Time in the Garden

Regular readers know how much I enjoy nature and gardens. It is one of life’s ironies that my plants only thrive despite my loving care, and  many is the time I have made bloomers in the little patch I tend to. However, never one to shy away from blooming from the bloomers, I picked up this book, Life in the Garden, By Penelope Lively. 


Lively begins by examining the gardens in Literature starting with the Garden of Eden, and working  her way through other fantastical gardens in the books, The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland and the beloved gardens of dear, absent-minded Lord Emsworth’s at Blandings castle. 

She examines the writing and finds out which of the writers are gardeners themselves and which of them have merely picked up the scenery from a gardening catalog. She teases the co-ordination of colors, the seasonality of the plants themselves in the landscapes and has given me an entirely different appreciation of gardens. 

Some passages are especially endearing and made me want to read them again. Especially her meditations on time, the gardener and the garden itself. 

I quote from her book: 

“To garden is to elide past, present and future; it is a defiance of time. You garden today for tomorrow; the garden mutates from season to season, always the same, but always different. … In autumn, I plant up a pot of “Tete-a-Tete” daffodils, seeing in the minds eye what they will look like in February. We are always gardening for a future we are supposing, assuming, a future. I am doing that at eighty-three; the hydrangea paniculata “Limelight” I have just put in will outlast me, in all probability, but I am requiring it to perform while I can still enjoy it.”

“The great defiance of time is our capacity to remember – the power of memory. Time streams away behind us, and beyond, but individual memory shapes for each of us, a known place. We own a particular piece of time; I was there then, I did this, saw tear, felt thus.”

She goes on to say, 

“A garden is never just now; it suggests yesterday, and tomorrow; it does not allow time its steady progress. “

Certainly, for me, part of the appeal of gardening is this ambivalent relationship with time; the garden performs in cycles, it reflects the seasons, but it also remembers and anticipates, and in so doing takes the gardener with it.”

As I look out the window at my clover-filled backyard with some foxgloves looking happy amidst the narcissi blossoms and the newly sprouted cherry leaves after their spectacular show of cherry blossoms, and the rose buds ready to burst forth in a few weeks,I cannot help feel the lessons nature is teaching us. Be forward looking – always, nurture what is important, and enjoy the passage of time. One moment at a time. Every flower has its chance to bloom and fade.


Gardens are enduring lessons in hope. I cannot tell you the number of times, I have planted something in October and been surprised when they bloom in April, or the number of times, I have been pleasantly surprised that something  thrived  at all. 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all – 

Emily Dickinson – Hope

I am lackadaisical at best with my gardening and it shows. I have a minuscule patch that seriously  has more air-time on the blog than the square feet it occupies. Yet, it gives me immense pleasure, peace and calm. Spurred on by the book, I went outside to take a more active role in the tending of my plants. I have been admiring the sweet peas plants that have sprouted in the garden. Some time ago, I got a packet of sweet  pea seeds from our local library. Thrilled at finding them, I scattered them by the apricot tree and forgot about them. The plants are thriving now, quite tall, and seem to be sagging. So, I went – “Coming dears! Here I am to take care  of you!”, I said, in my best nurturing voice and tried to prop up the plants as best as I could, in the process, breaking off one of the plants’ main stems.

If the plants in my patch could talk, they would’ve chorused – “Go inside – we know you  love us, just let us thrive! Breaking off our stems indeed!”

Music & Gardens

It is always a delight to pick up a set of essays written by prolific writers  who are also curious intellectuals. These authors make me feel like I am reading the perspective of polymaths, and that in itself makes for a wondrous experience. The latest book that had me thinking and reading about things I had not thought about for a long time was the book, Everything In Its Place by Oliver Sacks.


Excerpt from Wikipedia:

Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE FRCP (9 July 1933 – 30 August 2015) was a British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author. He believed that the brain is the “most incredible thing in the universe.”[1] 

He reminds us in broad strokes of his pen, the number of areas in which we can be curious. He reminds us about the vast capabilities of the human brain, even while reflecting on this particular author’s exceptional one. Reading about the brains many failings and flaws is both fascinating and eye-opening. (Oliver Sacks was a Neurologist who specialized in many neurological disorders, and writes from a place of curiosity and compassion for his patients).

