The Garden of America
It may not be Eden, but it comes mighty close if we tend it
By Jim Dodson
The last time I went to church was back in middle March.
Seems like half a lifetime ago.
On Sunday mornings these days — most days, actually — I’m out well before sunrise watering my gardens and watching birds.
The garden has become my church, the place where I work up a holy sweat and find — no small feat in these days of safe distancing and social turmoil — deeper connection to a loving universe. The arching oaks of our urban forest rival any medieval cathedral, and the birdsong of dawn is finer than any chapel choir. It’s the one time of the day when I feel, with the faith of a mustard seed, to quote the mystic Dame Julian of Norwich, that all will be well.
A rusted iron plaque that stood for decades in my late mom’s peony border reminded:
The kiss of the sun for pardon
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on Earth.
This well-loved verse is from a poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney, daughter and wife of an Anglican priest who reportedly was inspired to jot this particular stanza in Lord Ronald Gower’s visitor’s book after spending time in his garden at Hammerfield Penshurst, England. The poem later appeared in an issue of Country Life magazine in 1913, gaining Dorothy Gurney a slice of botanical immortality.
Though I descend from a line of rural Carolina farmers and preachers, it wasn’t until I began roaming Great Britain as a golf and outdoors editor for a leading travel magazine in the late 1980s that the verdure in my blood asserted itself and my own passion for landscape gardening took root and began to grow like a Gertrude Jekyll vine.
In those days, it was my good fortune to write about classic golf courses and fly-fishing streams that happened to be near some of Britain’s greatest sporting estates and historic houses.
One of the first I visited in West Sussex was Gravetye Manor, the former home of William Robinson, the revolutionary plantsman who, despite being Irish, has been called the “Father of the English Flower Garden.” Robinson’s pioneering ideas about creating natural landscapes with hardy native perennials, expressed in his famous book The Wild Garden, became the bible of English gardeners and led to a gardening style now admired and copied all over the world.
I showed up there to stay one hot mid-summer afternoon when the 100 acres or so of woodlands and gardens were already past their peak. But like Dorothy Gurney, I was so taken with the sweeping natural landscape that I spent an entire day just walking the grounds looking at plants and chatting with the gardening staff. Among other things, I encountered my first Gertrude Jekyll vine, planted by Robinson’s protégé who went on to partner with Surrey architect Edwin Lutyens to create some of England’s most acclaimed private gardens.
After this, every time I traveled to England, Scotland or Wales with golf clubs and fly rod in tow, I made time to seek out some of the most historic houses and private gardens in the Blessed Isles. During bluebell season, I wandered through the breathtaking New Forest National Park to Chewton Glen — where farm animals by law walk free — and moseyed over to Kent to play a British Open course I’d always dreamed of playing. I also spent a blissful summer afternoon checking out the structural plantings of diplomat Harold Nicolson and the sumptuous gardens of his wife, author Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst, an ancient Anglo-Saxon word that means “clearing in the woods.”
I spent a day with Shropshire rose guru David Austin, toured the amazing terraced gardens of Wales’ Powis Castle, checked out the stunning gardens of Stourhead, Hidcote and Kew — even eventually found my way to Hammerfield Penshurst where Madam Gurney was moved to poetry. There I was so impressed by the riotous blue-and-pink peony border — my late mother’s favorite garden flower — I vowed to someday make my own peony border.
Back home in Maine, in the meantime, I cleared a 2-acre plot of land on top of our forested hill, rebuilt an ancient stone wall and began making my own mini-Robinsonian gardening sanctuary. My witty Scottish mother-in-law suggested I give my woodland retreat a proper British name, suggesting “Slightly Off in the Woods.” The name was apt. The garden became my passion.
In 2004, I set off to spend a year exploring two dozen private and public gardens and arboretums all over Britain and eastern America, learning that gardeners are among the most generous and life-loving people of the Earth. Among other things, I went behind the scenes at the famous Philadelphia Flower Show and England’s venerable Chelsea Flower Show, got to pick the brains of America’s most acclaimed gardeners at places like Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Jefferson’s Monticello, Pennsylvania’s Chanticleer and Longwood Gardens, and finished the year by spending six weeks with plant guru Tony Avent and three fellow plant nerds in the wilds of South Africa hunting rare species of plants. During this time I even helped design my first golf course and shape its landscaping, at times wondering if I’d perhaps missed my calling, though what is a golf course but a great big parkland in the tradition of Capability Brown?
One of the most surprising moments came when I called on John Bartram’s historic garden across the Schuylkill River from downtown Philly. I spent an enriching afternoon in the garden of America’s first botanist, learning that Thomas Jefferson frequently turned up in the garden during the long hot tumultuous summer he spent in Philadelphia composing the Declaration of Independence. According to Bartram garden lore, Jefferson jotted notes for his hymn of American democracy while reposing in the shade of a sprawling ginkgo tree on the grounds. The last time I checked, the ancient ginkgo was still standing.
For the Founding Fathers, gardening, agriculture and botany were elemental passions of life. As Andrea Wulf writes in her wonderful and prodigiously researched bestseller Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation, a tour of English landscape gardens — like the extended one I took — helped restore Thomas Jefferson’s and John Adams’ faith in their fledgling nation during some of its darkest hours. Gardening also helped make James Madison America’s first true environmentalist.
“The Founding Fathers’ passion for nature, plants, gardens and agriculture is deeply woven into the fabric of America,” she writes, “and aligned with their political thought, both reflecting and influencing it. In fact, I believe it’s impossible to understand the making of America without looking at the founding fathers as farmers and gardeners.”
My book on America’s dirtiest passion, Beautiful Madness: One Man’s Journey Through Other People’s Gardens — was my most fun book to research and write. Since its publication in 2006, I’ve heard from gardeners all over the planet and have made plans for a follow-up book on the diverse gardening passions of America and the adventures of an early 20th-century plant hunter and Asian explorer named Ernest Henry “Chinese” Wilson, whose discovered lilies are probably growing in your garden today.
As any devoted gardener knows, the beautiful thing about a garden is that it is forever changing and never completed. Revision and evolution go hand in hand with making a garden flourish and bloom.
As another July dawns in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and sweeping protests in quest of long overdue social justice and an end to racism, it strikes me that American democracy is really no different from the botanical wonders of the world.
A true gardener’s work is never complete, likewise for a true patriot of the diverse and ever-changing garden that is America. The garden must be tended regularly, weeded and watered, nurtured and fed, pruned and tended with a loving eye.
The good news is, gardens are remarkably resilient. They can take a beating, endure violent storms and punishing drought, yet come back even stronger than ever as a new day dawns. As Jefferson, Adams and that Revolutionary bunch knew, the one thing a healthy garden or democracy can’t abide for long is neglect and indifference.
And so, as mid-summer and our nation’s 244th birthday arrive, I plan to spend even more holy time in my garden — church until further notice — planning a new blue-and-pink peony border in memory of my late mama and thinking about what it means to be a good gardener and a true citizen of this ever-evolving garden we call America. PS
Contact Editor Jim Dodson at email@example.com.