The incomplete gardener
June 1, 2022
We dream and scheme — and forever learn.
by Jim Dodson
illustration by Gerry O’Neill
Over the past five years, I’ve been building a garden in the old neighborhood where I grew up, a garden of shade and light beneath towering oaks, and my third effort at a major landscape project.
Each one has been distinctly different from the one before it. The first was a woodland retreat I built on 15 acres atop a sunny coastal hill in Maine, carved out of a beautiful forest of beech and birch. I was a new father when the gardening bug bit with emphasis, inspired by the British sporting estates and spectacular public botanical gardens I routinely visited in my work as a golf editor and outdoors correspondent for a pair of national magazines.
My children spent the first decade of their lives on that hilltop, living in a rugged post-and-beam house I built with my own hands and never expected to leave. It was, or so I told myself, my dream home and private garden sanctuary, the last place on earth I would abandon. My own growing obsession with gardening even inspired me to spend two years researching and writing a book about the horticulture world, the beautiful madness that overtakes those who fall in love with shaping landscape.
It was difficult to say goodbye to that little piece of heaven, but life changes when you least expect. That’s an important lesson of living. When I had an opportunity to come home to the South and teach writing at a top Virginia university and start a trio of arts magazines across my home state of North Carolina, I didn’t hesitate.
Next came a cottage on 2 acres in Pinehurst that we inhabited for a year with the full intention of buying. The property came with a charming but wildly overgrown garden and an aging swimming pool. Over a full year, I liberated a handsome serpentine brick fence, rebuilt the garden and enclosed the property with a new wooden fence and gate. We also updated the pool and enjoyed it for the span of one lovely summer. Our golden retriever, Ajax, particularly loved the pool, taking himself for a dip every morning and floating for hours on his own air mattress.
The problem was the cottage. It was built over a forest swamp and turned out, upon the required inspection for sale, to have massive mold below the decks. The entire structure had to be immediately evacuated and gutted. We took a bath on the deal, a gamble, and lost a small fortune. But such is life. One lives, learns and moves on.
The midcentury house we bought six years ago in the Piedmont city where I grew up was built by the Corry family — a beautiful California-style bungalow that was Big Al Corry’s dream house. Mama Corry was the last to live in it, and the family was thrilled when they learned we were buying it because I had grown up two doors away from the Corry boys.
As we approach six years on the grounds, restoration of the house is nearly complete. Sometime later this summer, after I finish the stone pathways and install a new wooden fence and gate, my latest woodland garden will be complete as well.
Or will it?
One of the lessons I’ve learned from building three ambitious gardens is that a garden is never complete — and neither is its creator.
We don’t just grow a garden. It continually grows us.
I think of this phenomenon as the garden within.
We scheme and dream, we build and revise, we learn from the past, forever growing.
As my friend Tony Avent, the gifted Raleigh plantsman, once told me during the five weeks we spent together hunting aboriginal plants in the upland wilds of South Africa, no garden — or gardener — is ever complete.
“You’re not really a serious gardener until you’ve killed a lot of innocent plants,” he pointed out, “and learned from the experience. You just have to get down in the dirt and do it.”
I blame verdure in the bloodstream and dirt beneath my fingernails for this earthly addiction, probably a legacy of the old Piedmont family of rural farmers, gardeners and preachers from Alamance and Orange counties that I hail from. When I was a kid, both my parents were devoted amateur landscape gardeners. My father’s thing was lawns and shrubs, and my mother was widely admired for her spectacular peonies and roses come May and June.
A few years back, about the time Ajax the dog was enjoying his daily floats in a swimming pool we rebuilt but never owned, a lovely woman who purchased my family’s home got in touch. She was planning to sell the house in order to move into a senior adult community — and wouldn’t I like to come and dig up some of my mom’s spectacular peonies?
I thanked her and promised I would soon drop by, shovel in hand. But sadly, I got so busy with work and travel, I failed to get there before the house was sold and the peony row was plowed under by the new owners.
Another life lesson from the garden — everything in life has an expiration date. Delay may cost regret.
But sometimes, when you least expect it, another opportunity comes along, a chance for more growth.
This latest garden saved my sanity during the lost days of the pandemic. It’s designed for the hot summer days now upon us, cooled by more than 20 flowering trees I’ve planted around the property, creating my version of an urban woodland retreat — a Scottish vale, as I imagine it — where birds gather to feed each evening and the aging gardener sits with a fine bourbon in hand, still scheming and dreaming.
In the meantime, this month, the new peony row I planted last summer in memory of my mom — using the same small wooden-handled pot she used to plant things in her garden — should really be something to see. SP
Jim Dodson is a New York Times bestselling author in Greensboro.