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“But it’s the middle of winter!” I protest.
“When else can you get into a cedar swamp?”
She has a point. It’s the end of January, winter’s nadir, the bottom of that slow pendulum swing we call a year. From here on, the temperature will climb, the days slowly warm. For those who want to walk on water, it’s now or never.
I envy her the cedar swamp on her brother’s farm. She’ll harvest thin trees grown straight as rebar in the weedy forest of the swamp. She carries an axe in her backpack to hack off the branches.
“Not too close,” she says. “The plants need something to grab.”
She and her brother build the obelisks together, five good straight cedar poles bound together with dogwood hoops, the bright red a pleasing contrast to the golden russet of the cedar. A few years ago, she bought a set of woven wicker balls, big enough to embrace—barely. She sets one at the top of each obelisk, in the crook of the poles. Last year, she tells me, she found a stone, almost completely round, that she will set in the poles, a lofty anchor.
Back at The Leaf, my own obelisks are leaning into the winter wind. My Beloved and I remake them every few years, when they finally collapse from the weight of winding plants. We cut young sumachs, the only straight poles in our woods. They are smooth, with no branch stubs for young climbers to latch onto, so we wrap them with grapevines, leaving the crisp, curling tendrils shooting out in all directions, enticements for the reaching plants. I have neither big wicker balls nor smooth round stones, so I twist the vines into a vaguely heart shape that I secure to the top.
Through the summer I can barely see the obelisks under the growth of clematis and sweet pea, but in winter, the fleshy green falls away, revealing the skeletons of our construction. Then the snow comes, etching the graceful curve of old grapevine, settling in the cradle of the poles like alabaster stones.
I used to think I had no garden in winter, as if a garden were made entirely of leaves and flowers. It was a relief to turn my back on the soil, settle indoors by the fire for the coldest months. I don’t remember when I first looked out over the snow and saw the stems, the trunks, and branches rising up, stretching out, as if they too were relieved to be free of all that weighty greenery. Look at us! they seemed to shout, preening in the sun.
“Winter is the best time of year to consider your garden,” says the Guru. “That’s when it shows its bones.”
I squint at the cones of cedars, the arching branches of the ornamental apple, the upthrusting Ohio buckeye and outreaching gingko, the mounds of spirea and triumphant vases that are the viburnums. Most people, I believe, look better without their clothes and suddenly, I see the same unadorned nakedness outside my window, Stripped of distracting colour, the garden stands boldly revealed, its fundamental shape, its truest self.
I should plan the garden now, she says, and so I dutifully take photographs, try to sketch the beds on long thin sheets of transparent paper but I can’t seem to grasp the disappearing curve, that third, unseen dimension. The elements of a garden are architectural, and I wonder: do garden designers build models of their garden spaces the way building designers do, pasting bits of moss and twig and crumpled coloured paper in a semblance of what they imagine?
Maybe they know better than to try to capture a living thing.
“It isn’t easy,” my Guru admits, “to reduce three dimensions to two.”
I didn’t realize then how wise she is. There is no height to the paper garden I struggle to draw. For inspiration, I roll out the Guru’s plan for my first garden. The trees are dots at the centre of jagged-edge circles that indicate how far the canopy extends. The yucca and fescues look like pineapples shot from above. Soft-cornered rectangles and lozenges corral plantings of perennials, their names printed in block letters: 17 Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm;’ 11Hosta plantaginea ‘Grandiflora;’ 5 Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding’. I have to imagine the shade that darkens the Nepeta nervosa and Johnson’s Blue geranium, the banked effect of the lupins, asters, and salvia.
Looking through these old garden drawings is like thumbing a photo album of the places I once lived. I linger over the two-dimensional shapes, remembering each plant, how it cosies up to its neighbours or stands stiffly apart, the particular drape of its leaves, the brilliance or delicacy or disappointment of its bloom.
I recall each plant grouping, the Guru’s voice in my ear: What’s the goal here? To make a good first impression? (The stunning wash of blue Siberian irises punctuated with red Oriental poppies.) Or a memorable moment? (The rise of a single Madonna lily above a haze of Russian sage, what the Guru likes to call a lead actor with its well-chosen supporting cast.)
“And don’t forget about the fourth dimension,” she warns. “Height, width, depth, and time—a plan has to track the garden through the seasons, too.”
Drawing time is a trick that I have been trying to learn. I bring out the coloured pencils the Garden Guru taught me to use: yellow for spring, red for summer, orange for fall. Each rounded square and bar and lozenge on the plan is outlined in a colour to show the season in which it brings interest to the bed. The bones of the garden—the gingko, boxwood, ornamental cherry, golden locust—are traced in dark green, which is the colour of winter, too. Some of the beds have more than one band of colour; a few, like the dogwood hedge that blooms white in spring, is laden with white berries in summer, and turns ruddy in the fall, with scarlet stems all winter, is rimmed with a rainbow to rival Joseph’s amazing coat.
I straighten and squint at the plans, trying to single out a blur of yellow, of red and orange: the garden in May, July, October. The aim is have a patch of each colour appearing here and there across the plan, not bunched all in one corner.
I try for an all-green image, then look out the window. The woodland garden, I realize, is an empty expanse of snow. It needs a Mugho pine perhaps, or a winterberry bush, maybe some Oregon grape.
“Not all plants deliver four-season interest, but that's what you shoot for,” says my Guru, with infinite patience. “Each plant earns it's keep, one way or another.” The bed of primroses, for instance, is simply coloured yellow, a one-season wonder that keeps its place because the plants brighten the garden like nothing else after the long, white winter.
The oldest, most bedraggled plan is from the Garden Guru, the original drawings for the Forge Garden; the others are my own. These were my guides as I planted each bed, though I have scarcely looked at them since. Now, I hardly recognize them. The shape of the plantings has changed, some of the plants, too. I try to remember why I yanked out that Viburnum burkwoodii and put Queen of the Meadow in its place, or how it is that the path has meandered so far from my original intent.
“It’s the garden that matters, not the plan,” my Garden Guru consoles. “It’s not like carpentry, where you build an addition and it stays put. A garden isn’t a static thing. Plants change, conditions change.”
I change, too. Once, I thought three yuccas would be enough to satisfy my craving for those overblown, six-foot stems of blooms, though in fact I need a dozen, an entire bed of Adam’s needles. I longed for a rose of Sharon and planted one every year, small specimens, big plants, tucked away in corners, set out in the warming sun, in holes made rich with loam and compost, but not one survived a winter.
My Garden Guru shrugs. “There is always something to learn.”
After a decade, she says, it is time to remake the first beds. I unroll a fresh sheet of tracing paper, line up my coloured pencils, and look out at the bones of the garden, grown tall and strong, an antidote to my fleshy failures, my experiments gone awry. Their constancy reassures me. They’ll hold their ground as I shift perennials according to my whimsy, buy up flats of apricot annuals, or lime, or tropical yellow, whatever seems to be the colour of the year. These trees and shrubs and the obelisks, too, are the guardians of my vision.
I pick up a pencil and draw them in their place, deep green structures on which to drape my multicoloured dreams.