Sunday Opinion: How Gardening Feels

Just six days ago all that was on my mind was a hopelessly deteriorated knee that was scheduled for replacement the following morning at 7am.  Though my surgeon insisted that some terrible injury had paved the way for an arthritis that had only worsened over time, I am quite sure the many years of gardening had made my knees old before their time.  I did not make the decision to replace it with a titanium prosthesis lightly-I had tried everything else.  There did come a time when the backslide became a backward landslide.  Stairs, and construction sites weren’t difficult-they were impossible.   Buck installed railings on both sides of the basement stairs so I could pull myself up, and stop myself from falling, going down.  A bad situation had become intolerable.  I have three really good girlfriends who persuaded me to say yes.  Two are respected professionals at the hospital who would do the work-the third an optimistic and gutsy girl that had both of hers done at the same time-when she was 69.  They made the appointment with the surgeon, and scheduled the date for me when they decided I was stalling.  They loudly and enthusiastically coached.  How lucky am I to have them?

Taking a major surgery to the bank may seem like a contradiction in terms up front-but I was not really prepared to give up my garden, or my client’s gardens.   As Buck put so succinctly-“Keep foremost in your mind your faith in the beauty of science and scientists, and your complete respect for the scientist who will be in charge of designing, executing, and insuring your future as a gardener.”  Another very good friend advised me a week before to try to put my ability to focus to work on my own behalf.  Time does go by; you will be swept up and deposited on the other side in a week’s time-swim with it.  On  her recommendation, swim I did.

An amazing number of clients and contractors broached the topic with stories of  their own experiences; it had become obvious to them it was time for me. Lots of people have knee replacements. Gardening takes its toll on everyone who loves it. Like every other gardener,  I have been stung, stabbed, poked, and bested more times than I care to admit-but I always came back for more. I have fallen and wrenched both of my knees, and both of my ankles.  I have strained my back, sunburned my neck, and broken my leg- obliviously stepping into an 18 inch drop in grade accomodating a giant drain. Every finger I have has quarter inch deep splits in the spring from wet soil.  I have cut myself with my own pruners lots of times.  I always came back for more.  Whatever you come back for, is worth fighting for, yes?  Faced with the prospect of do, or give it up, I put myself in someone else’s hands.

Should you be a gardener whose history has worn your knees to that excruciatingly painful grinding point, I would tell you this.  The level of medicine available at your local hospital is formidably, unbelievably good.  My knee is criss-crossed with lines made from a marker; such a companion computer program exists to enable a surgeon to implant the new knee exactly in the proper cross hairs.  A knee that sits right underneath your body in the correct spot-not close to correct.  A knee made for your sex and size.  A knee that will work for a long time.  Wow.  Just four days post op, I would tell you that there is a good gardening life ahead of you should you be stopped in your tracks with a knee no longer working-you only need to risk it.  I attended no classes, nor did I read anything about this procedure on my computer.  For me, there is such a thing as too much information.  Knowledge of every detail doesn’t help me-it overwhelms me with doubt and worry.  The surgical details I did not need to fret over-they would only keep me in a state of poorly controlled panic for the month I had to wait.  I had a program clearly outlined by the doctor, all of which I did.  I avoided everything else except well wishes and encouragement.   

I will admit the half hour I spent alone in pre-op before my team got up and running almost did me in.  I could feel my resolve slipping.  I could feel tears welling up, and I thought to run for my life.  Finally, my anesthesiologist.  He has a smile that made it seem like the sun was shining in the room, and a clearly confident way of explaining how what he would do would make the process go smoothly and unobtrusively for me.  I noticed a giant head of hair stuffed up under his surgical cap; I asked him about that.  He took the time to get a picture out of his wallet-the most gorgeous black and silver dreadlocks in a pony tail I have ever seen. He took the time to focus me on something else other than my own dreadlock.  He managed to be handsome, sunny, but  completely and competently in charge of the pre-op shop, and he took the time to treat me as a person.  I went gently into that good night.

So I wake up in recovery, thinking nothing has happened yet.  I remember the elevator ride to my room, and the woman’s face who took me. I was alert.   Amazing; not one bit like a surgery thirty years ago.  The big revolution-a spinal anesthesia and a Stryker pain pump. Numbing medication was being dispensed to the nerve governing the outraged knee on a digitally controlled schedule. What did this mean to me? Spinal anesthesia is a lot easier on, and less difficult to come out of  for a human being than general anesthesia.  A pain pump erased the need for narcotics to control the pain.  I was myself, right off the bat.  I came out of the starting block with everything I had at my disposal-to recover.  This is my lay point of view-I am not a doctor.  I only say what I had to do went as if it were my choice all along.

Steve gave me Dominique Browning’s book “Paths of Desire”-to read during my recovery. I took it to the hospital on a lark, never believing I could read there.  But   I was able to read- and reflected on every word.  I did not forget what I had read, even when interrupted. She is a writer whose every phrase and sentence is worth taking time with. You would miss the point, speed reading. I was able to think about her idea that a garden is everything about how it makes you feel.  And how others feel, being there.  It is a story of how rebuilding her garden and her life were one in the same.  The story of why and how she loves her garden put so much into words for me.  She got me to think about how a garden absorbs history and change, and gives back-should you open your heart to it. I was introduced to, and able to concentrate on her writing.  What a fabulous book this is-have you had the time to  read it?  In the process of being introduced to the writing of Dominique Browning, I have a new knee.  The prospect of gardening again  feels really good.  I have a new tool that I know is going to work just fine.

At A Glance: Wisconsin Moss

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All of these photographs of Wisconsin native moss species are courtesy of Lauren Hanson.  Thanks, Lauren.

