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Mourn or celebrate a garden’s end?

“It is part of the life of a garden, that because creating a garden is such an act of will, and because (if it is a success) it becomes the place of great beauty which the particular gardener had in mind, the gardener’s death (or withdrawal of any kind) is the death of the garden.” — Jamaica Kincaid, “My Garden [Book],” 1999

Other than anti-colonialism, another theme woven into the tapestry of Jamaica Kincaid’s stories about gardens and gardening is the subject of a garden’s end, or death as she calls it. Kincaid thought about this when she visited Painshill Park in Surrey, England, once a 323-acre landscape forged out of weeds and underbrush in 1738 by those who worked for an Irish aristocrat/English courtier named Charles Hamilton (1704-1786).

Hamilton visited several beautiful gardens during his grand tours of Europe. When he returned to England after his second tour, he began borrowing money to purchase the land at Painshill to create a private “pleasure garden.” Unfortunately, over the years Hamilton’s debt spun out of control, and he was finally forced to sell the property in 1773, after which the garden gradually fell into ruin.

Kincaid visited the garden during one of the restoration projects at the estate (restoration began in 1981 and continues today). She felt sad that Hamilton’s private vision for the garden was lost in the zeal for resurrecting it as part of England’s national heritage.

She wrote, “… I thought something crucial had been lost over time: the sense of the place not as some sort of national park but as a piece of land a man arranged out of who knows what psychological impulses.”

In the next chapter of her book, Kincaid mentions the death of a garden created by French impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). Like his friend Claude Monet, Caillebotte was an avid gardener and designed a garden on his property in the suburbs of Paris. Caillebotte died at age 45 after suffering a stroke while gardening. Neither his garden at Petit-Gennevilliers nor the garden at his childhood home in Yerres (both of which he painted) exists today.

I don’t know why the ephemeral nature of gardens was so significant to Kincaid. Was she thinking about her own mortality or about having to leave her beloved yellow house with its shingled roof and gardens? (She devotes a full chapter to explaining why she loved this house so much.)

There are many reasons why gardens come to an end other than the death or otherwise absence of the gardener(s) who created it. I heard from distressed gardeners after they lost their gardens in the Almeda Fire and from folks who lost their gardens after their irrigation water was turned off due to water shortages.

I lost my Shakespeare garden in Central Point due to politics and miscommunication. (I learned an important lesson from this experience about the pitfalls of establishing a garden on someone else’s property.)

I’ve also heard from disheartened gardeners who decided to throw in the trowel after a particularly hot, smoky and/or pest-infested season. In fact, according to a YouTube gardening channel called MIGardener, 40% of new gardeners quit after their first year because they believe their gardening efforts were unsuccessful or too laborious, or they felt overwhelmed by all the plant choices and conflicting gardening advice or they found gardens and gardening too expensive to maintain.

In any case, the remains of the garden often linger awhile as a reminder of all that was lost, and the gardener, depending on her emotional and financial investment in the garden, might even go through a grieving process — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — for the garden she had loved and that had become a part of her identity.

Some gardeners alleviate their grief over losing a garden by beginning a new one. In her book, “Uprooted: A Gardener Reflects on Beginning Again” (2020), Page Dickey recounts the loss of her garden at Duck Hill in New York after 34 years of nurture. She “felt stricken” for a while, but then started a garden at her new home in Connecticut and was pleasantly surprised to find the new gardening space enabled her to become a different kind of gardener that better suited her changed lifestyle.

I think Jamaica Kincaid was right when she wrote the death of a garden is a part of the life of the garden, just as the death of a gardener is a part of that gardener’s life. A gardener is mortal, so why should we expect her garden to be otherwise? Even if the garden is taken on by someone else or later restored, it will never again be the same garden that its originator envisioned.

The Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) elegized a college friend, who died at age 22, with the famous line “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” I have learned this is equally true for gardeners who have loved and lost a garden.

Ending a seasonal garden

Many gardeners mourn the loss of their gardens in wintertime. Jamaica Kincaid stated she disliked winter because, to her, the garden ceased to exist. She wrote, “The snow covers the ground in the garden with the determination of death, an unyielding grip, and the whiteness of it is an eraser …”

I used to turn melancholy when the plants in my garden began dying back in the fall, but I’ve (mostly) overcome this feeling by: 1. consciously celebrating my experiences in the garden during that season; 2. collecting seeds from plants that will continue their cycle of life; 3. learning how alive a winter garden actually is beneath the soil’s surface or otherwise outside of my vision; 4. leaving plant stalks standing over winter and observing how they sustain wildlife; and 5. keeping busy with gardening tasks.

Oregon State University Extension Service provides a useful list to help gardeners end their gardens for the season. Access the October Garden Calendar at extension.oregonstate.edu/

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. See literarygardener.com or email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.