The Secret Gardener

Your parents’ hobbies seem odd and quaint until you discover you can’t sleep late on the weekends anymore. Finding early middle age in the flower boxes of your backyard.

I rent a room in a group house just south of the Capitol building in Washington. It is an old, old house, like many in the neighborhood; it is long and thin, with high-ceilinged rooms and narrow stairs that creak and slant at near-perilous angles. It is musty, and in the winter awful drafts pour through the windows and doors and untold other cracks that have opened in its frame over the years.

My room, for all that, is fine enough, and my housemates are pleasant, professional types, clean and intelligent and good for a conversation. But what really makes the house special, to me at least, is the backyard garden. Set well below street level, it continues the house’s narrow dimensions for 50 feet; within it lies a terrace and a winding path of aggregate blocks, framed by a series of small berms and raised flower beds hemmed in by half-moon walls of loosely stacked, flat stones. A third of the way back, a mulberry tree in the neighbor’s yard hangs over the high picket fence that separates our two houses, spreading scads of tiny, hard, red berries beneath it. At the back of the garden is a tomato rack, and a birdbath, and two diminutive firs; behind that is a small door that leads into the alley.

I love the garden, and with the onset of spring I find myself working in it constantly. There is much to be done: Weeds need to be pulled, leaves need to be raked, dead plants need to be carted off. Someone, clearly, took care of the garden last year, because there are perennials scattered around and an herb garden in one of the half-moons, now overrun by mint plants. But none of my housemates took part, and lacking a map of the flower beds I have to be careful what I pull up and what I leave in the ground. Soon, when the cold spells are over, I will walk to the Eastern Market and buy a few flats of flowers, as well as some vegetable seeds.

All of this—the weeding, the planting, even my interest in the garden itself—has taken me a bit by surprise. I have never had a garden before, and I’ve never thought of myself as the gardening type. I don’t know anything about flowers or growing vegetables, nor have I ever cared. As a child I hated my parents’ gardening and yard work, mostly because I was afraid of being drafted into hours of spreading mulch or hauling away yard clippings.

So why the change? Maybe because I can’t identify a single Avril Lavigne song, or get the point of hip-hugger jeans, or discuss the relative merits of Sorority Life vs. Fraternity Life. Not old, but no longer young, I am slowly sliding into the interests that most people categorize as ‘adult.’ In inverse proportion to the derision I heap on the ‘youth’ activities I once enjoyed, I find myself laughing less and less at the activities my parents like. If I had more disposable income than the minuscule amount afforded to low-level editors, can I say with surety that I wouldn’t spend my Saturdays antique-hunting?

But it’s not just that I am slowly replacing one silly endeavor with another. There’s a subtle but powerful calm that comes with working in a garden, managing small bits of life even if everything around me is going to hell. In The World According to Garp, John Irving writes that cooking dinner is a great way to relax because, no matter how bad the rest of your day went, with a meal prepared you can go to bed knowing you achieved at least something. The same holds true with gardening—after hours of work I can always say I have done something, and it is good, undeniably, simply, good.

When I was little, I hoped I could avoid my parents’ gardening crusade so that I could explore the woods behind our house. Back there, with the house barely in view, an unknown gully or a newly fallen log took on outsized significance, they were to me the same as an undiscovered continent. Now, of course, that sort of magic is gone; a log is just a log. But as I take up gardening, I may also be finding the last link in a full circle. Watching perennials emerge, shaping the flower beds into tidy bursts of color, and then standing back and watching it all grow, the same feeling of wonder is starting to come back to me.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen