Notes From the Balcony

Photograph by Caroline Härdter

The Noble Garden

Prisoners garden. Spies garden. Gardening is good for every soul. But a desire to garden doesn’t a gardner make. A story of slaughtering plants.

Gardening is like taking care of orphans or building schools for the poor—an all-good and noble pursuit. The New York Times recently quoted the surprised neighbor of a woman accused of being a Soviet spy. She couldn’t be, the neighbor said. “Look at what she’s done with the hydrangeas!”

I wondered: Were the spy’s flower beds a subterfuge or did she want to balance her bad work with some good?

Gardens have traditionally been commonplace in prisoner-of-war camps. At Guantanamo, some of the prisoners made a bed of seeds saved from melon slices they were served with their meals. A heartbreaking effort. I hope gardening, in the absence of all hope, eases the mind.

But what about the mind that needs to be at ease to garden? I once read an article about a depressed woman who, after finally receiving a radical and successful form of treatment, immediately went home to recover her neglected flower beds.

Most of us probably fall somewhere in between. I love gardens, but struggle to find the necessary patience and enthusiasm for the work of gardening.


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My whole life I have felt I should garden. Have felt I ought to garden. I grew up listening to a grandmother I adored tell stories of her childhood spent traveling around the world. In spite of the adventure, all she wanted, she would say to me, was 10 square feet to call her own and plant a garden. I imagined her staring wistfully out of train windows at the passing landscape and thinking, That bit? Or maybe that bit?

In my childhood home, I carved out a little marigold and chrysanthemum bed next to my parents’ garage that never thrived. I’ve killed primroses and African violets on most of the kitchen windowsills I’ve owned. In Virginia, I planted a full-scale garden for the first time to mixed results. And now in New York, as readers know, I have a balcony that is theoretically large enough to do something interesting with flowers and herbs, but when the building forced us to move everything inside for balcony renovation, my skills were taxed, to say the least. On the night we were finally allowed to move the plants back outside, I discovered an enormous amount of water damage under the plastic we’d put down to protect the deep windowsill. I stared at the ruined paint for a while, and then said, “The thing is, I have no inherent ability for this.”

The collateral damage is disheartening. The evergreen I purchased because I thought its name sounded like a Roman gladiator? Spectacularly dead.My husband walked over, looked at the damp and bubbling counter, and said that in his view, what we had endured—the contents of an entire balcony inside for three months—was “extreme gardening.”

Extreme gardening?

“Like trying to make a pie crust over an open fire pit,” he offered.

I appreciate the metaphor, but the collateral damage is still disheartening. The evergreen I purchased because I liked its sunburst shape and thought its name (Taxus) sounded like a Roman gladiator? Spectacularly dead. Within days of being moved back onto the balcony, it began to dry up. I thought it just needed more water, so I gave it a soaking, then we left town for a few days. When we returned, the whole plant, every last needle, had turned yellow. A thrown-out, curb-bound Christmas tree stays green longer than that poor plant did. I know when you start seeds indoors, you have to move them outside gradually, but that’s because they are little two-inch seedlings. This was a robust, four-foot evergreen. I thought it would be fine.

Also dead: the marigold my son grew in preschool and the African violet my daughter and I bought last fall and have been tending all year. How can I impress upon the children a reverence for gardening with such poor skills? I’m tempted to give up and simply take them to botanical gardens whenever I can.

But they love this balcony garden now. They are New York, apartment-bound children who do not have a pet and so perhaps care for plants more than most. (My daughter used to cry every time I threw out a wilted bouquet.) The night we reclaimed the balcony, they came out to help dig, repot, and water. When we finished, we ordered a pizza and ate dinner outside surrounded by the mess of our efforts. It was good to see the children dirty in a garden-y sort of way, as opposed to the usual playground grime.

So we brought the dead Taxus up to my grandmother’s house in Connecticut where her old (neglected) garden still borders the woods. We nestled the dry (but oddly not brittle) evergreen in a bed of leaves, and I tried to say something coherent about the ecosystem and nutrients and “nurse logs,” fallen trees that become the nourishing base for new growth. A bit much, I agree, but the children like thinking of the Taxus as a nurse log now, and so do I.

I told them I would try a crape myrtle on the balcony this fall and they could pick out the color (pink, purple, raspberry, or white). In the meantime, we put some new marigolds in the planters on my grandmother’s deck, and I’m glad to say they haven’t died yet.