His description of Tourette’s syndrome, for instance, certainly makes me think less critically of people I encounter on the public transit who have the need to shock the whole compartment with their absurd, rude and obnoxious statements, every few minutes. Sufferers of Tourette’s syndrome often find themselves cursing and shouting loudly, without being to help themselves. The shocked attention they gather seems to be the reward for their impulses.

He writes about a certain individual who exhibited severe symptoms in Vietnam and would make shocking exclamations in Vietnamese every now and then. But when he moved to the United States, his Tourette’s calmed down because people did not react as much as he thought they would in a country where his language was not understood.

I can now learn to see the person different from their symptoms, and for that I am grateful.

How can I not be fascinated as I read his sure voice confess that as a neurologist the only therapies he knows to work surely are Music & Gardens? I read his meditations on Why We Need Gardens and the words Biophilia and Hortophilia leap out and grab my attention. Nature is my soother, has always been my favorite soother, and it is refreshing to hear his perspective on the effect of nature.


Clearly, nature calls to something very deep in us. Biophilia, the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage, and tend nature is also deeply instilled in us. The role that nature plays in health and healing becomes even more critical for people working long days in windowless offices, for those living in city neighborhoods without access to green spaces, for children in city schools…..

The effects if nature’s qualities on health are only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological, I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brains physiology, and perhaps even its structure.

As he says in one essay, his patients even in advanced states of dementia always look forward to an hour outside amidst nature, and not one of them has ever planted a sapling upside down when given a sapling. It is almost as if we intuitively know what to do and our learnings from time may fall away from us, but our affinity to nature will not. 

In fact, he writes of one of his close friends, Lowell, who suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, that while hiking in the deserts of Arizona, his ticks and urges almost completely disappeared.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2019/05/27/oliver-sacks-gardens/ : Oliver Sacks

In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens

The Curious Garden

I have always loved reading Children’s books. There is something charming, and uplifting about them, a shining hope that we sometimes fumble with as we grow older. Even when the books deal with hard topics, even when they deal with hard concepts. Every time I feel jaded, there is nothing like a lovely children’s book to help me uncover the magic again.

One beautiful day in November, I dragged the children along on a walk. The fall season, and the recent rains had given way to unruly gardens, crisp fallen leaves for us to feel the crunch as we walked on, and little birds frequenting the place once more. On the road side, was a hedge trimmed to the shape of an oblong mushroom and the toddler son stopped in front of it and said, “Like the Curious Garden book right? This is how it was in Amma’s garden when she was a little girl.”

The daughter looked dubious. “How do you know it was like that in Amma’s garden when she was a little girl. You weren’t there remember?” The son looked hurt. It is true that he is often confused with time and does not understand why there were periods in our life before he was born, when he always remembered having her with him.

What is Time is a favorite question of his.

“I know! But Amma told me when she read the book, right Amma?”

“That’s right!” I said somewhat taken aback that he remembered what I had said in passing while looking at the pictures in the book a few days ago. It has since become a favorite book for both of us. We love cuddling up with the Curious Garden.

It is a heart warming story about a little boy named Liam who looks after some plants on a forgotten railroad track only to have the curious garden spread its influence all over the forgotten places in the city. The Curious Garden also inspires many amateur gardeners and the last page shows the transformation of a bleak, smog-laden city to a beautiful one with creepers and trees and hidden nooks of gardens by the time the boy grows to a man.

One on gardens in Brain Pickings:


During Thanksgiving, the pre-school that the son goes to had an exercise asking the children what they are most thankful for. The notes were shaped like feathers and they were all posted on the notice board together in the shape of a turkey. I stopped to see what the children were thankful about. I must say it was all wonderful. Very few had capitalistic tones, which definitely warmed my heart.

The son’s feather-shaped note said he was thankful for Mom cuddling up with him and reading Curious Garden.


