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Fall 2002, Volume 20.1

Essay

 

Tamara FritzePicture of Tamara Fritze.

Growing a Home: Gardens as Place


Tamara Fritze (Ph.D., Washington State University) is Assistant Professor of English at Utah Valley State College. Her work has appeared in such publications as Such News of the Land: US Women Nature Writers and Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes.

 

 When my partner and I bought our first home, I was anxious to grow a garden in a large abandoned plot on the north side of the house. Because we were working out of town four days out of every week that summer, my first kitchen garden was small, filling just one corner of the plot. The rest of the large area I filled with wildflowers, believing I had no time to care for anything more elaborate. The soil was rich; the rain came down, and within a few weeks I had a beautiful small meadow of wildflowers. The variety of colors and shapes surprised me, and I knew I had created the prettiest garden I had ever grown. Just as my garden was at its height of beauty, we came home to flowers sick and dying. The weather had been warm, and no rain had come, but it was obviously not death by drought. Upon closer inspection, we suspected the plants had been sprayed with poison. Later that weekend as I was weeding my kitchen garden, my only neighbor, whose emerald green lawn was just beyond my garden plot, appeared and explained he had sprayed "those weeds" for us so they didn't "invade" our garden (and probably his own lawn). Although I am sorry now, out of desire to keep peace in our new neighborhood, I did not explain to the man that "those weeds" were my garden, and I felt they were the most beautiful spot in the neighborhood. My kitchen garden was tasty that year—the tomatoes were particularly good—but the wildflower garden gave me more pleasure than anything I had ever before grown. Its demise caused me to begin thinking about gardens, what they are, what they mean, and why I care so much.


I began to understand that gardens are a way to exert ownership or control over the land. It was very important for me to plant something that year, even though I would not be home to provide the care it might need. I needed to demonstrate this land was ours, to do with as we desired. My grief at the loss of my garden, however, was far greater than if I had lost a special object, and the control I actually asserted was minimal, not even bothering to weed amongst the flowers. Obviously the garden signified much more to me.

The living garden was a source of healing after a long, physically exhausting week. Each Thursday evening when we came home, I looked forward to the stroll through the garden. Although I had spent the past week in forests of stunning beauty, there I was a visitor and lacked any sense of being part of the landscape. Picking my pathless way between plants within the garden, however, I was a participant within this nature. I worked the soil, nurtured the seed, and watered the plants. I was responsible for the nature planted here, but that nature also reached out to me, nurturing and speaking to me with a voice I heard through the movement of the plants, and the spicy scent of the petals. I was part of this place; I heard its song celebrating its life, then my own. My work within this place taught me to greet the land as an extension of myself and to recognize myself as an extension of the land.

Since the demise of this garden, I have spoken with many other gardeners, and they, too, recognize gardening makes one part of a place and draws one into an intimate relationship with nature. Not all gardeners feel the need of ownership that I felt when I began my first garden. Even if the home and garden are rented, if a gardener makes a commitment to a garden, an intimate sense of place and exchange with place occurs.

Three particular gardeners, Marjorie Brown, Sweetie Ruttan, and Bev Mill, all express the personal nature of their gardens and recognize the exchange with nature that takes place when gardening. Each of these gardeners has a very different approach to her dooryard, but all of them recognize the process of gardening as a way of hearing nature's voice and establishing a sense of place.

Marjorie Brown lives up Kellogg Hollow in Columbia County, Washington. She and her partner have rented a dilapidated farmhouse in the hollow for just over a year, and they love the place. When they first moved here, the dooryard did not exist because the previous tenants never bothered to mow the yard nor plant any seeds. Over the past two summers, the two have gradually extended the dooryard, mowing a little bit more each week, believing this reflects their love of and pride in the place. Marjorie has also created a vegetable garden and three small flower beds. Scattered on the weed-filled lawn are plastic bleach bottles with holes cut in their sides and placed on stakes so she can "tell which way the wind is going." A wide array of chairs, a picnic table, several lawn mowers and numerous other equipment occupy the lawn, giving the dooryard the appearance of being "lived in." All the work they do within the dooryard gives Marjorie a greater sense of ownership and makes her feel more as though the place is her home, not just a rental where she resides.

Marjorie's vegetable garden consists of tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, and squash. She attempts to keep this plot fairly clean, and she enjoys the work, believing the vegetables are worth the effort. Although she finds it a pleasure to eat from the garden, Marjorie does not preserve any of the produce. She and her partner eat it all as it matures, and "nothing's left" for canning. Because of the few vegetables planted and her lack of preservation, her garden's biological and economic roles are limited. It helps reduce the grocery bill for only a few
weeks each year, and Marjorie does not believe it is a major source of their nutrition even then. The primary function of the garden resides elsewhere.

