By Irene Virag
For much of my life I marked the year by the numbers on my desk calendar. But then love and marriage and a home by a golden pond on the North Shore of Long Island turned me into a gardener. And I live by the cycle of the seasons that determines the days of our gardens.
Now it is winter. I watch flames dance in the wood stove and I dream over garden catalogs. Winter can be cruel, but the world outside my picture window has its own beauty. The pale bark of the crape myrtles atones for the leaves that go in glory but will come again. And the bare branches of the river birches reach like prayers into the cold sky, and their exfoliated bark glistens in the sun.
The months pass. Winter aconite glows, witch hazel turns yellow.
And then it is spring. I can’t wait to clench the soil in my hands to see if it is time for planting. I do not dance by the light of the moon in a green nightgown on St. Patrick’s Day but I do put in my peas. By April I plant my salad around the periphery of the dahlia beds.
As spring progresses, buds swell and burst into flowers— into lilacs and peonies and irises and rhododendrons and roses. I think of buds as unopened gifts about to be realized.
And as I walk about the garden, my life is enriched with bleeding hearts, Jack-in-the-pulpits, the white-clad branches of the star magnolia and the pink charm of the cherry blossoms.
All the while my daffodils have grown strong in their enriched beds through the cold months and burst into golden drifts as spring warms the earth. But more than ever, spring belongs to the tulips—especially Gudoshnik, which looks like nothing so much as a painter’s sunset, combining shades and streaks of peach, rose and red, all in the same flower.
In summer a climbing hydrangea decorates a locust tree by the koi pond and the prickly pear cactus by the mailbox shows its yellow flowers. Passionflowers and mandevilla vines entwine on the obelisk in the center of the herb garden.
The garden is bountiful as well as beautiful, with eggplants, tomatoes, Swiss chard, kale, peppers, zucchini and turnips. But lilies lay claim to summer royalty, none so much as the white Casa Blanca, whose perfume drifts across the front lawn and greets us as we come up the driveway.
Summer is not without its failures. There are no perfect gardens, just as there are no perfect gardeners, and in the long run that’s a good thing because we’d be bored out of our gourds if there were. Downy mildew does in the impatiens, and I’m not sure what blighted the Brussels sprouts. But my first adventure with bok choy and Napa cabbage is a healthy success, and I’m well stocked with winter squashes such as butternut, spaghetti, acorn and kabocha. I mix in pastel varieties of Nicotiana with my hallmark blue salvia and am delighted by the result.
Then it is autumn, the poignant season, when the very light—the russet light—catches us by the heartstrings. The light gleams on the dahlias and washes the towering fall-blooming salvias, including my favorite, ‘Tula’, along the garden fence. It accents the gentle lavender of the colchicums I plant in September and spurs the transformation of the Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ from pink to mahogany. The pink and white chrysanthemums that fill the empty vegetable beds resemble mounds of ice cream.
Colors sharpen in the cooling earth, and leaves crunch in rhythm with nature’s breeze-born breath.
Camellias marry the season and bloom in bridal white. But autumn’s fond farewell turns violent in October as Super Storm Sandy scars the land. The pliant river birches bend in the wind and survive, but a huge and venerable oak falls across the backyard, taking down the utility lines and leaving us powerless for almost two weeks. During this ordeal the autumn light is more precious than ever. I cling to the fading sunlight, as it lays a shimmering trail across the freshwater pond that flows along the border of my backyard.
Winter comes. But roses say a lingering goodbye along the driveway. Soon snow and ice will mantle my garden and the world beyond.
And the cycle of the seasons continues. I wait for spring.