The Marriage Garden
I fell in love with Diederik in a city. We met, had a baby, got married. Surrounded as we were by concrete, I had no idea if he was a gardening kind of man. Certainly, I suspected. My husband is from the Netherlands, where there is a floral bouquet for every occasion. I assumed that he – like so many of his compatriots – would be an avid gardener once he had some soil in which to sink his hands.
That’s what I was counting on when we planted roots in our green, suburban town. Frankly, I’ve never been much of a gardener. My parents were born and raised in New York City. They moved to the suburbs shortly before I was born, and wasted little time paving over most of the grass in our backyard. It was nice and flat for the basketball hoop and outdoor barbecues.
My Dutch in-laws, on the other hand, are all about the green. They can reel off plant names in Dutch, English and Latin – Digitalis, Helianthus, Myosotis – and know which plants thrive in which types of soil. In the tiny garden behind his urban townhouse, my father-in-law has planted over a thousand different bulbs. Each square centimeter is meticulously planned.
Surely, I thought, the care my in-laws bestowed upon their gardens was a good sign for our newly acquired backyard – a blank canvas upon which we (mostly he) could create our very own idyll.
Diederik’s early attempts were promising. He beat back a sea of thorny weeds to create a shady picnic area next to the garage, surrounded on two sides by sweet-scented honeysuckle. He created other “rooms” in our 50 x 80 foot plot. The play area, with a swing set and sandbox, and a spot for seated contemplation, where his hand-crafted bench was soon covered by creeping clematis.
There was, to be sure, a learning curve. Like the time Diederik spent the morning gardening before taking an evening flight to Amsterdam for work. There he developed a rash so irritating he sought medical help. The doctor diagnosed him with a case of impetigo, a skin infection that usually affects small children. It wasn’t until he got back home a week later, his condition unchanged by the prescribed antibiotic, that he sought medical help again. When he walked into his doctor’s office, she took one look at him and said: “That’s not impetigo. It’s poison ivy.”
Since then, he’s gotten much better at spotting poison ivy, which apparently does not grow in the Netherlands.
But the early successes in the garden eventually withered as Diederik traveled more for work and, when he was home, dedicated more time to a new growing obsession: baseball. The garden suffered. The ominous weeds began to reclaim the picnic area. The wild rose he’d harvested from a nearby forest became a vicious predator, threatening the plants (and people) around it with aggressive, spiky shoots. And the once-green lawn started to erode under many seasons of wiffleball. After our rambunctious golden retriever joined the family, the grass all but disappeared.
Our own little plot, while never exactly magazine-cover ready, had grown ugly. Embarrassing, even.
One spring I could ignore it no longer, and I plucked up the courage to take matters into my own hands. I hacked away at roots and replanted daylilies. I collected tender shoots of hibiscus and repositioned them into what I imagined would be a kind of flowering forest. Donations of black-eyed susan and daisies went into the ground, along with new shrubs my in-laws gave me for my birthday.
The work was exhilarating at first. When I finally put down the spade for the day, I felt sweaty and tired and accomplished. That is, until I watched my efforts wither and die. Aside from a few plucky shrubs (and yes, I’m talking to you, rhododendron) my labor in the garden was fruitless.
Well, not fruitless, exactly. I did manage to sow some discord.
In my attempts to kindle my own inner gardener, I ripped out plants I assumed were weeds. They weren’t, as I found out when Diederik returned home from a business trip. He was equally displeased to discover that I’d all but killed some of the decorative grass cover he’d been nurturing. Oops. In my defense, he was less than respectful of some of the changes I’d made. He moved the daylilies, and did not share my hibiscus forest vision. Days of toil, erased. I was irritated, but also relieved. Now I had an excuse to go back to being a spectator. I took a back seat to the gardener-in-chief, and Diederik began to reinvest his time and energy into making it beautiful again.
When we first moved to our house nearly 20 years ago, the only jewel in an otherwise spartan backyard was a glorious azalea – a bush that had to be transplanted when we built a deck. Just a few feet away from its original location, the shrub withered for several seasons. We thought it was a goner. But year by year, it persisted, adding blossums and surprising us with its own spirited rejuvenation.
Like that azalea, our garden is reclaiming its former glory. The spot where raised vegetable beds once stood is now bursting with hydrangea, lilac, cana lily. The box that had been filled with sand and toys houses a wildflower garden. And in spite of the dog’s efforts, we have green grass again. I know that Diederik deserves the credit, but I’d like to think that I have played a small part in our garden’s revival. I take on lesser tasks – the things that are hard to mess up. Transplanting indestructible hosta. Cutting back the forsythia to within an inch of its life. Rooting out the poison ivy. And it looks like – after multiple attempts – I may finally coax one radiant sunflower out of the ground this year.
There is always a learning curve, but I’d like to think the garden has taught us patience. It has taught us to be kinder. More respectful. To not expect perfection. And it has shown us, over and over again, that one can thrive even if conditions are far from ideal. The garden, like a marriage, is a living, breathing thing.