There are no adventures quite as adventurous as reclaiming the garden after a long absence abroad – and during the height of the growing season no less. From bewilderment to bloodshed to tears, it has been an interesting week.  Moreover, there are still miles to go before I sleep, and the winter is not drawing in fast enough to negate the need for effort.


Boosted by the rainy season and hot temperatures, ensete and canna prop up large sections of the garden.


Let’s begin squarely with the bewilderment, for it is a mighty blow and not all of us get up and keep walking. Certainly jet lag and a bottle of red wine to oneself at 11am (I do not apologize – it  was five o’clock in Rouen at the time) made the experience more bearable, but it was nonetheless a bit of a gut punch and it came in three rounds.

First there was the growth – the relentless, vigorous growth.  Even those plants that I actually encourage to grow shocked me with their new improved sizes.  The crab grass covered the groundcovers. The stilt grass covered the shrubs. To keep anyone from feeling left out, the bind weed covered everything else – and all presented thus in their final ripening, where a single touch from the gardener can throw seeds far and wide.

saplings, weeds, messy garden

The allium walk underneath the pergola became a native tree nursery in my absence.

Further sections of the garden masqueraded as respectable tree nurseries for robust seedlings that could have sold for ready cash if the resident gardener had stopped her swearing and potted them up.

She didn’t.

Second there was the ravaging.  The raping and pillaging of flora by fauna.  Caterpillars left a six foot rosemary-leafed willow naked and trembling.  The tomatoes were picked bare.  Ever left a succulent ninebark un-sprayed and un-netted in deer country? Best not to, as it turns out.  Fingers crossed that coppicing is a thing with that genus.

Third there was the remembering. Perhaps the cruelest punch of all.

Walking as I have been through the gardens of others far, far away from my own, the tendency is to remember home and hearth, green and grass in a fond, rosy light.  Ideas flow from the right brain in a child-like rush and obstacles are diminished.  The green genius of others – the sheer force of will evident in their gardens – imparts an exaggerated idea of one’s own abilities, and one falls a-bed at night with these lovely mad thoughts swimming through an inspired mind. A flooded stepping stone pathway…a false wooden door in a green bank…a quiet pond filled with bilingual Toulouse geese. All is possible.

Anything is possible.

Or not.

I had forgotten so many things.  How heavy rocks are, for one.  How wood rots against green, wet banks for another.  How geese attack small children irrespective of the language they speak.  The coming back down to earth – to one’s own reality – is all part of the remembering.

A flooded pathway at Jardin Agapanthe in Normandy sparked a few ideas…

And if one was clever enough to travel abroad without a decent cell phone service (guilty as charged), the [re]learning curve is even steeper. When the connection to one’s own weather and environmental constraints is severed, reality simply becomes what you imagine it to be.  Biblical floods may have bathed my home and property for the five weeks of my absence, but I was too busy wallowing in unseasonably dry conditions in a warm Great Britain and France to give it much thought beyond “Hope the bridge holds.”

The wet, sodden mess I came home to took ‘bewilderment’ to an entirely different level.

Of course I had to meet this chaos with a stout heart and I did – and I am – but not without the bloodshed and tears I mentioned earlier. Tears because, hey, I was jetlagged, and it really was a lot of wine.  Bloodshed because, once established, a living, growing thing will not give up its life force without a fight. By God there will be blood.

Visualize for a moment: Spent cleome stems puncturing callus-free hands.  Pyracantha covered in bindweed. The razor-sharp edges of miscanthus. Optunia paddles against white ankles. Carpet roses carpeted in stiltweed. A rooster that needed worming.

In hindsight that last one should have waited for next week and a calmer disposition, but I was determined.

Somehow though, the more bloodletting, the more ruthless I got; and this, coupled with a fresh perspective has opened up new space in established beds. I have removed a couple of roses that I never liked (they will remain nameless in case you do) and taken out strawberry patches that never did well.  Perhaps more importantly, I have removed several ‘guilt plants’ – the plants that gardeners keep because we think we should, not because we love them.

Pergola garden restored.

I note with pleasure that the beds filled with shrubs, trees, cardboard and four inches of hardwood mulch are much as I left them and the rain and heat has breathed superhuman strength into my tropical accents – Musa basjoo, numerous canna and colocasia species, and my once rag-tag collection of Abyssinian bananas (Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’). ‘Black Stem’ colocasia actually surprised me with creamy yellow blooms – a first for this gardener. Standing at the end of the wet and wild season this garden has endured, I am thankful for these tropical accents.

There is still much to be done, both at my desk as I go through reams of notes and photos and try to make sense of them, and outside, as I assess the successes and failings of my landscape in the absence of the resident gardener.  But the true challenge is not the work ahead – it is being kind to myself as I do it.


Reprinted with the kind permission of The Frederick News Post