By Irene Virag
When I met Anna Feile, she was in her late 80s and the reigning guru of Long Island gardeners. Anna died several years ago, but I keep a light burning in my memory for her. She taught me so much, and when I face challenges in my garden—and my life too—I think of her and the magic words she gave me.
The day we first encountered one another, I was a novice garden writer whose knowledge of plants and the good earth could barely fill a buttercup. So one April day, as a light rain misted the ground, I went to Anna for advice. Even though she needed a cane, I could hardly keep up with her as we walked through the nursery that had taken up most of her life.
“There’s so much to learn,” I said. Anna laughed at the tulips and complimented the fritillaria and smiled at me. “Don’t be afraid to take chances,” she said. “The garden is a very forgiving place.”
Those words became my talisman, and I offer them to you.
The garden is forgiving. It allows for do-overs. It welcomes experiments. It’s likely to present you with challenges but it doesn’t hold a grudge—instead it’s open to change. If you think about it, change is an extension of challenge. It’s certainly a hell of a lot better than surrender.
I considered my front lawn a challenge: It was a boring sea of grass. So I cut out a big swath and planted a combination flower-vegetable garden in the middle of the yard. I was recovering from breast cancer, and my husband and I called it “The Garden of Health and Joy.”
It’s important to me that the garden is organic. The same thing goes for the lawn too. Years later, when my husband was recovering from a triple bypass, the garden once more was a symbol of life renewed. The garden didn’t just forgive us, it comforted us.
In its early days the garden was tomato heaven. We tried different varieties every year. Boxcar Willie. Striped German. Roma. Belgian Giant. And my all-time favorite heirloom, Brandywine.
We copied Native Americans, who tilled Long Island hundreds of years before. We planted the “three sisters”—beans, squash, and corn—all together so they could support and nurture each other. When the raccoons discovered the corn, we gave it up, but we planted more eggplant varieties and root vegetables. We even planted cucuzz on the garden arbors. It’s an Italian squash that grows to the size of a baseball bat. It tastes good in a stew and makes a wonderful conversation piece.
In recent years tending the vegetables became too labor intensive. I had a knee problem, and my husband feels the twinges of arthritis. We converted two of the vegetable quadrants into flowerbeds. Last year we filled all four beds with dahlias. They were spectacular.
My husband has promised me a rose garden next year. But we’ll be sure to plant some vegetables in the flower borders.
A wild area at the rear of our property—it borders a large freshwater pond—has presented a challenge since we moved in 21 years ago. We can’t afford to rip it out and replant with native shrubs, something I once dreamed of doing. But we finally found another solution: We had a short stone path built into the brush. And we created a small patio in a natural clearing at the end of the path. We sit there in the late afternoon and peer through the tree branches at the swans and ducks and geese that swim by on the sunlit pond. In summer ospreys from a nearby nest fly overhead.
We’ve been cutting back on annuals in recent years and planting more and more perennials. We’re realists. Perfection is a mirage in the garden, as well as life. There’s always another weed to pull. And, as another old adage goes, nobody’s perfect.
But as Anna Feile told a worried young writer so many years ago as they walked in the spring rain, the garden is a very forgiving place. Please don’t be afraid to take chances.
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