Long-Stemmed Neuroses

Why I garden indoors.

Growing up in a suburb that was as new as I was old, I resented the short specimen saplings that dotted our lawn and the neat rows of perky yellow daffodils that popped up from the wood chips in the kidney-shaped beds each spring. This was nature? Where were the ancient groves with thick canopies and filtered light whose mysteries lured the children I read about in books? I have always been drawn to the drama of landscape, of wild nature and grand, cultivated gardens. To be able to fashion beauty from light, scent, earth, flora, and fauna, and then to give it over to the uncontrollable forces of time and decay seemed an endeavor noble and humbling. I wanted to make gardens. But I moved to the city.

Last year, when I finally got my own piece of dirt and took a spade to it, it landed with a thud. The act of gardening itself was joyous–rising early, smelling earth, getting dirty, getting scratches that I wore proudly, making compost, lugging, digging, and planting. The result of all this was something else entirely. The garden I made was a meek little mess, a structureless collection of plants that never grew from the size at which they entered the ground. While the mistakes I made were not uncommon ones for a first-time gardener, I somehow believed that I was not a first-time gardener. Each weekend morning I would go out to toil anew, and well after dark, lit by headlights of the car, I would realize that pleasure had turned to despair. I grew sullen and ashamed of my surroundings. I would be found out.

While gardening is assumed to be so therapeutic that there is even a field called horticultural therapy, it wasn’t designed to help those with horticultural problems. I was left to self-analyze. My expectations had been too high. Worse, I recognized a disparity between my idealized self and my actual self that I had last observed in the seventh grade when I was a gawky girl with frizzy hair and no breasts and longed to be Laura Dessner, a girl with a perfect Farrah Fawcett hairdo.

I waited for the relief that winter would bring. To most gardeners, winter is merely the anticipation of spring. They take spring gardening catalogs with them into the tub, where they plan their coming glories. They start seeds in their basements to get a jump on the season. I was not ready to go there yet. Instead, quite by accident, I ended up gardening all winter, happily and in private.

I t started last fall in the country when I was invited to join a “bulb club”–a self-consciously pre-feminist all-girl group that meets to buy bulbs in bulk at reduced rates and exchange bits of gardening wisdom. Seduced by the descriptions in the catalog, I recklessly bought flowers that I knew would become deer food if planted outside. Fortunately, the bulb ladies showed me how to force them into bloom indoors in winter. Just pot them, they explained. Jam as many into the dirt as possible, water them, and then secure them in a Ziploc bag before sending them off to the cold, dark place required for dormancy. After a couple of months, having been deceived into thinking they’ve just slept through the winter, they can be brought inside and made to behave as if spring has arrived.

In early February, I brought the bulbs out slowly, a few pots at a time, gently acclimating them to their new surroundings before offering them the winter sunlight from a south-facing window. I lived to watch the progress of these, my darlings. I arranged them carefully, watered them dutifully, and checked their progress constantly, recording their growth rates and bloom times. As someone who resents houseplants enormously for needing so much and giving so little, I thought at first that this might be hypocritical. But these potted wonders changed daily, stretching and budding and turning toward the sun. They did not just sit there inert and accusatory, the way houseplants do.

H ungering for more flowers, I moved on to the woody branches of spring-flowering shrubs, tricking them too. Outside I went for long stems of forsythia. Noticing that a willow tree cut down last year had resisted death, sending up dozens of shoots from its stump, I cut and forced those too. Near the house was a badly-coifed flowering quince that had only a handful of lovely flowers for a few days in May and one or two fruits clinging pathetically in late summer. Removed from its body, its limbs were elegant and stately.

It went on for weeks, bulbs and branches rising from slumber into bloom. I would change water, snip stems, peel back bark, arrange flowers, arrange arrangements, and stare at them. From the woods I gathered crab apple, winterberry, and swamp maple that looked promising. Anything with a hint of swollen bud became my prey. I also salvaged large pieces of a broad-leaved evergreen that had toppled in a storm, and put them in a pitcher. In came some mysterious blue berries from the side of the road and the orange berries of an ugly pyracantha. Even the irksome ivy by the front door looked good indoors. At the supermarket, I stared for a long time at the delectable dark green foliage and deep red stem and spine of Swiss chard. (I resisted.)

I was unstoppable, though. Rooms brimmed with buckets filled with branches so large they scraped the ceiling and the walls as I dragged them to the sink for their changes of water. Dinner came later and later as the kitchen was covered in twigs, branches, and berries.

As I write, the house is alive with flowers and foliage, and it is starting to snow again. An arrangement of salmon-pink quince blossoms is set against the gray wall of the dining room. On the dining table sit two terra-cotta pots of deep-pink species tulips. In the kitchen is a planter of yellow tulips with pale-green markings engulfed by a mass of purple grape hyacinths. Nearby is a blue pitcher bursting with sun-yellow forsythia blooms. On the window above the sink a small container is stuffed with bits of leftovers–the red berries of barberry, small twigs of willow, cuttings of hinoki cypress with its fruits attached, and the pendulous leathery seed pods of wisteria. On the mantle, an old iron urn holds cascading ivy and some fragrant winter honeysuckle. Next to that is a small black vase of cut miniature daffodils bought in the supermarket because I could not bear to harvest any of my own. And on it goes.

The end of winter is a nebulous time for gardeners–it is not quite one thing and not quite another. There are clear days when you can skate on the pond and others when you can walk about without a coat. Looking around for branches to bring home, I see the beech trees still hanging on to their frail, colorless leaves and notice that the drooping, short-lived flowers of the maple are about to open. While others are just dreaming of their gardens, mine is blossoming in the house.