Throughout many moves, a few garden treasures have always come along with me. The lion’s head above is one of my old favorites now. It was left behind at a house I lived in in upstate New York, the place where I first learned about and came to love gardening. When I first saw him, I fell for the fierceness of his expression. Eventually, he came to symbolize for me a time in my life when I discovered something wholly new and unexpected about myself.
The place where the lion first resided came with two acres of gardens. My father had purchased the house in Stillwater, New York, as a vacation home to come and visit me sometimes from Missouri, where I grew up. We agreed that I would live in the house and take care of it.
I had fallen in love with all the flowers and shrubs when we first looked at the house. It was June, I remember, and the gardens were putting on their full display. Plus it was a beautifully remodeled old farmhouse (it had even been featured in ‘House Beautiful’ under the former owners), and became the place where I was first bitten by that bug, too. It would have been hard, I think, for anyone not to fall under the home’s spell.
For me, the care of the gardens soon became a sink or swim situation, however. Not understanding at first how much work it took to both create and then keep everything growing, and healthy, and beautiful, I had to learn very fast or watch it all soon explode out of control.
And at times, especially in the first year or so, I was completely overwhelmed. I had to learn what tools and equipment I needed and how to use them, about good soil and watering and the need for mulching, about what each individual tree, shrub, and plant needed to thrive. I read gardening book after gardening book (this was the late 1990s, and there was no real widespread use of the Internet yet), most of which I still have. I feel like they are old compatriots that saved me in a challenging time, and so they deserve a permanent place of honor on my bookshelf.
Eventually, after my crash course in gardening, and hours spent in the sun and wet and dirt making sure everything stayed beautiful, I came to realize how much I actually loved the work. Being outside, working with a living canvas of art, was a revelation for me. I had some failures, of course, but mostly successes, and I grew very proud of my efforts and the ever-evolving creation I had become a part of.
When my father died just a few years later, he left me the house. Then it became solely mine to do with whatever I envisioned.
And it was a genuine surprise to me that I embraced it all so fully. I had grown up an outdoorsy tomboy; but I had always spent my time outside with animals. We had nice gardens at our old house in Missouri that I often took pictures of, but I think someone else took care of them. My parents never really had time; they were always so busy running a business.
But I dove right in to the challenge the house and those gardens presented. And the love of it all spread and thrived inside me. Like any lucky plant, it had found the right spot to take root.
After several years spent with those gardens, however, they had become almost too much a part of my life. I had grown obsessed with them and their care, with expanding and improving them. I even brush hogged land to make room for more gardens (well, my boyfriend did it for me). Most of my free time and money were spent on or involved them, and eventually I came to realize I’d neglected other parts of my life, other dreams and plans I’d hoped to experience.
The gardens had grown to cultivate something in me, too, a kind of perfectionism, or striving towards it, a feeling I grew not to like very much. Absorbed in all that creative work, my sleeping perfectionistic tendencies emerged, and kept growing. I realized I never felt like I was done, or like anything was ever good enough. And I think that sense undermined my feelings about myself and my relationships.
Thankfully, I had also begun practicing yoga, and its tenets of self-reflection and mindfulness helped me see the light. So, thinking I was trying to make more room and time for other creative projects and life paths, I sold the house and moved. Beautiful and charming still, it sold very quickly.
It was heartbreaking, and even now I sometimes regret the decision, wishing I still had those gardens and all their beauty I worked so hard for to enjoy myself. Who knows how much it would have all grown had I stayed there– I probably would have run out of room, at some point, and wished I had more space for my obsession to expand even further.
And I would probably still be out there working away, like the sort of slave I’d become to all it’s beauty.
Fortunately, over the years and in several more very different gardens, I’ve learned to prune back my urges, to maintain a reasonable shape on the landscape of my old obsession, to cut back my perfectionism. Gardening is still one of my great loves and has a special place, but it can’t be the only creative outlet I pour myself into. I am also older, and my endurance and energy no longer match my former zeal. I garden on a scale now I find manageable, one where I’m not starved for space, but also one where I know I have about as much as I can handle to care for well. One where I can let go of perfection.
Every now and then, though, when I’m outside working in my garden I think of the Stillwater house, how lovely it was. The memory of it brings such a mix of feelings– joy and sadness, pride and obsession, work and regret– that it’s difficult to think about it for too long.
All that’s really left of that place for me now are those complicated memories, and a few simpler treasures I kept to remind me of it, like my old friend the lion. He looks out over the landscape here in Hartford now, gracing the side of another remodeled farmhouse. Although I feel so much at peace here and content, the lion takes me back to the glory of those other gardens. He brings me home again to that house where I first learned about a love I would continue to carry with me twenty years later (and about it’s downsides), and how fiercely, how entirely, I embraced it all. And still do.