A Garden That Welcomes Strangers
By Allen Lacy
I do not know what became of her, and I never learned her name. But I feel that I knew her from the garden she had so lovingly made over many decades.
The house she lived in lies two miles from mine – a simple, two-story structure with the boxy plan, steeply-pitched roof and unadorned lines that are typical of houses built in the middle of the nineteenth century near the New Jersey shore.
Her garden was equally simple. She was not a conventional gardener who did everything by the book, following the common advice to vary her plantings so there would be something in bloom from the first crocus in the spring to the last chrysanthemum in the fall. She had no respect for the rule that says that tall-growing plants belong at the rear of a perennial border, low ones in the front and middle-sized ones in the middle, with occasional exceptions for dramatic accent.
In her garden, everything was accent, everything was tall, and the evidence was plain that she loved three kinds of plant and three only: roses, clematis and lilies, intermingled promiscuously to pleasant effect but no apparent design.
She grew a dozen sorts of clematis, perhaps 50 plants in all, trained and tied so that they clambered up metal rods, each rod crowned intermittently throughout the summer by a rounded profusion of large blossoms of dark purple, rich crimson, pale lavender, light blue and gleaming white.
Her taste in roses was old-fashioned. There wasn’t a single modern hybrid tea rose or floribunda in sight. Instead, she favored the roses of other ages – the York and Lancaster rose, the cabbage rose, the damask and the rugosa rose in several varieties. She propagated her roses herself from cuttings stuck directly in the ground and protected by upended gallon jugs.
Lilies, I believe were her greatest love. Except for some Madonna lilies it is impossible to name them, since the wooden flats stood casually here and there in the flower bed, all thickly planted with dark green lily seedlings. The occasional paper tag fluttering from a seed pod with the date and record of a cross showed that she was an amateur hybridizer with some special fondness for lilies of a warm muskmelon shade or a pale lemon yellow.
She believed in sharing her garden. By her curb there was a sign: “This is my garden, and you are welcome here. Take whatever you wish with your eyes, but nothing with your hand.”
Until five years ago, her garden was always immaculately tended, the lawn kept fertilized and mowed, the flower bed free of weeds, the tall lilies carefully staked. But then something happened. I don’t know what it was, but the lawn was mowed less frequently, then not at all. Tall grass invaded the roses, the clematis, the lilies. The elm tree in her front yard sickened and died, and when a coastal gale struck, the branches that fell were never removed.
With every year, the neglect has grown worse. Wild honeysuckle and bittersweet run rampant in the garden. Sumac, ailanthus, poison ivy and other uninvited things threaten the few lilies and clematis and roses that still struggle for survival.
Last year the house itself went dead. The front door was padlocked and the windows covered with sheets of plywood. For many months there has been a for sale sign out front, replacing the sign inviting strangers to share her garden.
I drive by that house almost daily and have been tempted to load a shovel in my car trunk, stop at her curb and rescue a few lilies from the smothering thicket of weeds. The laws of trespass and the fact that her house sits across the street from a police station have given me the cowardice to resist temptation. But her garden has reminded me of mortality; gardeners and the gardens they make are fragile things, creatures of time, hostages to chance and to decay.
Last week, the for sale sign out front came down and the windows were unboarded. A crew of painters arrived and someone cut down the dead elm tree. This morning there was a moving van in the driveway unloading a swing set, a barbecue grill, a grand piano and a houseful of sensible furniture. A young family is moving into that house.
I hope that among their number is a gardener whose special fondness for old roses and clematis and lilies will see to it that all else is put aside until that flower bed is restored to something of its former self.
(选自Patterns: A Short Prose Reader, by Mary Lou Conlin, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983.)