“Nothing is perfect.”
Those words cut me. They always have. I don’t care if they’re true because everything in me wants them to be untrue. Everything in me longs for perfection though perfect is as cold and distant as the morning star.
Yet here is the lesson I keep learning over and over again: when perfection falls to earth it veils its light in imperfection.
This house is my perfect dream come true, but Lord-have-mercy it is a mess.
Half the windows can’t be opened, whole chunks of molding are missing near the roofline, there is an ominous bulge in the plaster wall along the stairs, and please do watch your step on the porch. You never know when your foot might crash right through.
I wrote these words in Roots and Sky, though I did not know how true they would become:
“… I picture this house, this hilltop, cracked open. Torn right open. And everyone invited to come in. In this picture, it seems that something precious has been emptied out and is being passed around. It is a frightening, exhilarating vision.”
The thing about a broken, imperfect house is that we cannot live in it alone.
When I met Dr. B (“doctor of old houses”), he told me he had prayed God would bring him another old house to work on.
When I called J about our windows and gave him my name, we both held our phones in a state of shock. Apparently, he had purchased Roots and Sky for his wife only the day before.
Jonathan and I always hoped that this place would be a blessing for many beyond our own immediate family. We glimpsed how that could be true our very first Easter when one hundred neighbors joined us to hunt eggs on the lawn. We sent those invitations to a neighborhood of strangers because we were lonely.
I called these local craftsmen because our house is broken.
Perfectly, beautifully broken.
Praise be to God for broken houses, broken hearts, broken bodies, and all the other precious broken things.
Praise be to God for hands that heal and hands that make things beautiful and whole.
Praise be to God for roses.
Praise be to God for thorns.
Today, I am not giving you a peek at the bookshelves lining the walls of this old farmhouse.
Instead, I am giving you a peek at what you’ll find spilling out of baskets and boxes. What you’ll find stacked beside my bed and by my armchair near the fireplace. I’m showing you my pile of dreams. My paper stack of wishes.
I am recommending plant and seed catalogs.
Why now? Why now as I put my vegetable garden to bed and watch for the first hard freeze?
Because gardens are born in winter. And this is the perfect time to sign up for at least a few (free) catalogs. They’ll be the guides to your dreams come December.
A garden should make you feel you’ve entered privileged space – a place not just set apart but reverberant – and it seems to me that, to achieve this, the gardener must put some kind of twist on the existing landscape, turn its prose into something nearer poetry. – Michael Pollan
The vegetable and flower seed catalog from Seed Savers Exchange is always a glossy, full-color treasure trove. This one is perfect for winter browsing, almost as good as a collection of short stories. You’ll read about the real “Grandpa Ott” behind “Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glories,” and the fascinating history of the “Moon and Stars” watermelon. Even better, by ordering heirloom seeds from the exchange you are also supporting the biodiversity of our planet.
The supermarket produce shelf offers a tiny slice – not even that, perhaps a pin drop – of the variety of creation. If a blight shows up this year favoring the (tasteless) grocery-story tomato, it will be the home-gardening seed savers and networks like Seed Savers Exchange who save tomatoes for future generations.
I don’t save many of my own seeds beyond a few dried flower heads. I’ve listed that activity under things I’ll do when I no longer have children underfoot. Until then, I do my part by ordering from Seed Savers.
Gardening is akin to writing stories. No experience could have taught me more about grief or flowers, about achieving survival by going, your fingers in the ground, the limit of physical exhaustion. – Eudora Welty
If you ever buy bulbs through the mail, especially daffodils and tulips, your mailbox will be flooded with catalogs claiming direct links to Dutch tulip fields. They will have phrases like “fine purveyors” on their covers. Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, a family operation based in Virginia, is pretty much the opposite of that. And I love them.
Brent and Becky (yes, they are real people) offer excellent service, quality bulbs, and fair prices. You can buy all the classic varieties, and you can find homegrown varieties they have named for a favorite relative or friend. Their catalog is full of advice and inspiration, and you can enjoy it at least twice a year. They send out separate catalogs for spring and fall-planted bulbs.
I buy my daffodil and tulips bulbs here every year. Last year I filled a bed with their lily bulbs. And I’ll soon be planting a few of their purple alliums.
I am intrigued by writers who garden and gardeners who write. The pen and the trowel are not interchangeable, but seem often linked. – Marta McDowell
The Antique Rose Emporium in Independence, Texas is a magical place. I grew up visiting it with my father, a farmer-turned-gardener, yet I somehow never dreamed of growing roses myself. Until, I came to Maplehurst.
Our little corner of Pennsylvania was once well-known for the roses Quaker farmers grew here for city markets. That heritage is still evident in street names and in long memories. Last year, it seemed important to me to bring roses back to Maplehurst. Of course, now I’m hooked.
I used to hear “antique roses” and imagine fussy, hard-to-please plants. If caring for antique furniture was more complicated than dusting a piece from IKEA, then surely plants were the same. Strangely, the opposite is true. If you are looking for a rose that is easy to grow, less susceptible to diseases and insects, and (bonus!) highly scented, then it is an antique rose that you want.
