Linguist in the garden

A few months ago, I was buying some large stones for my garden and I was offered a little proverb. If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk, if you want to be happy for a year, get married, but if you want to be happy for a lifetime, start a garden. This post is about discovering gardening.

I want to write about gardening for two reasons. First, because I’ve only just discovered it, second, and more important, because without it, 2020 would have been much harder.

I need to start by saying that for all of my adult life I have not been able to understand gardening. Yes, I have always loved gardens or parks and walking into an established, well-kept garden has always been a delight. In fact, I’ve even had preferences; I’ve never been particularly fond of formal, French gardens, I’ve always preferred the ‘natural’ English garden, at least as European gardens go. On the other hand, the timelessness of Japanese rock gardens continues to take my breath away.

But as much as I like looking at paintings, painting something myself has never particularly appealed to me (though this might be because I can’t draw/paint even if my life depended on it). And this had also been the case with gardens. Gardens, as pieces of art, are great to look at, but putting my hand into the soil, getting my fingernails dirty, doing the weeding, raking the leaves? Not in a million years. Well, at least not till recently.

I chose just about the worst moment to move from one country to another. Instead of trying to settle down, about 3 weeks after arriving in Poland, with my head still spinning, I ended up in lockdown, with all the plans I had for meeting my close ones going right out of the window. All that made and continues to make me struggle, sometimes struggle a lot. It’s been hard. And one of the few things that has kept me together has been the garden.

Yes, I discovered gardening. I started finding it very satisfying to look for plants, to find places for them. After a few months, I asked to be shown how to plant something. The gardener obliged and I started with some ornamental grasses (which I like a lot). And you know what?! It was a success! Not only did my imperata cylindrica, and my needle grass establish, but they started to grow! A few weeks later, the seedlings started getting higher and the new shoots appeared. It wasn’t just satisfying – it was exhilarating.

Two little asides. There is a linguistic aspect to all this. I have been discovering English plant names.  As I have never particularly liked gardening, plant names have eluded me, apart from your pines or your oaks. But all of a sudden, you see a tree which is called honey locust (Polish ‘glediczja’, which is a calque from Latin). Or a smoke bush whose Polish name, to make things interesting, is ‘perukowiec’; it comes from ‘peruka’, the word for the wig. On the other word, the ‘witch-hazel’ (its etymology is quite interesting and for a long time it was not related to witches) is Polish is ‘oczar’ whose name at least seems to be related to the verb ‘oczarować’ which can also mean ‘bewitch’. Discovering the worldview encapsulated in plant names has been quite wonderful.

The second little aside is that I do realise that I am lucky and privileged to be able to have a garden in which I can put a few trees. I do understand that many, many people do not have that luxury and whenever I complain about the pandemic restrictions, I stop myself. Yes, I am not very happy, but at least I have my grasses, my trees and my shrubs. Next year, they will be even more delightful.

Of course, first, there were people who helped to design the garden, choose the plants, select them in the nursery, but soon enough I discovered that walking in a plant nursery, looking at the huge variety of plants available, was a source of much joy. Again, I started having preferences. No flowers, but more ornamental grass, no conifers, but deciduous trees and shrubs. Birch, maidenhair, maple, katsura, sweetgum trees…. choosing them was so delightful. In fact, there are still a couple I would like to introduce myself to – parrotia persica, for example. But I haven’t found a spot for it yet. Somehow, I am unable to dig up one in order to put another one in. And the spot must make some sense.

And after they were planted, I just watching. To be honest, I am not certain I watch them grow, you can hardly see a tree grow, but you can just watch them there…..They’re just there and you can just see them so calm and peaceful. Because of my age, most of the trees I brought were already quite well grown – I can’t wait 10 years to start enjoying a modestly sized tree. This is also why I prefer someone experienced to put them into the ground. Putting in a fairly grown tree with its root system is no mean feat.

But I did buy a little Japanese maple. I planted it, as I planted a couple of smoke bushes. It seems they survived. The maple had the most wonderful dark red leaves in the autumn. It will be my little project in forming a tree. It already has a number of strings pulling the branches and a few of them were wired. Even the minutest success will be wonderful.

So, what’s in gardening? Well, for me it’s the time it takes. I still tend to be quite intense. When I do something, I want to see the results now. With gardening you almost never see the results immediately. Well, unless you rake the leaves or remove the weeds, you don’t. Gardening takes time. With grasses, it’s at least a few weeks to see whether they are ok. With trees…., well, I am yet to see whether the katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) which was planted in late spring, survives. It quickly lost the leaves, but the buds seem OK, or so I’m told. It will have been a year by the time I see the results of planting it.

I am not certain the garden has taught me patience, but it has certainly showed me that there is a different time. Trees take time to grow, they seem not to be in a hurry. They are also plants for the future. I hope I will see them fully grown, but I understand that they are likely to be appreciated long after I am gone. Well, I hope they will be. I enjoy thinking that.

Planting them, watching them, removing a few branches, has helped me to keep it together in 2020. Every time I went to the trees, I stepped into a different timeframe. One in which I had to become a long-distance runner. You slow down and understand that what’s happening around is but a moment, batting an eyelid. For me, it’s been reassuring, at least a little bit.



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