Although Marjorie is hesitant to call the garden a source of spirituality, connecting that term only with church, she perceives a deep connection to her garden which is more meaningful than the vegetables she produces. "I just plant the seeds, and they grow! It's a miracle!" she exclaims. This sense of the miraculous is an essential element of her dooryard, but she is not comfortable discussing this function. Her garden is a place too well-known to analyze in this way.

Although she carefully nurtures the plants in the vegetable garden, Marjorie's flower beds are so full of weeds and grass that it is difficult to see what she has planted. She explains that last year's flood resulted in "ground so hard the weeds don't pull out," so she does not attempt to keep the beds clean. Marjorie's favorite bed is a tractor tire in the front yard, filled with orange marigolds (Tagetes paula). She has put a twelve-inch fence around the bed and a duck lawn ornament within it to keep the cats out of her flowers. Marjorie takes great pride in this tiny garden, and the soil is loose enough here to keep the bed clean. She proudly states, "Everything I planted there grew," and she is quick to point out the duck was a birthday gift, and the tire she bought at the farmer's co-op. Marjorie's ownership of these items is important to her and a source of pride. By owning them, she is able to extend her sense of ownership to the greater dooryard and feel more as though this space is personal, a home unlike any she has had before. However, this home is not just a result of her perceived ownership of it, and it does not connote dominion over the land. Marjorie feels she belongs to this place as much as it belongs to her. Through her work in creating this dooryard, she has come to know this nature, and she accepts it as it is. She is not concerned by the weeds growing in the beds nor by the thistles in her grass, which are so thick that walking in the yard barefoot or even with sandals is not possible. She has no intention of digging the thistles up nor of spraying them, and she does not really even think of them. They are just present, a part of her homeplace, a plant which must be accepted because it is part of the place she loves.

Marjorie does not believe her garden is a place about which the greater culture should have a concern, and the only approval she seeks other than her own is her landlord's, and his approval is only necessary because she does not want to be asked to leave this place. This is a private place, an extension of her home, and she treasures it. Marjorie would like to extend the privacy by planting a hedge across the front of her yard, even though there are no other houses in sight and growing such a hedge would ruin the pleasant view she has of the Palouse hills. Her dooryard separates her home from nature, but the dooryard does not exclude nature. She recognizes nature exists within this place, but it is a nature she knows intimately. When asked how she understands her garden, she can only respond, "This is just home. Nothing else." Her home is too well known to her to turn it into an object upon which she must reflect. She intimately knows the plants she has grown, but to describe the place of the
dooryard is not possible for her. She can only offer, "I love to watch it grow. It's my garden." The fact that she has lived in Kellogg Hollow a short period of time and made limited changes to the dooryard does not lessen Marjorie's connection to the place. Through the plants she has nurtured, she has extended the boundaries of her home beyond the walls of her house. The gardening process has created a sense of place for her which she has never before had.

Herbalist Sweetie Ruttan also lives in a rental in Columbia County, but her home is beside a busy highway and borders the city limits of the small town of Dayton, Washington. She grows 145 varieties of herbs and a small vegetable garden. Much of what she grows is indigenous or grows wild in the area, so other gardeners may consider many of her plants "weeds," and because Sweetie focuses on herbs, flowers are more incidental rather than the focus of the garden. This results in a dooryard which to non-gardeners appears chaotic and weed-filled. But spending an hour or two in the garden with Sweetie would open the eyes of even the most insensitive to a garden of scents, fruits, and uses.

"Wild" nature is welcomed within Sweetie's garden because she has learned the value and the beauty of plants most members of the dominant culture pull from their dooryards. Knotweed (Polyonum aubertii), clover (Trifolium repens), and purslane (Portulaca oleracea) are purposely included in her garden. Even wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), which most gardeners consider a nuisance, grows next to her yard on the roadbank, and Sweetie welcomes it, using it as a bug repellant, incorporating it into
wreaths of other dried herbs which she hangs beside and over the doorways to her home. Although Sweetie makes use of these plants, her use does not constitute an attempt to dominate and control them. She is simply a participant within this nature. Her dooryard is not well-manicured nor weed free. The grass grows beyond the height most gardeners would permit; Sweetie only mows when the paths are not apparent, and a visitor may accidentally step in a bed. To not protect the plants of nature growing in her dooryard would be an act of irresponsibility for Sweetie. She does little weeding, and she refuses to spray for pests because "they're here, too," meaning this land is theirs as well as hers. Instead, she depends upon the knowledge she has gained through her labor on this land: companion planting, "bug repellant herbs," her rich compost, and watering with a comfrey tea (Symphtum officinale). She prefers to use only the power necessary to maintain the existence of the nature she desires to thrive in this middleground of nature and culture.

