The Most Ephemeral Art
"The flowers he gathered
bloomed their brief bright hour,
Then rained their petals
in a silent shower."
A commentary by English gardener Charles Elliott on gardening as "the most ephemeral art" started me remembering gardens I knew from my childhood, gardens which could have been to some degree eternal, but land ownership is not, & things do change, not often for the better. And it is the nature of things ephemeral to vanish away, often lasting longer in memory than in this world.
My great-grandmother planted a granny smith apple that was already old & twisted & beautiful when I was a tiny preschooler, & I had a very early love of trees specifically due to this one apple tree, which I believed was sentient & a friend. As a preschool tot, I travelled with my mom & stepdad in a carnival in circles that overlapped gypsies & itinerant farmworkers, but in off-seasons, or just for no reason, I'd be with my great-grandparents for varying lengths of time. Though the carnival with its bizarre sideshow acts seemed in those days a daily banality to me, my stays on the farm with grandma's flowers & guinea hens & chickens, & grampa's rabbits & the family cow, with acres of orchard trees & flowers & veggie gardens, all seemed to me a fairyland of joy.
That old apple tree reached a long thick arm to a bathroom window, by which route all of the grandkids & cousins that betimes visited Grandma Elva & Grampa Perry for overnights would come & go secretly. Beyond the big apple was a little plum orchard, then some wild trees. Around a big stump in a nearby field was a garden belonging to all the grandchildren & cousins -- grandma would set us planting yarrows or nasturtiums & sweet williams & many such easy things to surround the stump. Another stump was completely engulfed in an enormous wild rose with small pink flowers, still in my memory the most beautiful rose that ever existed.
Some of the earliest photos of my oldest sister & I (at the barely-walking stage & still diapered) are in Elva's garden eating rose petals. We were fortunate in our choices, as grandma had a lot of foxgloves we could've eaten. In fact, I'm fairly certain we did eat those too at one time or another, but we didn't get sick. She was also fond of gladiolas, which I remember as ten times taller than us children, though of course memory exaggerates their enormity. I didn't inherit her fondness for gladiolas, but many of my present-day gardening choices are directly because I fell in love with things in her gardens -- torch lilies, an old western ash that often reappears in my dreams its limbs heavy with clusters of orange berries, grassy wild irises, a tulip tree, native shrubs of edible berries, stonecrops, & her long enclosed garden porch with many awesome orchid cacti.
Meanwhile great-grampa Perry, a Yakama Indian, had an enormous strawberry field, but a few years later, he got rid of the strawberries & became one of the more famous dahlia growers in King County, with many flower club visitors & buyers, & many awards both for in-garden flowers & cuttings shown at the Puyallup Fair & other fairs & garden exhibitions. He grew the dahlias the way he grew corn, so it wasn't much of a garden in form, but the flowers reached extremes of size & color.
All that remained of their gardens & orchard when last I drove by the old place were a couple of the plum trees. But many of their plants were still growing in the 1980s, twenty or thirty years after grampa & gramma were dead. I remember my last visit to the old homestead sad that the Granny Smith was gone, that a Grampa's living Christmas tree was gone, even the house Grampa built was gone. But I did find, overgrown by grass, the cement stoop to Gramma's flower-filled sun-porch. I stood on that old stoop in the middle of nothingness, envisioning the house & gardens that once were there.
Then there was the Garden of Mr. Lambert, the recluse down the road. He was friends with Grampa, so was friendly to me & my oldest sister, but mostly he was a grump to kids who lived along that country road, & there were legends of him as a sorcerer who buried children under his flowers. On Halloween when it was permissible to knock on his front door, the children never would. Even my sister & I were reluctant, but we worked up the courage to be the only kids to knock on his door. Then knock again. Then knock again. Finally he opened the door a crack & we shouted in unison, "Trick or treat!"
"Just a minute," he said, abandoning us on the porch for a great while. When at long last he reappeared at the door, he gave us scabrous, hard autumn apples, obviously only just then harvested for our rather disappointing reward.
He had huge old fruiting bing cherry trees, & several smaller cherries, & pears & apple trees galore. It was not like a regular evenly planted orchard, but was a collection of mismatched fruit trees, like a fruiting forest. His immediate back yard was thick with flowering shrubbery & spring's flowering bulbs. His roadside was a row of crabapples which he permitted my great-grandparents to harvest for jellies & pickles. His property came to a sudden drop-off into a canyon, the edge of which had many flowering shrubs under old-growth Douglas firs, & a partially worn-away footpath that had been carved in the cliff wall.
When he died, his land lay unattended for twenty years. His house was torn down & lumber recycled, but naturalized daffodils, daisies, & the fruit trees remained striking presences. I would drive out to his place when still in my twenties to harvest cherries & apples. Then one year I drove out for the free harvest & to remember "Old Mr. Lambert" who scared most of the children, but it had all been cleared away. There was only a vast expanse of mud. Not a hint of Mr. Lambert's gardens & half-wild orchard remained.
The land was in a short time carved up & a cul de sac of a dozen homes sprang up, each house soon revealing one or another puny shrub growing in front, though mostly lawns. The canyon edge had become a dumping-cliff for lawn-clippings, & if anything growing down the slope was Mr. Lambert's, could only have been the ivy that naturalized & climbed what old trees could not be removed since it was too steep a hillside ever to build on.