Inspired by Materials

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Any and all materials from the earth, or made by some gifted person with in genuity can inspire a garden.  Some landscape materials are regionally available, or from a specific time period, or architectural style; this only makes sense. Transporting enough stone to build a wall or a house from Louisiana to Michigan even sounds like the big deal that it is.  Some days,  after delivering and placing a stone trough, I wonder why I didn’t choose to collect stamps.  That our currency-so many pieces of paper- is backed up by who knows how many thousands of tons of gold bars makes perfect sense to me.   Good landscapes are designed by people with a wide range of obsessions.  The food growing people, the ornamental plant people, the dwarf conifer people, and the hosta aficionados share the pursuit with the stone lovers, the terra cotta collectors, the brick people, the pond people, and so on.  This 1920’s English tudor style house is notable for its limestone chimney, and copper trim gone dark with age.  The sundial mounted dead center in the peak of the main roof of the house- a sure sign of a builder/gardener with a love for materials.


Montreal is such an interesting city-I am especially fond of the old part.  This building is a marvel -stone, brick, rock, copper, terra cotta, all put together in someone’s strong idea of beautiful patterns-the sole purpose of which was to keep out the fiercely unfriendly weather.  No doubt the original windows gave out, and needed replacing. The new windows-the handiwork of someone inspired by something else other than beautiful materials. 

RougheRiver2 (18)This ironwork is actually the floor of a bridge that traverses the Rouge River to Zug Island in Detroit.  Old industrial sites are landscapes of a different sort, but they are remarkable in how the the most utilitarian structures-factories, bridges, water stations and the like- were designed and built with no small attention to an aesthetic sense.  This goes back to a time when there were no designers per se, just craftspeople whose work expressed a belief in the beauty of the materials. 

Aug 28d 359I have admired this stone house designed by Michael Willoughby for a long time.  The stone surface you see on the facade is the same stone he used on the ground, and on the interior walls.  This irregular flagstone is native to Michigan, and adapts quite well to the modern design of this house. The green glazed French pots bring that landscape green up and onto the entrance porch.  The early twentieth century French concrete faux bois boxes refer to the craftsmanship of the stone work.    

DSC_0085This branch fence functions as screening for a space that had no room for screening plants. Massive rocks set in a koi pond, and a bluestone terrace asked for a lighter more textured companion material.  It is entirely possible that this screen is handmade; I have never seen anything quite like it. 

DSC_0004Galvanized and acid washed steel is a favorite material of mine.  It has the graceful and dignified look I associate with lead. The white bloom of the finish suggests age.  

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The fascia boards of this home in Washington are decorated with a border of scalloped cedar twigs and pine cone dots.  The owner uses these same materials to make baskets, fencing, trellis work, and tassel ornaments for gardens. Her own house and garden has a distinctive appeal, based on the materials fallen from the cedar trees on her property. 

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As natural in a garden as stone is wood; this oval French wine barrel will find a new life as a fountain or lotus pond for some gardener who is attracted to beautiful materials. This object could inspire and organize an entire garden space.  I could just as easily see it stuffed with grasses, or grapes wound round a trellis. It is perfectly beautiful empty, and waiting.

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The stone on this home-I had never seen it before, nor since.  Though my clients insisted they needed help with design, facing this stone down with hydrangea quercifolia, the oakleaf hydrangea, seemed an inspired choice.  The form and subtle coloration of the hydrangea is a beautiful foil to the mass and strong color of the stone. Though there are details to come, they had an instinct about where to go that they trusted-this may better than half the battle.

Planning For Other People

July19a 004A discussion of space and flow in a garden is not just about one’s eye-it is also about providing clear passage and respite for people you like.  How I move in, use, work and relax in my garden is easy for me-I live there.  I know the shortcuts.  It does not take so much to entertain me-sometimes flopping down on the grass works just fine.  As much as I love the solitary aspect of my garden, friends visit.  They need places to be, and be comfortable.   

July19 024Should you have one friend, or many-should you have older relatives, and a slew of kids, the issues are the same.  Should you be interested in company enjoying your garden, planning for them to be there comfortably is important. 

s family (15)I invite my clients to visit their own home in disguise.  Be a guest in your garden for an hour. Where do you park? Can you see the house number? Are you clearly directed to the door?  Is the porch large enough for two of you to stand side by side?  If there are stairs, are they easy to negotiate?  Are the walks and stairs lit in the evening?  Your questions will be better than mine-you live there.   

July19 017Hard flat surfaces are friendly to people. Slopes and uneven surfaces make people focus their attention on maintaining their balance, instead of enjoying your peonies in bloom.  My car park doubles as a terrace when I have company-I put my car in the street.   July19 021Though my fountain garden has a bench, it also has higher than chair height seat walls.  It’s easy to sit down in a number of places; it is equally easy for a number of people to casually congregate as they see fit. Even the little dogs like this.    

Aug 13 020My deck terrace is large enough for dining furniture, a few lounge chairs, the barbeque-and my pots.  I bring the garden upstairs; some nights I am too tired go into the garden. Wherever people might be in my garden, there are places to sit, to talk, to linger.  

Aug 13 050Thomas Church wrote a book entitled “Gardens are for People”.  This idea has inspired many a beautiful walkway, bench, pool, terrace, pergola, dining table, croquet lawn-you get the idea. How your friend, or your party of 60 will enter your property, enjoy the garden, have a cocktail and sit down to dinner-this is worth planning for.  Sharing a garden is one of the better reasons to own one.   

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All your friends will appreciate your efforts.