Sweetie's unwillingness to exert power emphasizes the transformations gardens, as a living art form, can make from day to day, season to season, and year to year. They are in an incessant state of flux. Sweetie says she began with a specific plan, but she has been unable to maintain it because "the fairies have transplanted the plants to where they choose to grow them." She now has plants growing in the garden which she has no idea how they came to be there, but she revels in the changes. "Every year [the garden] looks different," she explains, and she anxiously awaits each spring to discover what her garden has become: new plants appear, old ones jump to the other end of the dooryard, and the garden is perpetually new.

The process invoked by the garden is, according to Sweetie, a result of her belief system. She insists she is in partnership with Mother Earth, whom she worships, and this is her primary reason for gardening. She believes, "This garden doesn't really belong to me. It belongs to the earth…. I'm just taking care of it. It'll be here after I'm dead." She admits that she worked hard to help create the dooryard, but "I couldn't have done it alone…. The sun, the water, the moon, and Mother Earth had a big contribution." The gardener must work with Mother Earth, offering Her gifts and performing rituals, or the garden will ultimately fail.

For Sweetie, the offerings take the form of the compost with which she feeds her plants. The rituals consist of a celebration of the seasonal transitions of the earth with moon and solstice ceremonies. She explains, she "starts the fire in the spring for Mother Earth so the sun shines. In June, on St. John's Day, I light the fire to thank the sun for shining and to give it more energy. In fall, the fire is lit to say good-bye to the sun; and in winter, everything is going to sleep, so I light a fire to keep the earth warm." She performs the ceremonies with her friends, and the rituals are actually a celebration of friendship with other women and Mother Earth. Working as a partner with the earth, Sweetie sees herself as being part of the place, merging with the garden; she is no more nor less important than the comfrey, wormwood, or lady's delights.

Her worship of the earth shapes Sweetie's attitudes towards her dooryard and what she does there. Her garden is both a celebration of the art of nature and a human creation to honor that art. It has an important social function as well. Sweetie's garden helps her overcome traditional barriers, including those of race and class. She believes gardens are a "universal language," and no matter "who you are or where you are," everyone can enjoy a garden. Without consciously working towards an egalitarian society, Sweetie has discovered gardening can overcome differences. She lives an economically marginal lifestyle, selling herbs, cleaning homes, and gardening for others. However, through creative and inexpensive decorating and gardening, her small rented home has become a comfortable and welcoming space. She has "incredible tea parties here about once a week," and invites people "from all different walks of life." The garden dissolves the barriers which might otherwise be present. By defying the dominant culture's understanding of a dooryard and refusing to assert enough power to remove what most consider "weeds," Sweetie's garden calls into question many of the culture's values and the culture's general way of living. The chaotic beauty which results fascinates her guests, and Sweetie hopes it will teach them how to listen to nature's voice and to recognize their place within and responsibility toward nature.

Like Sweetie Ruttan, Bev Mill also hears the voice of nature, but perceiving her garden as a nineteenth century Romanticist might, she calls that voice "God." For Bev, observing and caring for nature within her dooryard brings her closer to God, helps her better understand God's ways, and serves as a vehicle to help her better appreciate the process of life which He has created. Her gardening, however, also has resulted in her connection with her home near Benton City, Washington. Coming from California, Bev admits it took five years for her to appreciate the beauty of the muted-colored and arid landscape of Central Washington's desert. When she first moved to her home, she felt overwhelmed by the great size and perceived emptiness of it. She asked, "God, You want me to take care of all this?" She quickly got started, however, and her work here has taught her to know and love the subtle beauty of the desert. In the past ten years, she has created over 100 beds and planted 485 trees. Her home is now surrounded by color and shade, and it is easy to believe there is not room for a single plant more_although Bev would disagree.

The process of gardening is what shapes Bev's daily life; time is not a minute by minute nor hour by hour construct. Instead, Bev understands time in terms of the plants that are in bloom or the birds that come for food. The garden binds her to the seasons and to the larger growing process which can be reckoned in years or even generations for many shrubs and trees. This teaches the gardener patience. She is not in control; she is just part of the place, and she simply must wait, nurture the plants in the garden, and "God will transform nature in His time, not in ours."

