Notes From the Lawn


What sort of gardener looks forward to winter’s first frost? Our in-house green thumb doubts herself after seeing what an expert Virginia gardener—and her garden—looks like.

I worry that being interested in gardens without tending one is like having an interest in food without eating. That’s why, four years ago, I planted a garden. I’d always been fond of garden history and design; visiting a fine garden is one of my favorite things to do. So why, looking out the window at my garden, do I find myself eager for the season’s first killing frost? The drone of summer bugs, the whole weedy, moldy mess: I won’t miss it. But this is gardening heresy, like being a chef and secretly hoping the sauce will curdle.

On a recent Saturday night I was introduced to a woman named Kelly. Someone said, “Kelly has a garden.” There was a great guffaw to my left and a nice man I know added, “Oh, sure. Kelly has a garden the way Chopin had a piano. Or Picasso had some paint. You should see it,” he said, turning to me.

I told Kelly I had a garden, too. “But,” I said in a rush, “I’m an amateur, a novice, a—”

Before I could think of another word to describe my horticultural efforts, Kelly invited me to come see her garden. I said I’d like to, but I didn’t really think it would happen. I thought we were merely stuck in a cocktail party moment. A mutual interest having been discovered, we were both now required to express unwarranted enthusiasm in order to hide the awkwardness of the social setting. Then she told me she was moving to New Hampshire soon; her husband’s work was taking the family away from Virginia, where she’d been born and raised and become a gardener. She was clearly shaken.

“Zone Four,” she whispered, horrified.

“Oh,” I breathed. “Colder?” It seemed a safe guess. I tried to suppress the question mark, but it hung there nevertheless. I knew that the U.S. Department of Agriculture divided the country into plant-hardiness zones (one through 11, with most subdivided into “a” and “b” categories), but I knew this geography about as well as I know the provinces of Canada, resulting in a familiar embarrassment. I’m a gardener who doesn’t know her zones, a child of Michigan who doesn’t know Canada. People always assume one follows the other.

“Of course, you can have lilacs,” she continued without pause. “And someone said recently, ‘Delphinium,’ and I thought: Oooh, delphinium.”

I had tried delphinium. “Oh, I know. Isn’t it frustrating that delphinium doesn’t work very well in Zone…”

“Seven,” she said, and we both smiled.

I was sure my cover was blown, but two mornings later I came home to a message from Kelly inviting me over, if I wasn’t tied down. For a moment, I pictured stakes and a lot of green twist ties, myself a prisoner of the garden I’d been neglecting.

“The light is beautiful,” she said.

Kelly lives in a part of Charlottesville where the houses sit on large, irregularly shaped lots. The land is hilly, the trees mature. Wooded passages fill in the spaces between houses, the kind of lush, un-landscaped border you don’t see much anymore. Kelly’s white brick Cape stands on a corner, her lawn and garden wrapping around three sides of the house. She had told me to look for the fence, but really the garden spoke for itself, still mightily in bloom even though it was early October.

I am a Midwesterner in Virginia, frequently reminded of my alien status.As I pulled up, she met me in the driveway. She’d just received some pictures from the real estate agent who had sold her the house and she flipped through them while I got my five-month-old out of the car. As we walked, she kept referring to the photos, astonished at the evidence of how much things had changed. The air was cool, the sun warm. It was a perfect morning for a stroll around the garden.

And yet, I was a little surprised when the tour started immediately, straight from the driveway to the first front bed of hardy perennials. No lemonade? No sweet tea and cookies? I am a Midwesterner in Virginia, frequently reminded of my alien status, constantly asked how I find the famed Southern hospitality. As we walked she named plants for me, adding the botanical names after the common ones as fluently as my grandmother once had. “Blue meadow sage. Salvia nemerosa. Magnus coneflower. Echinacea purpurea.” There’s a rhythm to it, like a good prayer, and I have always felt that a true gardener needs to do this as much as a dancer needs to stretch. It reflects a certain amount of time spent with seed catalogues. I began to think that perhaps she was paying me the ultimate gardener’s compliment—this tour was all about the plants and she was assuming I knew much more than I do. I listened assiduously and did my best to keep up.

Perhaps Kelly was also complimenting me when she appeared not to see her giant black dog bound out of nowhere. I turned just in time to protect the baby, and the beast left two long smears of red Virginia soil down the side and back of my brand-new white shirt. Kelly kept right on talking, probably thinking something like, “Dirt? It’s nothing.”

But I was thinking, “Ann Taylor! Twenty-two bucks!”

Gardens are deceptive (Man’s fall from grace didn’t happen in a parking lot), and you better believe gardeners are, too. What looks beautiful and careless—the classic English cottage garden, for example, like Kelly’s—can still require an enormous amount of labor. A gardener may try to tell you otherwise, but that’s because they don’t want to let the secret out. They’re playing God, after all, over this bit of real estate. It would be like admitting you can’t control the serpent. I know this, and yet the more time I spent with Kelly, the more I found myself falling for the myth once again, eager to get home and see what could be done with my own asters, tumbling in a decidedly less beguiling way.

We did eventually go inside, where I nursed the baby and Kelly showered me with Post-it notes on which she scribbled the names of some of her favorite gardeners. She spoke of one’s sense of color and use of exotics, another’s plantmanship.

“Plantmanship,” I repeated, trying to figure out what that would mean.

She wrote down the titles of books I should read and gave me one of her favorite heirloom bulb catalogs. I’d mentioned earlier that we lived in a 1921 arts-and-crafts bungalow. We needed old flowers—flowers cultivated in that decade—for our old house, apparently, and at that moment, sitting with Kelly, it sounded like a great idea.

As I left, Kelly noticed my back. “Oh, mud,” she said casually. “Bleach it.”

“Sure. Whatever,” I said, feeling indifferent. Sounding, I thought, like a gardener.

But when I got home? I bleached the shirt—three times and there are still stains. I did, though, look up the botanical name for my aster—aster frikartii—before I hacked it all back. One small step toward better plantmanship.


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane