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Green Acre #58: Garden of Misery

In the beginning (left) and in the now (right), LittleBird Stephanie’s garden has grown but has never been what you might call “finished.” But then what garden ever is? Notice the clothesline in the adjacent yard on the left; it seemed to be sagging constantly under the weight of those blue jeans. / Photos courtesy Stephanie Cavanaugh.

THAT THE GARDEN is never finished is as fine a realization as I’ve ever had, if I could just keep it firmly in mind.

Right now, I am wallowing in a slough of despond.* Facebook has reminded me, with one of those cheery little reposted photos of year’s past, that I once thought the garden was done. That I had years ahead when I could happily flit about beneath the cherry blossoms in a billowing caftan, glass of white Bordeaux in hand, Piaf on the speakers, considering whether or not to pull the single weed that might mar my border.

This did not come to pass.

There on Facebook was a photo of my tiny garden (before it knew it was a garden) alongside the garden as it had grown over 30-ish years (as have I—I think those jeans I’m wearing were a size 2, which might be an exaggeration).

On June 11th of whatever year past, the garden was flush with flowers.

At the head of the path is Margot, the blue hydrangea on the right. She’s waving at Phyllis, the pink hydrangea across the way. I see there are already purple blossoms on the rose of Sharon, which tickle the top of the photo over there in the right corner. How beautiful it was, which is why I cared to take a picture.

What a long way it had grown from the miserable dirt patch in the picture on the left, with the  clothesline that seemed always to be sagging under wet blue jeans just visible over the wall. A older friend, who was then probably about the age I am now, had come to Capitol Hill from Cleveland Park.  Standing on the back porch, dripping mink and diamonds, she glanced over the wall and cooed, “Darling, how charming.”

The only good thing to be said about the straight path of cracked concrete that led from house to the garage is that it provided a fairly private, and blessedly short, track (okay, you don’t have to believe this but it’s true) where, after Baby was born, I ran laps like a rat in a trap, hoping to get back into the size 2s. This also did not come to pass.

After some years the path was replaced, becoming  curved and pebbled, not comfortable on bare feet, but lovely—like a dry streambed. Vines covered the walls, the garage roof: ivy, wisteria, trumpet, honeysuckle, clematis.  A small fish pond burbled then and burbles today, just beyond Phyllis. There may have been koi that year; when the raccoons discovered that gourmet dinner we switched to those goldfish that go for 10 cents each at the pet shop, the ones considered feeder fish for your boa constrictor or anaconda. These survive unmolested. Raccoons have such rarefied taste.

The garage door My Prince found on Massachusetts Avenue. A fine old house was being demolished on the west side of the Capitol; the door, with its gothic arch, was leaning against a dumpster. He sanded, and fitted, and painted it turquoise, in an ode to Key West (where I’d always prefer to be).

As I glare out at the garden this morning, perched as usual at the top of the back steps with coffee cup in hand and newspapers strewn about the floor, I note that Margot is limp and Phyllis has no blossoms, the rose of Sharon is gasping for air rights. The lilies are kaput. Even the elephant ears, which should be huge by now, are dragging their feet (if elephant ears can be said to have feet), and the flower seeds I’ve strewn and strewn are nowhere to be seen.

For the first time in years I notice patches of dirt where something is supposed to be in full bloom.

This after all my blather a few months back about the upside of global warming.

The Prince hauled himself to the roof the other day (I’m getting to the point, bear with me), and while I planned what I would wear to his funeral he called down that the cherry had topped the roofline, which, if you count the above-grade basement, makes it three stories up.  It’s about as wide.

Planting a Kwanzan cherry in a small yard is insane. If I tried to retake the early photo today, you would see nothing but leaves.

We knew this day was coming, having looked up the variety right after we bought it—a perilous habit, that—and realized that in not too much time the garden would be smothered. The tree was purchased in a fit of pique—a perilous habit that too—to obscure the townhouses that were built behind us, four-story monsters grown in what was a school parking lot,  meaning we once had a clear view of the sky, which is a precious thing in a city.

Certainly, I thought, we’ll move before . . . But no, we never do. We stay and molder.

Of course, a Kwanzan cherry is a spectacular sight when it’s in bloom, and if we ever do decide to pack it in and head for the Keys, we should time selling this place for the two days when that takes place.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie, when she’s not hunkered down in the slough of despond, writes about gardening hits and misses. You can read all her Green Acre columns by typing Green Acre into the Search field at the top of the page.

 * I am reminded here of The Pilgrim’s Progress. I can’t recall in what absurdly early grade I was forced to read that book, perhaps sixth? The only things I remember are the title and the phrase “slough of despond,” a place in which I consider myself with peculiar frequency.

Considering my flinging the phrase around here, it felt obligatory to look up the actual context, and not the haphazard contexts in which I have placed it in my life. Quoth Wikipedia: “The Slough of Despond is a fictional, deep bog in John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, into which the protagonist Christian sinks under the weight of his sins and his sense of guilt for them.”

Ah yes, the weight of sins, the guilt. And I’m Jewish. Imagine what this phrase would have done to my tender psyche had I been a Christian. This might not appear to have anything to do with gardening. However!

  1. The words individually involve no mention of sin or guilt: A slough is defined as a) a swamp, and b) a situation characterized by lack of progress or activity. “Despond” means a state of unhappiness and low spirits. So calling my current gardening state of mind a slough of despond is perfectly accurate.


One thought on “Green Acre #58: Garden of Misery

  1. Carol says:

    I hear you speaking these words as I look out into your garden, both of us consuming too much wine and cheese & crackers to fit into our perhaps size 2 jeans, which in my case was only a pipe dream. Ah, delightful reminiscence.

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