Part of this transformation will result in the hundreds of trees she has planted eventually shading the sun-loving plants beneath them. Bev realizes that growth will occur and with it death must also happen. Nature's and God's
paid attention to the nature of her dooryard, grown to know it intimately and planted the Alstroemeria in the coolest spot on her acreage, then waited patiently to discover what God will do with His creation.

Bev insists asserting power over nature is never successful. She believes, "That has got to be one of the most ridiculous false impressions humans have. You do not assert power…. You've got to work with nature. You absolutely must." To be successful at gardening, gardeners must be patient, watch and pay attention to how nature behaves in this chosen place. Taking time to become acquainted with the nature within a place is the only way to successfully create a garden, the only way for the gardening process to continue. By knowing her place and knowing her place, Bev's garden thrives.

Bev admits she does occasionally try to assert her opinion, but she generally has been unsuccessful. Birds drop seeds, winds blow, and new plants arrive. Each year, she attempts to carefully arrange the colors in the iris bed, but this past year when redoing the bed, she accidentally left a small rhizome of lemon brocade in the ground, and it grew beside where she put raven's roost. The result was a brilliant yellow against a rich black— "how much more gorgeous could that be?" The beauty that results when nature makes many of the decisions is often greater than all that careful planning can produce. It also makes the garden "a lovely surprise every year."

Bev considers her garden a "share garden," and this is its primary social function. Sharing flowers and plants creates "incredible bonding friendships," and many of Bev's closest friends are
work will be done, and this includes the discovery of new life as well as death. Her response to this merging of binaries is simply an acknowledgment that she, too, is part of this garden, so her lifespan is limited as well. By the time her trees are so large they shade out the plants beneath them, she will be gone from this place, so someone else will have to decide what action to take: chopping the tree to save the flowers or permitting the tree to live at the expense of the plants below. The garden is a place of paradox, and Bev chooses to celebrate the merging of life and death, nature, and culture. She welcomes the contradictions her garden offers.

Even the layout of Bev's dooryard is a merging of nature and culture. Although her home is at the top of a hill and the land descends rather steeply around it, she has chosen to work with the natural topography. She has no desire to flatten the place or construct a series of terraces. Instead, she has created raised beds to help maintain the soil and water. Paths for walking wind around them, gently down the slope. See "Women," Bev says, "enhance the earth; they don't change the earth. Women work with nature because they are nature." As part of nature, she enhances this land through the introduction of more nature. Many of her plants are natives, so they thrive in this climate. Others are chosen for their ability to adapt to the nature of this place. However, Bev also has a few plants which do not usually thrive in the desert heat. She explains her Alstroemeria is not supposed to be able to grow in this place. The plant is doing very well, though, not because she has asserted power to change the microclimate, but simply because she has gardeners. She encourages everyone she meets to take something from her garden and every year gives away literally truckloads of plants. Children also come, and she encourages them "to touch, to smell, to run, to play," for a garden can teach children essential lessons about the process of life and how to live more deliberately and joyfully. Bev is a natural teacher, and one of her perceived responsibilities is to use her garden to teach all her visitors how to appreciate nature and to demonstrate for them the power and beauty of God's world.

Her primary responsibility within the garden, however, is that of caretaker. She tells herself continually, "Be wise, take care of what you have, don't overdo." Caretaking requires her to buy plants responsibly, purchasing only when she knows she has the "right place." She supplies the necessary nutrients, "waters it, and keeps the weeds away," but then she is "out of the loop." God takes over at this point. He and His creations actually create the garden, and He permits her the privilege of the caretaker role. The garden "is a cathedral—beautiful, shining, colorful. You know God is there. How could He not be? How could He not be?"

This does not mean, however, the garden is perfect. "There's weeds, there's dust, there's dry spots, there's holes in some of the leaves, but it's alive!" It is in process, growing and changing on a daily basis. The lack of perfection is not a source of stress but a relief for Bev. "If it were perfect I'd think, `What am I doing in all this?' … I don't think I'd be worthy to be in it." As an imperfect person, she could not exist comfortably in a perfect paradise of God; she would lack a sense of place for herself. It would become burdensome to care for a place whose perfection she would be unable to maintain. Instead, the process of living requires minor flaws, encourages weeds and pests because life results in more life and, ultimately, in death. The process of the garden is the process of creating a middleground for life and death, nature and culture, the sacred and the secular. For Bev, this process is what should be celebrated, not the end product of the beautiful garden. The process depends, however, on Bev listening carefully to God, becoming intimately acquainted with her dooryard, and establishing there a sense of place for herself.