And then there was the inner city garden of my stepmom Lek, a Thai buddhist bikuni (priestess/nun). She had a small but highly productive garden on an otherwise vacant lot in the Freemont neighborhood. I learned Thai peasant irrigation methods & we had plenty of fresh produce. Once when the cauliflowers disappeared just before harvest, Lek & I went down to the Saturday open air market & she began to look for her cauliflowers. Spotting them, she began yelling at the young hippy woman for being a garden thief. The woman denied everything, until Lek pointed out her fingernail marks on the stems, where she scratched the cauliflowers daily so as to harvest them only when they reached maximum ripeness. The young hippy thief finally admitted her crime, but claimed rather indignantly that Lek was not harvesting them in time & they would've gone bad. This false charge considerably annoyed Lek, who began filling a bag with the woman's for-sale produce. "You can't take all that!" the young woman protested. Lek said, "Who knows how much of this you stole!" The young woman fumed helplessly as we walked back home with the cauliflowers reclaimed, & much else for the trouble.
One never expects a veggie garden to be permanent, but it would be so romantic if it were today a neighborhood pea patch in Freemont, one that I could boast my stepmom founded in the late 1960s or early '70s. Instead, the whole block was leveled & new buildings fill up every inch of the area.
The only garden of my childhood that survives is my Great-aunt Cora's. Her property was back-to-back with my great-grandparents, & she inherited their land & grew veggies in an absurdly large area that had once been grampa's dahlias. But her own property was all deeply shaded by native & ornamental trees & shrubs, with the understory filled in with smaller shrubs & perennials & creeping vines. Very little was left to lawn.
Toward the end of her life she "retired" to the front property that had belonged to her parents (my great-grandparents), & she sold her gardens & her run-down old house to me, very cheaply too. So for a while I owned a long-established garden with plenty of the woody shrubs such as have remained my favorite things to this day.
This was in the 1970s when I & my partner of that decade restored & added to Cora's gardens, which in her old age she could not keep ahead of any longer & had let go considerably wilder than was ideal. Some parts of it I never much pruned, as I liked it wild-looking, but some trees & enormous shrubs needed serious pruning & underlimbing or propping up, & the ground-level had to be cleaned up for restoration of perennial gardens. Where possible I restored things just as Cora had had them when she was able. I added a garden patio with recycled bricks salvaged from a house in a nearby "town" called Sylvia Pines that had completely burned to the ground a couple decades earlier & been reclaimed by forest.
Even in the late 1950s & early 1960s, the only evidence that Sylvia Pines ever existed was a gravestone-like marker that said "Sylvia Pines" just off Highway 99, at the head of what had been a dirt road into town, though that road was gone & the upright marker was hidden by trees & bushes. The Greyhound bus line along Highway 99 had a "Sylvia Pines" stop listed on the bus schedule, but when the bus stopped there, there was only forest on both sides of the highway. So not only entire gardens, but an actual village, turned out to be ephemeral.
So my partner & hiked back into the woods to find the overgrown ruins of vanished Sylvia Pines, & reclaimed bricks from tumbled-down fireplace chimneys, carrying the bricks to the main road a few at a time on several journeys, until we'd gotten enough bricks with which to fashion the garden patio.
I loved having & caring for Cora's gardens, & I loved chopping wood for the airtight stove, & I loved that we were backed up against a national park with only forest between us & Puget Sound. Just about everything outside & around that house I loved. But the house itself was in terrible condition. Though we replaced the roof, mostly it was a "money pit" sort of place. My partner & I never adjusted to being so far from city events, & every time we turned around something needed fixing on the house. So we sold the place profitably & returned to Seattle.
I afterward pined for the gardens but I never missed the house, & the next time I bought one, it was no run-down fixer, as I'd learned my lesson & had no more delusions that I was capable of major carpentry.
I took with me from Cora's gardens many potted starts of some favorite things that would transplant easily into a small urban garden, plus I created raised irrigated beds like my step-mom's, & continued gardening in the city. But eventually I lost even the few things I brought with me from Cora's old gardens, in moves that were to follow, with less & less taken with each move until there was none.
But luckily the family who bought the house did value those old gardens. They restored the house as my partner & I had been unable to afford to do, & they did so without doing much harm to the gardens. They removed some things such as big trees too near the house & a row of laurels that completely overshadowed a lengthy driveway & dropped crud on cars, & they extended the patio area in a manner that required them to destroy a shrubby rose garden. Yet overall, their changes preserved the greater percentage of the gardens.
Possibly more than half of great-aunt Cora's trees & shrubs persist, & some of the smaller flowers may well be descended from her plantings, it's hard to know. A few things I added while I owned the place are still there. The big area of adjoining land which had been consecutively strawberry field, cornrows of dahlias, then veggie garden big enough to feed the whole neighborhood & all members of an extended family, is today divided & has a couple houses on it, no gardens any more, but at least Cora's shrub-surrounded house remains. I've never had the nerve to knock on the door to thank the current owners for not levelling all of it for the sake of a duffer's boring lawn.
A vast percentage of my gardening methods I learned form Aunt Cora, & many of my flower favorites were hers. Some of the family thought she was nuts, because she'd go out on a rainy day to water her shade gardens under big trees. The image of her in rain hat & raincoat standing in the pouring rain with watering hose in hand struck less radical gardeners as loony. She'd point out that their trees, if they had any, never had anything growing under them, as mere rainfall never reached up close to the trunks.
Given the ephemeral nature of the art of gardening, it's surprising that even one of the gardens of my childhood & youth still exists. And I imagine my own present garden, which is beginning to look quite old already though it's not, could vanish in a trice when some future owner decides it's impractical to have all these plants to care for when a flat green lawn would be so much more useful.
Though accepting that this is an Ephemeral Art, part of me wishes I owned a bit of forest the understory of which I could transform into an enormous shade-garden of flowering shrubs, then in a last will & testament give over the land into perpetuity as an eternal public garden. But gardening is only rarely a task for posterity. Most of us have to our gardening lives for ourselves, without too much concern for the disposition of beloved plants when we have each of us passed beyond the shadowed veil.
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