Garden Muse

If you haven't already gardened and experienced the pleasure of growing your own flowers and vegetables, it's never too late.

Some gardeners are lucky enough to grow up beside a green-thumbed grandmother, or have a neighbor who initiates them into the mysteries of seed and soil, but anyone can dive in at any time. A little patch of earth, a few seeds, some water, and you're at the starting line.

You don't need a fancy wardrobe. Most gardeners live in well-worn jeans, sweatshirts and waterproof boots. But it does help to cultivate a few qualities that you can't buy anywhere, not even online.

First, a sense of friendly curiosity. Curiosity about plants and how to nurture them, whether luscious tomatoes that grow from the tiniest seeds, or velvety roses that spring from thorny sticks. Curiosity about a wildly contorted tree in a neighbor's garden, that you ask about and discover is a Camperdown elm.

Curiosity about colors and how they enhance each other to make a painterly garden - how orange and pink create iridescence, how purple and yellow make each other pop, how red gives vitality to the picture. Inquisitiveness about the varieties of scent, from sweet mock orange to pungent eucalyptus to downright stinky voodoo lilies. A sense of discovery about the soil and its inhabitants, from earthworms to beetles, about visitors to the garden like chickadees and hummingbirds, about nurseries to visit, and places to travel where great gardens wait to be explored.

It helps to have a fertile imagination, because the imagination grows dreams of the particular garden you long for. The imagination blooms early in the morning, late at night and in all the hours in between, whenever there is some quiet to hear its soft voice. It may summon up a vision of pastel peonies, or dazzling dahlias, or lacy ferns embroidering a woodland floor.

Imagination might take you back to the perfume of lilacs in your auntie's garden, or to a sunny meadow from your childhood where you lay on the grass, watching the clouds stream by. Those images will engender a garden that satisfies your innermost yearnings.

Determination is a must to keep on gardening in the face of winds that blow down trees, of rainstorms that drown daphnes, of harsh cold that kills tender hebes. You'll need persistence to combat sucking aphids, voracious slugs and cruel cutworms. It takes dedication to protect plants to the best of your ability, to look death in the face when it comes, and then drive to the nursery for replacements.

Without a good sense of humor, you're lost. The whole business of gardening is big joke, if you think about it for a minute. You'll start with soil that's imbalanced - too much clay, too much sand, or too many rocks - and spend years amending it with manure, compost, bone meal, lime, blood meal, oyster shells, green sand. You'll spend more money on manure than on jewelry! It will be hard not to laugh when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, bundled up in fleece, wearing surgical gloves, rubber boots, and old jeans splattered with mud.

You've got to have guts to grow what you love. Never mind what the neighbors think - if you want to tear out the lawn and grow cauliflower, summon up your courage and go for it.

I'll never forget the time a friend brought her husband by my garden in winter, to show him the cottage garden style she wanted for her own place.

'What a mess!' he said, looking at the dormant front yard, with nothing but the bare branches of mock orange and roses, with the slimy old leaves of daylilies and Siberian irises. He couldn't picture the explosion of radiant flowers that my friend remembered from summer. My winter garden is sparse, with only red twig dogwoods and a few evergreens to console me. But I live for spring, summer and fall when I'm outdoors in 'Flowerland' all day long. Grow the garden of your dreams; make yourself happy.

Let desire call out to you and have its way. Even the most experienced gardeners crave at least another handful of lilies, a few more clematis, just one more beautiful container, or bird bath, or another hose - this time one that really doesn't kink. Desire is what keeps us going, what feeds our passion, what drives us toward yet-another gardening season. Don't hesitate, even if you've never tried it - the garden is calling out for you to jump in.

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