We started fall cleanup in the garden this past weekend. I can hardly bear it, but needs must. Took down all the climbing and tangled beans, which was a workout in and of itself, and which opened things up considerably. My husband built a new peony/dahlia garden feature that we’re awfully excited about even though it just looks like dirt now…but it holds such hope and promise for next spring! The E.B. White line about his bulb-planting wife “calmly plotting the resurrection” comes to mind. (Fun Fact: The sign above the door to our garden is the name of the gardening column Katherine White wrote for The New Yorker.)
Soon we’ll have to clear out the tomato plant skeletons, the frizzled zinnia remains (which I hate to do until I’m sure the goldfinches have moved through), as well as the still boisterous marigolds. It has to be done—there’s the fall compost application and two new beds to install replacing “composting” wood ones. It’ll be quite a job—hopefully we have a long fall. Neither of us wants to be out there in the snow.
I should be clear: my husband does all the hard garden work. This leaves me to wander about tucking in new seeds and plants, losing myself in daydreams and possible book plots while watering and harvesting vegetables, and creating small bouquets of joy from the flowers. I try to pull my weight, but I get distracted. I do try not to make more work for him, though I’m not always successful at that either.
For me the garden is a beautiful teacher and working metaphor of writing. This fall the writing parallels and insights have been many. In 2013, when we created the garden space that takes up much of our backyard, we put a sizeable pumpkin patch at the back of it. For a few years we tried our hand at growing giant pumpkins because I was writing a book about growing a giant pumpkin. We never put nearly as much work into it as true growers do and the results were still startling. It was a fun project when the kids were still home.
But, alas, the kids have grown up, and the last couple of years I’ve been all about flowers, so the pumpkin patch has been reconscripted to be a flower patch, though so far we continue to call it the pumpkin patch so as to distinguish it from the other flower patches in the garden. We moved some black-eyed susans and cone flowers of various colors from the site of the new peony and dahlia garden. I filled in with colorful zinnias, salvia, and marigolds this summer. And then a wonderful gift certificate got us some phlox, golden rod, and cardinal flower and the perennial like, which have been put to bed along the back fence, carefully leaving empty pockets for sunflowers, which I’m determined to grow despite our squirrel issues, which are many and maddening. I spent the summer battling what I think is purslane, which crept along under everything. (Yes, I know purslane is not only edible but super nutritious, but it also looks a lot like spurge, which is poisonous, so….)
As these garden changes were being plotted and carried out, I started a full-revision of the novel I’ve been working on for four long years up in my office overlooking the garden. It’s a bit of a sprawl, lacking the fencing and organization of the garden. There are many tangled parts and taking them apart has been messy and time consuming. I’m waiting for things to feel like they’ve “opened up.” I’ve moved whole chapters, small scenes, bit and pieces…weeded words and sentences along the way…imagining what this story could be if I can just get all the right things in the right places in the right way.
I’ve ripped out ellipses (which is like purslane/spurge in my writing—it’s everywhere!) Points of view and the timeline have changed several times. All along the way, I’ve planted lovely bits of color—like the annuals in a garden—so as to have pockets beauty and not despair at the mess of the whole.
When I get frustrated, I go out to the garden. There’s nothing like walking through that screen door—it’s a definite threshold to a different place. As I water and weed, pick and protect, the novelist-brain often loosens, showing me what to do next with the chaotic knotted up chapters.
I’ve had to grow into gardening—it doesn’t come as naturally to me as it does to my husband—but I’m beginning to think of it as an integral part of my writing process. The skills are so similar: imagination to see what could be, daily work, constant weeding and deadheading, letting things compost, moving things around, pockets of loveliness amidst the transitioning pieces…. No wonder so many writers are gardeners!
I hate to see it go—this year especially, as it signals our return to a more solitary indoor life. But I hope to hold onto the inspiration it provides this winter as I keep weeding and planting and moving things around in the novel, if not the dirt. Onward & Upward In The Novel, I say!