charming little shops, and two tram lines. Best of all, it’s on a quiet street lined with trees that are at least a century old. My rent pays for all that.
At the time, I justified it to myself because I don’t have the expense of a car, and the office is a workspace, where I do all my writing. It definitely has its drawbacks — it’s in an old building, as old as the trees, and there have been a series of maintenance issues. But I’ve been feeling particularly lucky recently, because of the garden.
In March, the world changed. I was in Budapest at the time, for Spring Break. There was a virus somewhere, far away . . . but we were going to keep it out of the United States with travel bans. And then suddenly it wasn’t far away, it was here. From the apartment in Budapest, I started training to teach my university courses online, meeting with colleagues for the first time on something called Zoom. I flew back to the United States the day the ban against travel from Europe went into effect, arriving an hour before the deadline. It wasn’t a deadline for Americans, but at first no one realized that, and the plane was filled with college students who had been summoned home by their parents. They had gone to study abroad, and would now be finishing their courses from suburban bedrooms.
The spring was a confusion of teaching on Zoom and trying to make sure I knew where my students were — from China to California, since they had all been sent home. We all got through it, and when the university semester ended, I breathed a sigh of relief. I still had a lot to do, but at least I wasn’t frantically turning handouts into PowerPoint presentations so I could screenshare them on Zoom. At least I wasn’t spending twelve hours a week, or more, sitting in front of my computer and making sure my face was visible on camera (nine hours of classes, three hours of office hours, but often it was much more, especially when it came time for individual paper conferences).
When the semester ended, I had time to rest . . . and that was when the sense of limitation hit me. The sense that there was nowhere to go anymore, except the grocery store and pharmacy. The bookstores, museums, and cafés were closed. I could still go for a walk in the park, and I was grateful for that. It was still spring, with birds and flowers and sunshine . . . but it wasn’t the same. I could not get on the tram — even aside from the health risks, it was better left to essential workers. And anyway, there was nowhere to go. It felt as though my world had shrunk to the streets immediately around my apartment. I sewed masks and made banana bread, and wondered why I felt so down, despite how very fortunate I knew myself to be. But knowing something intellectually and feeling it aren’t the same thing.
That’s when I wrote to my landlord and asked if I could create a garden in the space beside the house. It’s not the best space for a garden: it’s fairly narrow, and only a strip of it about four feet wide gets consistent sun. The rest is shady. But I did not want to grow vegetables. No, I just wanted plants and flowers, and many of those tolerate shade well. He wrote back to say “Sure, go for it.” And so my garden began. I knew at the beginning that I needed to have some raised beds, because the soil was rather poor and rocky. In the raised beds, I could add the sort of deep, rich soil that many of my plants would need. Now, as I walked around the neighborhood, I looked to see what other residents were growing. What would grow well here, in the relatively cool, rainy summers of Boston? What would survive the winter? Most importantly, I walked around my favorite park, a small wetland preserve with a pond and woods. What grew wild? What could I adapt to a garden?
There is no garden center where I live. I bought plants at the hardware store and on Etsy. I started with hostas, periwinkles, and violets. Once the raised beds arrived, I ordered bleeding hearts, heucheras, geraniums — all plants for shady gardens. Then I got extravagant with irises and daylilies. I made some investments, plants that would likely not bloom for a while: a hydrangea Annabel, an azalea. Finally I splurged on flowers I was not at all sure would make it, but that I wanted anyway — foxgloves, columbines, two roses (Iceberg and Souvenir de la Malmaison). Instead of scrolling the news, I scrolled plants. I researched hardiness zones and light requirements. As packages arrived, I unpacked them quickly so I could get each new plant into the ground. Every morning, every noon, every evening, I would walk out in the garden, seeing what had grown, making sure the new plants were watered just enough to get through hot days.
It kept me sane, amid the craziness of early summer — it’s keeping me sane now. There is something gardening provides, that sewing and baking do not. It’s the engagement with life, a life different from your own. It’s the sense that some things are out of your control — how quickly a plant grows, the weather. It allows you to participate in something larger than yourself, the slow march of summer and the year. It forces you to be patient.
Of course, it presents problems. At the beginning of summer, I took down the bird feeder, because I wanted to put up a bird bath. But without the feeder, the birds stopped coming, so I put it up again. With the feeder came birds — sparrows, cardinals, jays. But also squirrels,those forces of chaos, those havoc-wreakers. I have plants on my porch as well, in pots, close to the bird feeder — there is really no other place for either the bird feeder or the pots. But the squirrels like to investigate them, perform intricate acrobatics among them, sit on them. (I have seen them sitting, staring at me, in a pot of basil — with their furry gray butts planted comfortably among my herbs.) Should I try to get rid of the squirrels? But then, they are so funny! There are three, evidently a family, who visit every day. They sit on my porch furniture. The jays scream at them, when they want their turn at the bird food. On the theory that at least one of them is probably male, and at least one is probably female, I’ve named them Lara, Moe, and Curly. Anyway, they are only one species among my menagerie. I have birds, as I mentioned, and one morning I met a bunny hopping behind the house. There are worms, bees, and in the evening mosquitoes of course.
My garden is small, but it’s also a neverending sources of adventure. Will the phlox, which arrived looking like a bunch of sticks with dead leaves on them, survive? Is the peony Sarah Bernhardt growing yet? Will slugs eat the violet leaves? Do I have space for a dwarf lilac — perhaps if I move the lavender? Suspense, tension, even danger (I mentioned mosquitoes), but also beauty and comfort. A garden provides everything a good novel should. And it’s given me a sense of meaning and purpose, through this strangest and most difficult time.
These photos are of my garden, just after the raised beds were put in. They’re much fuller now, and the long woodland border is slowly being filled with hostas and other shade plants. It’s still a young garden, so it looks as awkward and gangly as an adolescent. But wait and see . . .
The long woodland border. I have since planted irises, daylilies, and a peony. More hostas are coming.
The raised beds in back. Roses Iceberg and Souvenir de la Malmaison just moved into the one at the right.
The other raised bed — the sunniest in the garden. If I move the lavender, can I fit in a dwarf lilac?
The pots on the porch, the last time they were growing beautifully, before the squirrels started sitting on them . . .