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Reflections after five years of garden writing

“To write as one should of a garden, one must write not outside it or merely somewhere near it, but in the garden.”

— Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1849-1924

This month marks five years that I’ve been writing the Literary Gardener column. To celebrate this milestone, and the sunny weather, I’m taking Frances Hodgson Burnett’s advice and writing in my garden.

It was Burnett’s classic children’s book “The Secret Garden,” published in 1911, that first made me think of gardens as magical places.

When I was around 10, on Saturday afternoons my mom would drop me off with my older brother at the library so she could have a few hours to herself. The books I read from the library carried me to places far beyond my experiences growing up in central Florida in the 1970s.

I brought home a tall stack of books and fed my love for horses through the pages of Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty,” Marguerite Henry’s “Misty of Chincotegue” and Enid Bagnold’s “National Velvet.” I only got to see real horses during Sunday drives to “the country,” but I knew I would have a horse of my own someday.

My dad grew a vegetable garden in our backyard, and I enjoyed helping him tend his lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Our work side-by-side made me feel closer to him. But I didn’t think of gardens as particularly enchanting places until the week I added “The Secret Garden” to my pile of library books.

Through the pages, I stepped into Burnett’s English manor garden, walled-off and long-since locked and neglected, right alongside her heroine, Mary. The mysteries of the abandoned garden beckoned, prompting Mary, and me, to ask for our own “bit of earth to plant seeds in — to make things grow — to see them come alive.”

Since then, my gardening life has been an exciting journey, imagining and creating my own bits of earth in each place I’ve lived since my childhood in Florida. For the past five years, it’s also been rewarding for me to share my journey through my writing with other gardeners in the Rogue Valley.

Inspired by several of my favorite passages from “The Secret Garden,” here are some things I’ve learned along the way:

“Hang in there. It is astonishing how short a time it can take for very wonderful things to happen.” I’ve found this is as true for beginning a piece of writing as it is for beginning a gardening chore. It all starts with the first step.

“In the garden there was nothing which was not quite like themselves.” Mary and her friends came to understand their connection to the natural world and, thus, their connection to each other. It’s a special gift that gardens give to all gardeners.

“Perhaps there is a language which is not made of words and everything in the world understands it.” My garden speaks to me, if I take the time to listen. My challenge each week is to transform what I hear and understand into words.

“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.” Plants are the foundation of the food chain; what plants need is what we all need. I can’t think of anything more important to learn and write about.

“As long as you have a garden, you have a future, and as long as you have a future you are alive.” Gardeners are the ultimate optimists. So are garden writers.

“However many years she lived, Mary always felt that she should never forget that first morning when her garden began to grow.” It’s the springtime high all gardeners experience. It’s what keeps me coming back for more gardening, and more garden writing.

“And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed, and every morning revealed new miracles.” My gardening, and my writing about gardening, has become less about what I do for the plants and more about noticing what the plants do for themselves — and for me.

“Everything is made out of magic: leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden — in all the places.” When I was helping my dad in his vegetable garden as a kid, I didn’t see the magic all around me. But then I read “The Secret Garden” and saw Mary’s “bit of earth” sprang from the imagination and pen of Frances Hodges Burnett.

Her book opened my eyes to the magic of gardens and gardening, and so have the countless novels and nonfiction books I’ve read since then. I’ve been drawn to particular titles at different points in my gardening life, and the books I’ve chosen have shaped my gardening practices and experiences.

Thank you for reading the Literary Gardener.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/ and check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener, and her website at www.literarygardener.com.