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My plants, my self

Today as I was taking two plants (a costmary and a tansy) to a friend, they tipped over in the car (after I'd packed them carefully in a box to prevent that!) and fell out of their pots, loosening their root balls and spilling dirt all over. They're sturdy plants, and will survive the accident — but my immediate reaction, when I saw the damage, was the same as I'd have if I saw a child fall and skin her knees on pavement: a little pang of dismay and grief, "Oh, poor baby!"

In early spring, I like to walk out in the garden every morning and see what has sprouted up from the bare ground that day. Each tiny plant strikes me with awe at the birth, and delight at how perfect they are when they first come up. "Oh, look at you!" I can't help saying to each new arrival.

Since my chemical sensitivities got much worse at menopause, I don't go out much, and have become rather isolated. But the plants in my garden give me more emotional support than did most of the friends I no longer see. Their beauty, their scents, their individuality fill me with wonder and glory. They are my good friends, as well as being my babies.

My plants feel like part of me; or perhaps more accurately, make me feel the continuity between my life and theirs. In a way, I identify with the plants — but even more so with the garden as a whole.


So at the same time as I enjoy tending and nurturing the plants, I also enjoy weeding. I like squatting down on my heels and pulling weeds out by hand. When you grasp the whole plant securely at the crown and tug firmly but gently, you get a feel for how the roots hold onto the soil, and your hand learns just how to pull, to get a plant out roots and all. Exactly like your hand learns, when you massage a person, to find the crinkly tight places and move them the way they need, to let go. A completely sensual experience, not done by thinking.

What goes where?

A weed is a plant growing where you don't want it. Even after I have decided I don't want it a plant where it is, I have to decide if there is somewhere I want it, and if not, whether I can find another home for it. I hate throwing perfectly good plants on the compost pile. If I can relocate it, it gets carefully dug and potted, watered and set in the shade to recover from the shock. But if I can't relocate it, I will pull it.

Deciding which plants I want where they are, and which ones I don't, is sometimes a question of the health of the other plants but just as often, it's an artistic question. This is also a sensual experience, not an intellectual one. If I leave this plant here, how will it fit in with the others? How do the shape, color, texture, and style of the plant coordinate with the others, what is the feel of the energy they create together? Again, it feels much like massage, only with more senses.

I like to watch self-sown seedlings spring up in odd places and grow to take on the characteristics of the mature plant, until I can recognize who they are and decide whether to leave them or not. My garden is a quirky patchwork jungle embroidered with accents and tableaux of startling individuality. But I do make decisions to get rid of plants, often. And to change whole beds around, just to see if the plants and I can together make a better composition.

Some serious weeds

For the past ten years I have been trying to clean out the hedgerow between our back yard and Pearl Russell's. Previous owners of this house did nothing for the garden, back for quite a time. The ornamental plants I have found growing in the back yard look as though they were planted when the house was built, over a hundred years ago. Pearl, in her nineties, confirms this: she was born in her house — which was built about the same time as this one — and is familiar with the original plantings. When we bought the house, the back yard was badly overgrown. The boundary between the two properties was the worst, especially towards the back. Dense, wild spiderwort, oozing its sticky sap when you touch it, mats of invasive lily-of-the valley, thorny but not very pretty wild roses, other thorny brambles, wild phlox, lady's rocket, ragweed, several things I have forgotten, and grass ...were tangled in a mess with young maples, oaks, and wild cherry trees, and with a medium-large elm that had sprouted two smaller elms from the same root system, but were not well-formed or attractive, any of them.


We've owned the house for over twenty years, but I've become much more serious about gardening since we lived almost four of those in France, where I got exposed to a more active attitude people take toward developing their land. When we got back I was appalled at the mess in the hedgerow. The first thing I did was get the trash trees cut down, including the big elm. The main part of the garden was very happy to get more sun. But other parts of the yard needed work more urgently: The front yard, for example, was a mess of mud, with no design or color. After six years of intensive work, its beauty now welcomes and invites people in, and I have more attention for the back yard.

In the last three years I've been able to get down to real work on the hedgerow. At first I tried to kill all the stumps by simply removing new growth when it came — but it got away from me too fast. This year I paid neighborhood girls to do it; that helped. But it was still going to take forever.