These gardens demonstrate what a dynamic folkart gardening is and how a single dooryard may serve many functions concurrently. All three gardeners grow vegetables, and Sweetie and Bev grow herbs as well. The gardens thereby function both biologically and economically. For Marjorie, the vegetables she grows receive more care than any other part of the dooryard. I believe this is a result of her recognition of the needed sustenance her garden can provide and of the economic value that sustenance has. Although the number of vegetables she grows is limited, she has planted enough of each to eat them on a daily basis while they are producing. She is not in an economic position which would permit her to overlook their importance. Sweetie is in a similar position economically, and her garden's function in this sphere is even more essential. She grows a few vegetables, and these are used for her family's sustenance. The herbs, however, are her primary source of income. She sells plants, seeds, tinctures, teas, and cooking herbs. Although Sweetie would deny the biological and economic functions of her garden are of primary importance, she is dependent upon her dooryard for supporting herself and her children. Unlike Marjorie and Sweetie, Bev Mill does have some disposable income, so the economic function of the garden is not important to her, and Bev believes she should not use her garden for monetary gain. She gives to every visitor who comes, but she would never sell a plant nor any of the produce. To do so, she believes, would take some of the life from the dooryard and much of the joy from the garden. She, however, grows a greater variety of vegetables than either of the other women, and she delights in the fresh flavors her vegetables and herbs produce. In this way, the biological function of the garden becomes somewhat more important, but I do not believe that this is one of the reasons she gardens.

Instead, Bev's garden functions on much deeper levels. One of these is the social function of the garden. Her garden provides a place to make connections with others, both children and adults. Sharing the plants creates social bonds and deep friendships. Sweetie's experience is similar. Although the first visitors to her garden were clients who paid to spend the day learning to garden from Sweetie, these women have since become friends. Now Sweetie uses her dooryard to bridge social differences; the garden has transformed to a gathering place for a group of diverse friends, people who would never have met were it not for Sweetie's dooryard.

Marjorie's garden functions socially only peripherally. For her, the dooryard is a private place, an extension of her home, another room in which she resides. She prefers not to share it with anyone other than her own partner. I am the only one to visit Marjorie's garden, but I must add she made me a welcome guest. She seemed very pleased by my interest in her place, and I believe the reason her garden does not function within the social sphere has more to do with Marjorie's reticence than with her unwillingness to use the garden in this way. Her pride in her garden is very evident; if she were more comfortable speaking with others, I am certain her garden's social function would increase in importance.

Dooryards also serve aesthetic and spiritual functions, and I believe all three of these gardeners would suggest these are the most important spheres in which their gardens work. Even a non-gardener viewing any of these dooryards would recognize the effort involved in achieving the beauty found there. Although Bev owns her land and has resided within her garden longer than Marjorie and Sweetie have lived within their rented places, all three have worked to create a place they each perceive as beautiful. Creating an aesthetically pleasing garden establishes these gardeners as participants in their chosen place. The process of nurturing the garden and the gift of the garden nurturing the gardener permits these women to hear nature's voice. Whether that voice is perceived as Bev Mill's God, Sweetie Ruttan's Mother Earth, or simply the sense of the miraculous that Marjorie Brown sees in her growing plants, really makes no difference. Hearing the voice of nature ties these women to their place and establishes the women themselves as only one part of a much larger nature. The hours they spend working within this land permits them to come to know it intimately. Through their work, they establish a sense of place and a connection to that place. Their gardens make their dooryards personal, a place where they can relax and become part of the landscape.

I am beginning to understand how important this sense of place is for gardeners. Last year, my partner and I moved from the Northwest's towering pines and firs to Utah's scruffy gambel oak. Needless to say, it has not been easy. An entire year of searching for a home and not gardening has thrown off my equilibrium, and I've often wondered if this move was a mistake. But three weeks ago we began our third garden. With the first trees we planted, I could feel myself begin to stabilize. Pouring over my gardening books, I've begun to identify many of the shrubs and flowers I've seen while hiking in the Wasatch Mountains this past year. Last weekend I planted a field of native grasses and wildflowers, the only such garden I've had since my neighbor sprayed my first ten years ago. I can hardly wait to see this new meadow, and I am certain in the spring when the seeds begin to bloom, gardening will lead me home.


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