Restoration, After an Autumn’s Killing Heat


Japanese maple leaves with heuchera beneath

After a catastrophic fall and winter, a garden slowly begins to heal itself.

In the first blush of early spring, it looked as though the Halcyon Garden had suffered spectacular damage—after a fevered, ruinous autumn drought and a sullen winter of too much rain. Mature Japanese maples that Mom and I had planted as forearm-high saplings a decade ago produced no foliage. Others emitted a few wilted leaves on snap-dry limbs gone gray with death. Beds once profuse with hostas, persicaria, and hardy geraniums now exuded only mud and listless weeds.

As the ground warmed, some of the damage began to repair itself. Stately old Japanese maples began to fill out, at least in part, and the spear-tips of hosta leaves unfurled late and warily, as if they half expected some new meteorological onslaught.

“Death is an opportunity,” Mom always says—of gardens, at least—and we took full advantage of these new vacancies. We snapped off the fully deceased trees at their bases, pruned lifeless limbs, and went about refilling depleted beds with jaunty new perennials.

She launched into these damage-control tasks with such buoyant resoluteness that I found myself unable to focus on the losses. Every few days, I heard the garden gate snick open, and Mom appeared on the flagstone path bearing botanical treasures: creeping thyme to tuck in around the stepping stones in a new herb bed; amethyst Persian shield and silvery dichondra for the container collection; splashy cultivars of heuchera, dogwood, and Japanese maple, to replace the dozens that had succumbed.

Containers Gone Wild: starring Persian shield & dichondra

My mother and I broke ground on this garden in autumn of 2000, when I bought a ramshackle Victorian in Nashville with my husband, Hal. My parents, as handy and resourceful as the working-class Alabama families they hailed from, set to work with us on an emergency intervention—smashing walls, hauling out piles of plaster, and pulling thousands of carpet staples from the old pine floors.

Once we’d done our part to make the house mostly habitable, Mom and I turned our efforts to the weed-choked, trash-strewn yard. I began the project not knowing the difference between annuals and perennials, and with the modest goal of figuring out what “plant material” we should “install.” We took a master gardeners course together, and a portal yawned open: Suddenly, where there had once been undifferentiated greenery, I could see individual plants, and even name them—in italicized Latin, without irony. We excitedly paged through botanical guides and schemed.

But mostly, we planted and pruned.

When we dug into Halcyon Garden that first fall, we did so in the simplest, slowest way possible: on our butts with trowels, prying up turf one square foot after another. Given enough time, you can dig up an entire yard this way—which we did. We placed stepping stones and river rock borders by hand and planted scores of carefully chosen trees and shrubs: purple- and gold-leafed redbuds, kousa dogwoods with creamy, striped foliage; Carolina silverbells and sweetshrubs; and a lavish assortment of Japanese maples—cultivars with palmate green or lacelike maroon leaves; cultivars that spill over, spread like parasols, or reach high.

Carolina Silverbell 

Like any garden, ours faced long odds. A few old black walnuts offered patchy shade, but mostly, the cheery little saplings were up against a remorseless Southern sun—and potentially killing doses of juglone, a toxin secreted by black walnut trees that prevents many plants from growing in the big trees’ spheres of influence. Worst of all, our new garden faced the mortal danger of human error: flawed gardeners who water too much or two little, or choose the wrong plant for the wrong spot at the wrong latitude entirely, or plant something that turns Evil and Will Not Die.

My chief flaw as a rookie gardener was that I was impatient and heeded no cautions. I wanted a fully-ripened, lush oasis that would wrap us in cool, undersea shade—right away, just add water. But for years, nothing seemed to budge. “The first year they sleep,” my mom often reminded me. “The second year they creep. The third year they leap.”

And now, here it is: the overwrought, primordial garden I imagined fifteen years ago. It began as nothing more than sweat and unrealistic hopes. And then one day, it leapt. I can’t remember the exact moment, or even the year, when it ceased to be one thing and became another. In the interim were countless failures and disasters—beloved cultivars that wilted no matter how carefully we nursed them (RIP, cornus controversa); dozens of trial-and-error plantings to determine what could endure a continuous juglone cocktail; the catastrophic 2007 Easter Freeze; and the Great Cicada Massacre of 2011.

Fortunately, in the garden, failure and disaster are only visible for a season; soon, new growth obscures them, until they are forgotten altogether.

Working the dirt for fifteen years instills a person with a crazed sort of optimism, the kind that says, I know I won’t see the results of this for a decade or more, and I don’t mind. Or worse, the results may finally come, only to be destroyed: A hundred-year flood, a bank foreclosure (followed quickly by a backhoe), or some new kind of beetle, swarming up from the tropics, may undo all of your efforts, insensible of the love and time you’ve invested.

And of course, one day, when you and your tools are gone, the earth will swallow up your work and restore your carefully tended plot to nature’s preferred condition: exuberant chaos.

The gardener’s work is not permanent; that is the madness and the joy of it.

Meanwhile, I wonder how I’ll stave off that exuberant chaos alone, when Mom no longer appears on the flagstone path, her arms steadfastly full of saplings. She’s 72 now, which means she may never enjoy the shade of trees we planted this spring, or the ones we’ll hopefully plant next October, or next April.

She doesn’t seem to mind.

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