The unexpected garden

In a 2009 interview with Bill Moyers, the poet W.S. Merwin noted: “I think poetry always comes out of what you don’t know.” Knowing what an avid gardener he has also been throughout his life, I think he might agree with me when I say that this also applies to the undertaking of planting and tending a garden.

The unknown plays a big role in any garden. The person who does as little as plant some pansies one year, only to watch them languish, and then plants petunias the next, only to find pansies spring up vigorous and lush among them is a witness to the unpredictable unknown that is gardening. I am relatively young, and though I’ve spent much time growing plants in some fashion at various times in my life, it is only for the past few years that I have had a garden of my own; only for a few years that I would call myself a “gardener.” Yet I’m certain that gardening will never cease to be full of surprises, and that the unknown and unpredictable will always play a role in any garden, no matter how established, no matter how professionally managed. We are dealing with nature here, with life at its most fundamental. Growth, decay, regeneration.

Here in the Northwest, spring comes relatively early, and bulbs begin to push out of the earth in late January, though they may take another month to put forth the first blooms. I’m always surprised by the things that I have forgotten about in the few months since I’ve last seen them, like the perennial pea Lathyrus aureus that I planted the year before, and entirely forgot about once it had died to the ground. (Which is not at all to say that it is an unremarkable plant.) The crocuses seem to wander about the garden, as I dig them up inadvertently in the summer and plant them again somewhere else. This is the time, too, when I discover seedlings among all the weeds that have thrived on the winter rain. Some can be transplanted, but it is almost always the rule that they will never do so well in the place you might prefer them as they will in the place they have selected for themselves. So as many gardeners do—the better ones, anyway—I allow chaos to play its role, and make it work in my design. The garden is better for it.

Here is the interview I mentioned at the start. I’ve revisited it more than once in the years since it first appeared, and each time I take more from it than I did before.

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