You can also find them described as “Old Garden Roses,” and the catalog from the Antique Rose Emporium is one of the best ways to learn about these wonderful plants. Thanks to this catalog and other books published by its founder, I have gorgeous, cabbage-y pink roses still blooming in my garden today. In the middle of October. Yes, you can call me a fan.
Also, I think it very important to support any business with “emporium” in its name. Just a personal pledge of mine.
I love my garden, and I love working in it. To potter with green, growing things, watching each day to see the dear, new sprouts come up, is like taking a hand in creation, I think. Just now my garden is like faith – the substance of things hoped for. – L.M. Montgomery, Anne’s House of Dreams
I grew dahlias for the first time this year, and I am hooked. My gardens all look a bit shabby by October, but the flower bed across from our front door has exploded with beautiful, bouncy, mop-headed dahlias. You can find a million pictures (approximately) of my dahlias on instagram. Like this one. And this one. I can’t seem to stop taking their pictures.
I’ve done little dahlia comparison shopping, but Swan Island Dahlias was recommended to me, and I will be ordering from them again. Their catalog is beautiful and extensive, and every one of the tubers they sent grew and thrived. My favorite bit? They stamp each tuber with the name of the variety. This made it easy to remember what I was planting and where.
Dahlias always intimidated me because I knew they weren’t cold-hardy. The thought of planting something only to dig it up again in the fall seemed ridiculous. Why would I do that? Well, now I know exactly why. (Also, here’s a tip. If you aren’t sure you can handle that amount of effort: plant them anyway. No one will ever know if you just leave them in the ground. And if it’s a mild winter? They may just come blooming back again.)
However many years she lived, Mary always felt that “she should never forget that first morning when her garden began to grow.” – Frances Hodgson Burnett
Now I’d love to know, do any of you garden? What are your favorite sources? Please share them in the comments!
Step One. Read books. Lots of them.
People will tell you to put down your books and join the real world, for heaven’s sake. They will remind you that you live in a university dorm or an apartment reached by only a sliver of light or a temporary rental and do not even think of wasting time or money on land you do not own, but you would do well to smile and say nothing. Go on. Read. Read your books and dream your dreams. You are storing up treasures in heaven.
Step Two. Pay attention to desire.
When winter wears on and you cannot stand it one more day, lean in to that ache. Accept that the two things you want most in life, a garden and a baby, may never be yours. But take heart. The moment you break under the weight of longing is the moment you wash out an old yogurt container and fill it with dirt and a few grass seeds. When the grass seeds sprout you will run your hand over cool greenness while icy snow tap-taps against the window. The smell of a few blades of grass snipped with kitchen scissors is the smell of hope.
Step Three. Try and fail.
When a friend invites you to share a plot in the neighborhood community garden, say yes. Say yes, even though you don’t actually know anything about growing vegetables. Commit to reading more books with titles like Practical Kitchen Gardens and fewer books with watercolor illustrations and titles like Roses I Have Loved. Say yes even though you are hugely pregnant and you cannot exactly bend over. When your firstborn, your longed-for baby girl, arrives that September, your friend will bring you pasta made with tomatoes and basil you did little to tend. For the rest of your days that combination of flavors will recall your daughter’s sleepy infant smile.
Step Four. Live without.
Trade your community garden plot in a northern city for a Florida backyard dominated by concrete pavers and chlorinated water. Watch your potted flowers shrivel and die beneath the showery splashes of three children. Look at those children and remember that God does sometimes give us the desires of our hearts. Pray for the garden of your dreams. Pray for those impractical, impossible roses.
Step Five. Dig.
When you come home to your own bit of earth at last, dig. Scatter your seeds widely and see what takes root. Do not despair when the groundhog churns holes, rabbits nibble tulips, and two chickens vanish in the night. Despite all that you do not possess (knowledge, time, energy, even, some days, vision), spring will come and seeds will grow. Desire is sometimes deep buried. Rock the baby girl, the fourth-born child you never knew you always wanted, while the snow tap-taps against the window.
Step Six. Rest.
After long days of ripping invasive vines and clearing weed trees, sit still in the shady spot you’ve made. Sit still long enough to notice the smell of memory. It is the almost-forgotten smell of your father’s roses, the roses your mother sent you out to cut just before guests arrived for dinner. Follow that smell around the curve of the just-cleared fence until you find it. A wild rambler, like but not like all the wild roses growing on the edges of this place. This one is not white but blush pink. This one does not sit like a stubborn tangle of thorns, but drapes gracefully across the ruined stones of the old barn. This one does not give out a whisper of spiciness but, rather, smells like rose-with-a-capital-R. It smells like the real deal.
Ask yourself if a garden is a thing made by human hands or a free gift of God.
Wonder, for the first time, if God’s glory can be cultivated. Perhaps it is a gift to be tended a thousand different ways in every place and every season.
For all your days.