Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ and sitting in the shade. – Rudyard Kipling, Complete Verse
It was a tangle of brambles and ivy, a wilderness of sticks and dried grass and odd and unknown stalks of something or other sticking heavenward willy-nilly across the landscape. The old wooden gate pushed open to reveal chipped and broken stone steps, three, four, five, caked with mud and dirt, testifying to long abandon. The stunning golden rock of the limestone rising above us, forming a formidable, scintillating backdrop to our adventure, observed our efforts to unearth and recreate this old garden.
An elderly neighbor, now too infirm to work the earth, handed the key of the unwieldy padlock and offered his blessings to my husband, allowing us the use of the garden plot he owned on the winding, narrow street above the city, a 5 minutes’ steep climb from the hotel. We pushed open the wooden gate, carefully maneuvered the weathered steps, and stood in the warmth and light of a February sun, after months of discussion and deliberation, and surveyed our latest adventure and dreamed of the possibilities, dreamed of fruit.
We got to work. Hands slipped into thick gardening gloves the color of newborn ducklings, we tugged and grappled with overgrown brambles, a thorny sticking point, untangling and yanking out each prodigious vine, carefully teasing out the roots. We coaxed up unrecognizable stalks, easing the rooty stubs from the dirt before tossing them into the ever-growing mound of detritus. He gathered the abandoned praying mantis pods and I marveled at each ladybug. He created a compost mound and we tossed the spiked and spinous brambles and ivy vines back towards the fence hoping that it will keep scavengers and fruit thieves from crawling over the barriers from the troglodytes carved into the limestone hillside, a favorite local spot for partying teens, once the garden is abundant with fruits and berries.
Much was to be done, but the work proved rather easy. Four afternoons in the garden and we have finished the work of clearing the landscape. After tenderly pulling away the reeds and weeds and wild grasses from around each narrow raspberry stalk scattered from one end of the terrain to the other, they have all been replanted in several parallel rows towards the front of the long, rectangular space. Tall wooden spikes (discovered leaning against the stone wall behind the overgrown brambles) pierce the ground forming and outlining 3 squares, the soil turned and loosened; tiny lettuces, 5 for 1€, were gently tucked into the earth of the first; dried fava beans, a gift of our neighbor, Mr. B, were allotted to a second; the third plot is eagerly waiting for rhubarb, a rare and expensive commodity in our area and just as coveted for our homemade jams. Piles of freshly cut grasses and dried reeds were chopped by hand for mulch and gently spread over the fava beans and around the lettuces. Jean-Pierre points out the placement of 3 more futures beds and we excitedly discuss the possibilities, peas (from M. B.), strawberries, gooseberries, zucchini, and pumpkins.
Chinon is nothing if not convivial, as I’ve written about before, and friends taking walks on the coteau, the steep, winding streets on the hillside overlooking the city and the river, and folks living on this narrow street, pop in to say hello, express their curiosity, and get the news.
However many years she lived, Mary always felt that ‘she should never forget that first morning when her garden began to grow’. – Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
You may already know that my husband can cook, that he grew up cooking, is passionate about cooking. But he is also knowledgeable and truly magical when it comes to growing things. A green thumb. He was raised and nurtured in a green family, a family that spent time together discussing trees and plants, insects and birds, often reverting to their scientific names: what was spotted this week, what’s in the garden, who’s stealing the cherries or sneaking into the yard. Their house was overflowing with books on plants, encyclopedias of animals, compendiums of insects and bats and other creepy-crawlies. Forest walks and country strolls were studies in flora and fauna, analyses of stray feathers, young sprouts pushing up between fallen logs, snout furrows crossing the path, hunts for mushrooms. Once my in-laws retired to the country, they immediately created a considerable kitchen garden down the dirt path, raised beds for lettuces in the front yard, fruit trees surrounding the house. Springs and summers found grandpapa teaching his brood of grandsons how to plant and then harvest potatoes, strawberries, onions, raspberries. The cherries, apricots, and plums that weren’t eaten or baked into tarts were frozen for winter enjoyment or turned into jams; mounds of potatoes, apples, and onions were stored in the shed for the year-round. My father-in-law spent half of every day gardening, my mother-in-law spent quiet afternoons reading books on plants, flipping through old copies of Rustica. And family, when gathered together, continued their dizzying discussions of all things living, of all things green.
My own upbringing in Florida, an unforgiving terrain unconducive to most forms of greenery, was anything but and my horticultural experience limited. My father, too, had a garden, if for a very short time, a long, narrow strip of dirt along the side of the house, the shadows from the eaves protecting the plants from the searing Florida sunshine. One year he went on a homegrown-produce kick and created what could only be called a vegetable patch (with a stretch of the imagination). He worked long and hard on that 6 x 2-foot plot, hacking at the hard, dry sand until it gave way, dragging carloads of manure from the horse stables on the other side of the river to feed the soil and keeping up a valiant but losing battle with the mole who dug trenches through the yard, playing his own game of whack-a-mole with a shovel. We never understood what could have possibly inspired this serious man to try and master the unforgiving wasteland that is Florida dirt and sand. What would influence and embolden this man to spend weekends out under the harsh Florida sun in order to cultivate and ultimately harvest a couple of dozen splotchy tomatoes that his children were afraid to eat or strings of chili peppers that hung forlornly if somewhat decoratively in the kitchen over the sink, untouched, for years on end?
A Florida terrain
My father was a patient man, taking on projects and sticking diligently to each and every one in the face of the mocking and teasing laughter of his wife and the worried head shaking of his children. His long, constant war against weeds and the barrenness of the arid ground rarely produced more than a short spell of green grass in the front yard, grass thick, scratchy and tough, and a desert spread out behind the house full of burrs that hid among the twining spines of whatever grew hard against the ground, burrs that stuck and clung to bare feet and clothing. Yet he hung on and forged ahead, his patience and persistence, both signs of the engineer he was, trumping whatever Mother Nature threw in his path to trip him up.
His passion was phenomenal and admirable, indeed, one had to – and did – give him that. His joy at digging in the dirt, the sheer pleasure in producing one single beautiful flower or fragrant lemon (yes, his lemon tree produced a single lemon) or a bag of mottled tomatoes was wonderful to behold. This man who spent all day, five days a week in the confines of a job and office, ticking numbers off in his head, doing outrageous unimaginable mathematical gymnastics, sending men to the moon, loved nothing more than spending his weekends doing the most simple, basic things life had to offer: taking his children to the swimming pool, tinkering under the hood of a car, and gardening. But he was as protective of that garden as he was tenacious and none of us were allowed permission to help. But he did offer me one single row in that garden to plant what I wanted and I chose marigolds, a row of delicate, blowsy marigolds swaying gently, bright and gold, in the breeze and I couldn’t have been prouder of my gardening savvy as they bloomed strong and dazzlingly beautiful.
And now I am married to a man much like my father was, but one who grew up in a garden-passionate family. Tenacious to a fault, he only begins a project with the single-mindedness of carrying it through to the end. But whereas dad battled against the poor, unfertile Florida dirt, my husband stands in front of rich earth eager to produce. He already, along with his sister, a professional gardener and horticulturist, takes care of the hotel’s garden with expertise and unbridled devotion. And now he begins this new gardening adventure with excitement, determination, and the patience even to teach me.
And now the adventure – the newest adventure – begins.
Above the garden atop the hill
The view in the summer