So I decided the stumps had to come out. I decided on hiring a backhoe, but the weeds needed to be dug by hand, shovelful by shovelful. The spiderwort were terrible; the roots are so brittle they break pieces off when you shake a clump to get the soil out. And then they would sprout again in a week or two, from the pieces! We had to throw topsoil away with the plants.

What does go there?

For years I had been dreaming about what to put in there when all the trash was out. There's a hybrid musk rose called 'Ballerina' that grows into a bush 4 feet tall and 5 feet wide, that I'm in love with. The flowers are a light, bright pink, single, small but in large clusters, and everblooming. There's probably enough sun there; is there enough moisture? Oh, well ...maybe I should stick to things that will take less moisture. Like... I've always wanted a purple smoke bush, but never had room for it. They get 10 to 15 feet tall. Hmm, do I want a tall hedge, shutting out sight of Pearl's garden, or do I want to keep the open vista we have right now?

Current fashion dictates privacy for back yards: most people want their property isolated visually from the next door neighbor's. But I really enjoy sharing gardening with Pearl, and seeing her garden as well as mine when I look out of the house. Of course, if someone else moves in there, I could feel completely different. So I guess I will plant some substantial shrubs. It'll take them a while to grow tall, and I'll enjoy the view till they do. I sure do wish the soil weren't so dry there, I'd have a lot more to choose from.

The pine tree

And then, in the middle of this train of thought, it hit me: If I cut down the 90-foot pine tree at the end of the hedgerow, the soil would be a lot moister. The surface roots of that giant drink a lot of water. I found a responsible arborist, we planned how to do it safely (with a crane), and I resigned myself to the large expense. It seemed to me I was removing a big weed.

I was a little apprehensive about persuading Ward to go along with me, but I felt I had to get his agreement, because though he's not a gardener, he has a special feeling about trees. Well, he agreed, we set a date, and I moved on to finding the backhoe for the stumps. The first person I called had helped us with previous big tasks in the yard, and Ward and I both like him. George came in and hardly looked at the stumps. His gaze jumped to the pine. "You're taking that down? You can't take that down! It's a healthy tree, it's a crime! I looked at Ward, and I knew I had lost him. I argued with George, "but look at all those dead branches."

"Character!" he boomed. And damned if I didn't start seeing what had been a giant weed, as a giant bonsai. I also remembered a conversation I had had with the tree the week before, when I had felt it necessary to tell it we were planning to cut it down. I had felt quite awkward. I wanted to address it, and the first phrase that came to mind was "old friend" but I couldn't say that to a being I was planning to kill. I settled on "Old companion, we're going to recycle you." It had still felt bad.


Yesterday, while I took the costmary and the tansy to my friend, Ward and Matt the backhoe man cleaned out the stumps. (I would have loved to watch the excavations, but I had to stay away from the diesel exhaust.) The big elm stump brought up a 6-foot ball of densely tangled roots; I would never have been able to get a shovel into the ground to plant anything else as long as those roots were there. Now there's a 25-foot by 9-foot stretch of blank dirt (well, with a few spiderworts sprouting up) where I am deciding what plants to put there, in what combinations, situated on the site in what way. I have a while to decide; I need to do some serious soil amendments first (horse manure, compost I made, compost I bought). After that I'll probably just mulch it heavily to keep the weeds down, and plant in spring. But I might be able to do some planting still before the ground freezes. It's exciting, having a blank canvas almost prepared.

A bonsai AND a weed

I'm glad we changed our minds and saved the pine. But it's still a pain in the neck. A bonsai AND a weed. And this experience has me thinking about the blitheness with which I kill plants all the time. There would be no garden if I didn't, it would be wilderness. I can't say well, it's different from killing animals, because the plants are equally vivid beings to me, equally sentient.

I also eat meat, because I'm allergic to legumes (and fish and a lot of fowl). I just try to remember to thank the animal whose body makes my food. Should I thank the weeds for the beauty their absence creates? That's a little too abstract for me. I can thank the garden for its beauty, for feeding my soul. I do thank, it with my whole being, every time I look at it or walk in it. My meditation chair is in a corner of it; I start every sitting by drinking in the smells and sights and energies and overflowing with the joy they give me.

It's not just the plants that are beautiful; the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The plants may benefit from my attention, but the garden is something I help create (with the collaboration of the plants and the place). In the depths of my being, I know it is a good thing. Then why was it a bad idea to kill the tree?

© copyright Catherine Holmes Clark 1998; last updated 8 December 1998