Fragmented thoughts on floral arrangements and gardening while painting the next iteration of Good Witches of the Between and reading about developmental psychology and Pessoa. The writing was captured in a single sitting; semi-stream-of-conscious; spell check but no other corrections or refinements undertaken.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
I remember the book of nursery rhymes and its illustration of the contrary little girl standing in on a garden path, cottage in the background, facing a row of flowers. The flowers had faces, and, although one might expect in this illustration all the faces to be the same, each flowery face was in its expression unique.
The poem, a famous English nursery rhyme whose origins extend back further than its earliest known publication in the mid-18th century, was most likely contained in a volume of moral rhymes for children collected by ‘Mother Goose’; and not A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson although that book also had a place on the inexpensive, unfinished wood bookshelf from the pre-flat pack era to which my father had applied coats of white latex paint and which I happily picked and peeled away.
I don’t know where the book came from. It was there from my earliest memories. An older volume, maybe even pre-war, it could have been a relic from my mother’s childhood. Or simply a book acquired in the decade she was an elementary school teacher prior to my birth.
There always seemed to be Mary’s in these musty books. Not in the new ‘Cat in the Hat’ book club books that otherwise filled my shelves. I only knew one Mary about my age, and she seemed ‘old’. I didn’t know what contrary meant, but the little girl pictured looked like she was not one who was infrequently scolded for following her own mind. I could relate to her. Was I contrary, whatever that meant?
Those flowers with their faces, gloating at poor Mary, standing and staring at them in her yellow dress with the Peter Pan collar. I assumed the flowery faces belonged to the pretty maids, judgmental little girls.
Grown up, living near the ocean with small children we would collect shells from our frequent trips to the beach and bring them home to hang on the fence posts and adorn the flower beds of our garden. Plotted out in the first decades of the 20th century, in the neglected, small, urban yard surrounding our house, loosening the hard, packed soil, untended by most recent owners whose gardening ideal seemed more towards a failed attempt at cultivating the expansive green American suburban lawn...not here, not in this neighborhood, and definitely not on a lot with half the square footage of the average house in the burbs… I would dig up shell fragments once used to enrich the soil by earlier owners who still sought a garden of variety and contrasts and not sameness. As the shells we brought from the beach age I break them up and turn them into the soil too.
Perhaps it is my contrarian nature that keeps me from cultivating that ideal American garden of green, chemically treated and water chugging lawn. My approach to gardening has been to eliminate as much lawn as possible while maintaining just enough space for the boys to play on. If they need an expanse of green there are numerous parks nearby in which to kick a ball.
Flowers should be planted dense and self seeding. Perennials for birds, bees and butterflies. There are a few annuals too. But the garden should tend itself, and not look manicured. I’ve succeed in eliminating all but one tiny, narrow strip of grass in the front yard. It is hidden in the middle of high flowers, and really only still there as a pathway to access the interior and rear of the bed.
Most of the neighbors probably do not register that the state of my garden is intentional in its non-manicured cultivation. I sit on my porch in the summer, some who walk by, pushing the plants encroaching upon the edges of the broken, warped sidewalk the city owns and is too bankrupt to repair or replace -despite an application filed over 15 years ago and the promise made by a now former politician, prep work begun in October and sealed up again after November’s loss. The dog walkers and college kids mutter ‘look at this overgrown mess’ as they toss their beer cans, food wrappers and cigarette butts into my flowers. But some notice, and praise the fifty foot long sunflowers, bee balm and obedient plant meadow they stroll through twice each day.
But how did I get to this garden. How does my garden grow? It isn’t about the silver bells, cockle shells, and neither pretty maids nor sunflowers and nothing in rows. I came to thoughts of my garden through the yearning for the spring that will eventually, soon come. The plants have begun waking up, growing beneath and above the soil. The diversity of textures, colors and the fragments of a diverse grouping that will six months from now form the messy wholeness surrounding me, my home and my studio.
Flowers (and plants) surround me, not just in the summer, but throughout the year. Part of my studio is in a greenhouse. In the winter the Oleander and geranium pots sit under and behind my easel and bloom despite the incredible fluctuation of temperature, moisture, sun and darkness. Upstairs, in the living space, gardenia, orange trees, begonias and orchids blossom. The scent of dirt and sweetness occasionally breaking through the smells of a family inhabiting the space, of turpentine fumes rising from the greenhouse below.
I’ve lived for nearly 15 years across the road from a flower shop and greenhouse. Originally built in the 1910s, always family owned and operated, a dying breed. The current owners live next door; they are neighbors, friends and at times surrogate grandparents for kids whose own grandparents are states and/or an ocean away. Behind the shop is a community garden in which we grow also tend plants. Unlike the orderly, raised beds being planted in the city-sanctioned community gardens taking over corners of the parks and odd traffic islands, this community garden’s beds form naturally. From mounds of dirt, rich from compost of the neighborhood composting project also housed behind the shop, sprouting tomatoes, squash, strawberries, onions, kale, kohlrabi, Thai Basil,..., and later mulched with straw. By August one has to forge her way through the plants, the odds and ends collected, and the low hanging branches of the old willow tree, along the edge of the dugout foundation of a former section of the greenhouse, now also planted full with flowers and vegetables.
Still, how did I get here? How does this garden grow?
The flower shop is a community within the community. Forty-five years the current owners have tended this garden. Weekly I find myself there, helping and being helped. To survive as a flower shop today there are the arrangements done anonymously, orders placed online from somewhere in the world to be delivered locally, conforming to an image designed by someone somewhere, but not here. Still they always make the most of it. And then their are the local orders. People coming into the shop, taking time to express their wishes and desires. The florist have freedom to play with the flowers.
This past week the worktable was filled with white wicker baskets. The baskets a variety of green shapes, sizes and textures. Big, fluffy white and pale blue hydrangea, small, pale lavender iris with an Indian yellow gash in the center, dainty pink and lavender mini flowers of a kind I cannot name. I photographed a section of the basket. When I see a combination of colors, shapes, and textures I am wont to do this. I usually end up deleting the photos that are rarely looked at again. But this image I keep coming back to.
The baskets were for a funeral at a local traditional, ‘High Anglican’ church. They were stunning, and a waste on the dead. Hopefully not on the living who would attend the service. What would become of them after? But that is not the garden I am interested in. What struck me, and the reason I keep returning to the baskets of flowers is the way the divers fragments form the whole within the basket, filling it and spilling out of it.
Thinking of my practice and my research, the fragmentation of identity which somehow forms a (not always, but hopefully) harmonious whole I thought of those baskets, and the many other flower arrangement I see each week. Of my garden. Of the contrarian nature which connects all of these, myself included.