A Growing Understanding
Sometimes the most important lessons in life can be learned right in your own backyard
The older I grow, the more I feel like Dorothy after Oz.
I’ve had Technicolor adventures in far-flung lands—floated over the Serengeti at dawn in a hot-air balloon, been mugged in Casablanca, danced the fox-trot on a hotel terrace in Zanzibar, talked my way into a heroin processing plant in Afghanistan and, a bit trickier, talked my way back out so I could live to write about it.
Yet the lessons I’ve learned that sustain me season to season have come to me quietly in my own suburban garden.
Perspective is reality, my garden has taught me, despite my being a slow and stubborn student.
For years I measured the mulberry tree outside my kitchen door for the ax. I was certain that mulberry was a messy blight, unloved by even the birds, because—from my usual vantage points in the garden—I never noticed a single one pluck a berry from its malformed branches.
Then while rearranging my second-floor home office one morning, I dragged my desk in front of a little-used window and lifted the shade. For the first time, I peered directly into the crown of the mulberry at its juiciest peak and discovered a glorious little universe, with robins, finches and cardinals feasting as squirrels and chipmunks performed loop-de-loops.
The experience left me wondering what else in life I view from the wrong perspective.
The greatest happiness in my life comes not from great adventure or acclaim, but from the smallest moments, like glimpsing my husband as he stops by the front door to bury his nose in an old, honey-scented rose that I’ve known and loved longer than I’ve known and loved him.
Blink, and you miss these moments. That’s the lesson my garden is forever teaching me because I keep forgetting.
Spring mornings, my husband and I like to drink our coffee on an east-facing garden bench so we can luxuriate in mild sun, breezes and the subtle sway and nod of a nearby bridal wreath spirea, its arcing branches heavy with new blossoms. Last spring we were busy with projects so unimportant that we now don’t recall what they were. We reclaimed our bench too late and missed the spirea’s ephemeral show. Not this spring.
I have never known a day so bad that it can’t be saved by going into the garden to dig, clip and drag around muddy hoses until I’m tired, covered with dirt, and time has slipped away.
Everything slips away one way or another, life has taught me. But it’s my garden that teaches me not to mind so much. Everything changes, like those daffodils that startled my neighborhood by blooming in February. Everything dies. Yet nothing is truly lost. I’m sure I read that in an Introduction to Buddhism text in college. But I didn’t understand it until I installed a hulking composter against my back fence last year. I make daily pilgrimages now to toss in orange peels, decaying leaves, spent blossoms and the detritus of failed horticultural experiments—then turn the composter crank to begin anew.
It’s easy to disappear into a well-loved garden. My father, whose Midwestern garden was so extraordinary that strangers driving by regularly hit the brakes and turned into our drive to snap photos, was a solitary gardener. “I’m just going to move a hose,” he’d say as he escaped the dinner table and disappeared into his garden to dig and clip until he lost the light. I was a solitary gardener, too, until I remarried in midlife a man who not only loves to smell the roses, he prunes and waters them.
Last fall, seeking the company and wisdom of women who care more about mulch than manicures, I joined the Bethesda Community Garden Club. I discovered this community just a moment too late to meet one of the most learned and admired gardeners in its history: Gretchen P. Minners, who died in October at age 80.
Gretchen knew accomplishment and adventure. In 1956, when options for brilliant women were few, she earned a master’s degree in nursing from Yale University. She married a Yale medical school graduate, now retired Rear Adm. Howard A. Minners. The couple traveled widely as he won a succession of lofty posts: flight surgeon for NASA astronauts in Houston, pioneer in vaccine development, immunology and tropical medicine at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, chief of the World Health Organization’s research office in Geneva.
Minners remembers his wife being enthusiastic about the hot-air balloon ride they took while on photo safari in Kenya. Yet all and all, “she would always rather be in her garden, down on her knees getting her hands and tools dirty.”
Gretchen’s garden is six-tenths of an acre on a hillside that drops steeply from their Bethesda home to public parkland. Passionate about native wildflowers, she carved out a naturalistic masterpiece on that hillside. A series of irregularly shaped beds edged with fallen branches and unearthed stones are filled with great drifts of natives so expertly selected and tended that something blooms nearly every day of the year.
Gretchen was a solitary gardener. She spent such long hours alone in her garden that, years before cellphones existed, she rigged her home phone to ring outside.
She was also a generous gardener. She gave away so many beloved wildflowers year after year, to friends and strangers alike, that thousands of plants that once grew in Gretchen’s garden now bloom all over Montgomery County and Washington, D.C. Some of them will be sold at two fundraising events she long supported: the Bethesda Community Garden Club’s annual plant sale May 3 at the Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market and the Landon School’s Azalea Garden Festival May 4-6.
One day last fall, a few women from the Bethesda Community Garden Club visited Gretchen’s garden to dig up plants for their sale. Tiny and stooped, Gretchen was dying of cancer. Too frail to pick up a shovel and dig, she closely supervised as the sale chairwoman, Elaine Hope, thinned an overly exuberant drift of white aster-like Eupatorium. Suddenly, a tiny stand of bright pink wildflowers that had been hidden by the larger plants appeared. And Gretchen, once again, was surprised by joy in the garden.
“She looked gleeful,” Elaine recalls. “She looked like a child who had just been given the best present in the world.”
I understand. I feel that way every time I step onto my own garden path and follow where it leads.
April Witt, an award-winning journalist, lives in Bethesda. Send comments or column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.