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Four gardens of my life: A birthday reflection

“The six tulips stood straight as soldiers, proud as dukes, and gay as cockatoos. Their streaked petals, pink and creamy-white, had edges delicately fluted like the lip of a seashell. They were at once shells, birds, and elegant warriors; but even while her imagination thus rioted, Caroline’s habitual sense kept it well in hand. She knew, all the time, that they were really just tulips…”

— Margery Sharp, “Four Gardens,” 1935

In this passage, Caroline Chase Smith, the “heroine” of British author Margery Sharp’s novel “Four Gardens,” is admiring her Aesopus tulips from a deck chair on her small rooftop garden. It’s the fourth, and final, garden that Caroline will have during her lifetime, a life that began at the end of the Victorian era, in which she married in the Edwardian age, reared young children through World War I, and resolutely navigated the social upheavals of the 1920s.

Yet Caroline, always unpretentious, reflects on her life from her deck chair and decides she had “done nothing at all” of any importance. She decides she will grow a dozen tulips next year. That would be enough.

“Four Gardens” is among Sharp’s early novels, written almost 25 years before she penned the children’s classic “The Rescuers” (1959), which was made into two animated Disney films in the 1970s. Over her long career, Sharp wrote 25 novels for adults (three of which were made into movies), 14 children’s books, four plays, two mysteries and numerous short stories.

Out of print for several decades, “Four Gardens” was reissued by Dean Street Press in 2021. The book beautifully captures Sharp’s witty and light-hearted style, exemplified by her choice of epigraph for which she quotes Jane Austen: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.”

Readers follow Caroline as she trespasses into an abandoned garden at the edge of town at the age of 17, and there finds a love for digging in the earth and experiences her first romance. Caroline’s second garden is during World War I, where she grows runner beans as a respite from caring for two small children and scrambling into the cellar during air raids.

After her husband, Henry, becomes wealthy making boots for soldiers, Caroline’s third garden is at their estate called Friar’s End. As mistress of the manor, Caroline is expected to merely enjoy the garden and defer to the head gardener in all planting matters, including which tulips to grow. Finally, after Henry loses all his money and dies from stress, Caroline moves into a modest apartment and is free to grow her beloved Aesopus tulips as she sees fit.

From a gardener’s perspective, I thoroughly enjoyed the book because it caused me to think about how, like Caroline Chase Smith, the different gardens I’ve kept are emblematic of different periods in my life and the person I was at each time.

My gardening life has certainly been marked by the different states I’ve lived in. If I had to narrow it down to just four gardens, the list would be:

1) the vegetable garden I helped tend with my dad as a young girl in central Florida;

2) the garden I grew in California behind the house I rented after high school;

3) the patio garden I kept in Honolulu while separated from my family; and

4) the Shakespeare garden I’m growing now at Hanley Farm in Central Point.

I first learned the pleasures of growing tomatoes with my dad when I was about 11. I don’t remember my father ever being happier than he was in that vegetable garden. I was always looking for ways to please my dad, and I think I helped in the garden so I could see him smile.

At 18, I declared my independence by renting a house and planting a garden in the backyard. There was too much shade, and my boyfriend’s Labrador dug in it, but I was proud of that garden and of the waitressing job that paid the rent and my tuition at the community college.

Twenty-five years later, I was an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii. The tenure track was stressful and living expenses were sky-high. Jerry and our youngest daughter moved to Oregon so Kacy could start high school, and I stayed in Hawaii to finish out the semester. I grew tropical plants on the patio of my rented apartment and discovered a person could be lonely in paradise.

Seven years ago, I started writing this column and decided to call it “Literary Gardener” to combine my love for plants and prose. Then I was invited to grow a garden, and I’ve filled it with plants that Shakespeare mentioned. The garden is a work in progress, like my gardening, and my life.

I’ve cared for several gardens besides these four, and I’d like to grow a few more still. I look forward to sitting in my last garden where I can look back and say, as Caroline Chase Smith did, “I’ve had a good life.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. She is founder and gardener of the Bard’s Garden at Hanley Farm in Central Point. Learn more at www.literarygardener.com, and email Rhonda at Rnowak39@gmail.com.