Deborah Needleman

In old English gardening books, the writer often starts off guiding the reader through a tour of her garden, past the formal garden to the reflecting pool at the edge of the woods and then up through the rose pergola on the terrace overlooking the orchard. This way the reader will know where the writer is when she exclaims over her glorious roses or laments the cat drowning in the water. Perhaps I should do the same for you.

You would know then that I am gardening without a garden. There is rubble and hay and mud and gravel backfill where once there were some flowers and lawn and steps. Practically every bed and border was dismantled last fall, every last hateful plant and shrub moved.

So, dear reader, walk with me, if you will, along the broken slabs of bluestone slapped down atop some salt hay that is the makeshift path leading from the front door. Step over the pile of rubble and slide down the little slope, where some steps will go, that leads down to the pool. Take care not to trip on the loose bricks there. Simply ignore where the new dry stone wall has mysteriously fallen down after only two weeks, and look to your left beside the barn. There inside the metal post and chicken-wire fence are three long beds where most of my plants are held captive in rows, nursery-bed-style. Should you want a closer look, untie the piece of threadbare twine that holds the chicken wire, and carefully step back slightly as the sharp wire curls back to let you in.

That is as much gentle guiding as I can give without throwing myself from one of the aforementioned piles of rubble. Here’s the story: Our contractor entered a clinical depression (a diagnosis I stand by firmly) and took a few weeks off to “try to get his head together.” He has never returned. This trauma has marked a rite of passage for me as nothing has before. Getting married was no big deal, and any 16-year-old can have a baby, but hiring contractors seems to be an act reserved for the secret society of grown-ups. Perhaps when it is all done, I will be able to impress you with my garden’s beauty and tastefulness, and make you feel a little envious, and then I will know that I am a fully fledged and totally operational grown-up.

There is, actually, one last little garden area I would like to show you. In front of the house there once stood an old lilac patch underplanted with a disorganized miscellany of spring bulbs. This was pretty much the only area spared by the plans for the new garden, probably because it seemed not worth bothering about. I lavished attention on this motley patch last fall knowing it would be all the garden I was to have this spring. I forked over $5 a bulb for a display of the glamorous large yellow Crown Imperial fritillaries that are meant to bloom in a week or two alongside the yellow-cupped Actaea (this seems to be right, according to my research) daffodils. I even risked arrest by smuggling some unusual little fritillary bulbs (packed in illegal dirt) back from a nursery in England.

A few weeks ago, however, it became clear that these lilacs would also have to be sacrificed in the name of progress. So, now in this misshapen island on what was once lawn, tiny scilla and early daffodils cluelessly and sweetly rise among the stumps of those old lilacs. And gardening in my garden now consists of lifting these cheery souls as they bloom and putting them into a temporary holding box so that later they might be lifted again to be put into the garden that I might someday have.