Divine Intervention of the Gardening Gods

If there is a Gardening God, I am curious to see where he would grade me on various aspects of his or her domain. I think he would view me like a benevolent, brilliant professor regards his loyal, funny but idiot pupil. ‘See thee down there’, he shall boom to his godlings, ‘there goeth the very example of exemplary gardening intent. If ever you want to know how to admire a fallen leaf, thou can gaze down at her. She and her progeny are always bending or squatting and looking at something marvelous. Sometimes, when I am bored, I send out the snails to see the enthusiasm thee here summoneth up. But send her  lobelia, geraniums, petunia, primroses and violets together, and she will still, after all those years, not be able to tell you the difference.

If you pusheth me, I may give her a pass with the planning, but will send to Earthly Exile the next godling who suggests she gardens well. “ This is where he shakes his head and the clouds above spatter a few drops of rain on the Earth below, and the parched trees in my backyard gulp and send thanks to the Gods above, for I forgot to water them for a few days.

Why, you ask, do you assume that a Gardening God talks like someone escaped out of a badly written 17th century book? I don’t know – in my mind, this gardening god looks like a gnome with a long flowing beard, a brown hat that looks like an upturned nest, a booming voice and language like he was happy to not be written into one of Shakespeare’s books.

Anyway, back to the point of our garden. Very near our backyard is a marvelous tree. Home to thousands of leaves, hundreds of twigs and branches, and scores of birds and squirrels, this tree offers shade and respite to a person who wishes for a few quiet moments. But every time the tree so much as shivers or flutters in the breeze, it sends ten thousand leaves straight to the narrow strip of garden in my backyard.

This is where the ex. intent plays its trump card:  I declare, rather grandly for one who has failed at this task for almost a decade, that I shall gather up the leaves and have a clean backyard. I say this vehemently for a week or so, as though the sheer force behind the voice will collect, bag and compost the leaves.  When that plan fails, I wait to see if anyone in the house will be gallant enough to say, “No, no. You rest. I shall shovel and clean the backyard.” But of course, everybody in the house is too wise for that.  This is when I start shamelessly sighing and dropping “hints”.

Ahh! I wish I can do those leaves, but these allergies of mine, they just don’t let up you know. AAAACCHOOO!

Nothing. A brief silence and then I hear the jarring song to which the husband and children are dancing rise in volume by a few decibels. This goes on for another few weeks, by which time the sycamore tree’s leaves have figured out that the best place to fall is our backyard because they don’t have to flutter on to hard earth anymore and can simply cushion their fall on their already fallen brethren.

Next up: I try the guilt-tripping with the make-it-a-jolly-family-activity technique.

Rake, rake rake your way merrily through the leaves. I sing as I rake. (The Lyrical God joins the Gardening one above and they observe the specimen below to see where they went wrong with this model)

I manage to pile up the leaves with my enthusiastic, but equally unskilled helpers, the children, when the sneezing starts. But of course, I don’t stop and soldier on.  The husband is tactfully finding himself outside tasks to do – service the car, go to the bank, grocery shopping, clean the rooftop. Anything at all but gardening.

The Incompetent Gardeners
The Incompetent Gardeners

At the end of it all, the day is ripe and getting on. There is a huge pile of leaves, weeds tumbling over one another all over the backyard waiting to be removed, no lunch, three cups of tea and sneezing enough to rattle a herd of elephants. Meanwhile, the wind hears about the gardening action in our backyard and comes a-howling. The leaves spatter yet again and I curse using some very imaginative phrases, making the toddler look up in alarm and say, “Stupid is a bad word!”

By this time of course, everybody is fed up with me and will gladly let me dangle like a wind-chime on the apricot tree. Enough, I say to myself and make a call to the kind soul who helps out every once in a while. This narrow strip of garden  is home to some trees, a jasmine creeper and some flower bushes. The gardener makes it generally known that he is doing it solely because he views it as acquiring some good karma: Help thy helpless, share thy green thumb or some such.

He comes with his pal in his pickup truck, and I kid you not: the pair of them clean up, de-weed, plant new flowers, prune the roses and hose down the garden leaving the patch looking beautiful and well-nourished in about an hour.

I think it is divine intervention: for how long can even the most tolerant Gardening God behold our garden’s plight?