My Garden (Book)

Jamaica Kincaid’s first garden in Vermont was a square plot in the middle of her front lawn, There, to the consternation of more experienced gardener friends, she planted only seeds of flowers she liked best. In My Garden (Book):, she gathers together all she loves about gardening and plants, and examines it in the same spirit: generously, passionately, and with sharp, idiosyncratic discrimination.

Kincaid’s affections are matched in intensity only by her dislikes. She loves spring and summer, but cannot bring herself to love winter, for it hides the garden. She adores rhododendron ‘Jane Grant,’ and appreciates ordinary Blue Lake string beans, but abhors the Asiatic lily and dreams of ways to trap small plant-eating animals. The sources of her inspiration–seed catalogues (the glossy ones, and, preferably, the non-glossy ones), the gardener Gertrude Jekyll, gardens like Monet’s at Giverny–are subjected to her scrutiny. She also examines the idea of the garden on Antigua, where she grew up and where one of her favorite school subjects was botany, and she considers the implications of the English idea of the garden in colonized countries. On a trip to the Chelsea Flower Show, she visits historic English gardens on English soil. My Garden (Book): is an intimate, playful, and penetrating book on gardens, the plants that fill them, and the gardeners who tend them.

Jamaica Kincaid’s most recent book (as editor) is an anthology of writing on plants, My Favorite Plant (FSG, 1998). She lives in Vermont with her husband and children, and she teaches at Harvard University.

Enjoy this excerpt from
My Garden (Book)
The following is an excerpt from the book: My Garden (Book) by Jamaica Kincaid
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 0374281866; $23.00US; Nov. 99
Copyright © Jamaica Kincaid
My attachment in adult life to the garden begins in this way: shortly after I became a mother for the first time, my husband gave me a hoe, a rake, a spade, a fork, some flower seeds to mark the occasion of that thing known as Mother’s Day. It was my second Mother’s Day; for the first one he had given me a pair of earrings and I put them on a table in the kitchen and they were never seen again, by me, and no one else, not the lady who cleaned the house, not the woman who helped me take care of my child, not my husband, not my child–no one admitted to ever seeing them again. I can’t remember if the seeds and tools were wrapped up, but I remember that immediately on having them I went outside and dug up a large part of the small yard, a patch that had never been cultivated, and put all the seeds from the packets in the ground. And that was that, for nothing grew, the ground was improperly prepared, it was in the shade of a big oak tree, and a big maple tree (those two trees really did grow in the same vicinity and I did not appreciate them then; so annoying, their leaves falling down in the autumn and dirtying up the yard, I thought then).

A man named Chet lived in the house right next to me and he could only breathe properly while attached to canisters filled with oxygen; then every once in a while he would come outside and smoke a cigarette and while smoking a cigarette he would tend to these enormous tomatoes that he grew right up against the side of his house. The tomatoes were exposed fully to the sun in that position and he did not worry about poisonous toxins leeching out of the materials from which his house was built into the soil in which his tomatoes were grown. His tomatoes prospered near his house and they tasted most delicious; my plot of backyard upturned by me and which had my hands blistered and unpleasant-looking, looked as if an animal of any kind had mistakenly thought something was buried there and had sought in vain to find it; no one looking at the mess I had made would think that a treasure of any kind, long lost, had finally been unearthed there.

I moved into another house not too far away and with a larger yard. Chet died and I am still ashamed that I never saw him again after I left my old house and also I never attended his funeral even though I knew of it and when I now see his wife, Millie, she avoids me (though I am sure I avoid her too, but I would rather think that it is she who is avoiding me). I moved to a house which had been the house of someone named Mrs. McGovern and she had just died, too, but I never knew her or even heard of her and so moving into her house carried no real feeling of her for me, until one day, my first spring spent in that new house and so in that new property, this happened: the autumn before, we had paid someone a large amount of money to regrade the lawn out back and it looked perfect enough, but that following spring lots of patches of maroon-colored leaf sprouts began to emerge from the newly reconstituted lawn out back. How annoyed I was and just on the verge of calling up the lawn person to complain bitterly, when my new neighbor Beth Winter came over to see me and to talk to me about how enjoyable she found it to live with her family of a husband and three children in the very same house in which she grew up; on hearing of my complaints about the lawn person and seeing the maroon-colored leaf sprouts I had pointed out to her, she said, “But you know, Mrs. McGovern had a peony garden.” And that was how I learned what the new shoots of peonies look like and that was how I came to recognize a maple, but not that its Latin name is Acer; Latin names came later, with resistance.

That first spring in old Mrs. McGovern’s house (but she was long dead) I discovered her large old patch of daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva) growing just outside the southwest kitchen window and Rob (Woolmington) came with his own modest rototiller and made a large-ish square with it for my vegetable garden and then followed me around the outside perimeter of the house with the rototiller as I directed him to turn up the soil, making beds in strange shapes, so that the house would eventually seem to be protected by a moat made not for water but as the result of an enthusiastic beginning familiarity with horticulture.

This is how my garden began; then again, it would not be at all false to say that just at that moment I was reading a book and that book (written by the historian William Prescott) happened to be about the conquest of Mexico, or New Spain–as it was then called–and I came upon the flower called marigold and the flower called dahlia and the flower called zinnia and after that the garden was to me more than the garden as I used to think of it. After that the garden was also something else.

By the time I was firmly living in Mrs. McGovern’s house (or The Yellow House, which is what the children came to call it, for it was painted yellow), I had begun to dig up or to have dug up for me parts of the lawn in the back of the house and parts of the lawn in the front of the house into the most peculiar ungarden-like shapes. These beds–for I was attempting to make such a thing as flower beds–were odd in shape, odd in relation to the way flower beds usually look in a garden; I could see that they were odd and I could see that they did not look like the flower beds in gardens I admired, the gardens of my friends, the gardens portrayed in my books on gardening; but I couldn’t help that; I wanted a garden that looked like something I had in my mind’s eye, but exactly what that might be I did not know and even now do not know. And this must be why: the garden for me is so bound up with words about the garden, with words itself, that any set idea of the garden, any set picture, is a provocation to me.

It was not until I was living in Dr. Woodworth’s house (The Brown Shingled House with Red Shutters) some years later that I came to understand the shape of the beds. In Dr. Woodworth’s house, I had much more space, I had a lawn and then beyond the lawn I had some acres. The lawn of Dr. Woodworth’s house was bigger than the lawn at Mrs. McGovern’s house, and so my beds were bigger, their shapes more strange, more not the usual shape of beds in a proper garden, and they became so much more difficult to explain to other gardeners who had more experience with a garden than I and more of an established aesthetic of a garden than I. “What is this?” I have been asked, “What are you trying to do here?” I have been asked. Sometimes I would reply by saying, ‘I don’t really know,” or sometimes I would reply “…” with absolute silence. When it dawned on me that the garden I was making (and am still making and will always be making) resembled a picture of a map of the Caribbean and the sea that surrounds it, I did not tell this to the gardeners who had asked me to explain the thing I was doing, or to explain what I was trying to do; I only marveled at the way the garden is for me an exercise in memory, a way of remembering my own immediate past, a way of getting to a past that is my own (the Caribbean Sea) and the past as it is indirectly related to me (the conquest of Mexico and its surroundings).

Is there someone to whom I can write for an answer to this question: Why is my Wisteria floribunda, trained into the shape of a standard, blooming in late July, almost August, instead of May, the way wisterias in general are supposed to do? The one that is blooming out of its natural season is blue in color; I have another one similar in every way (or so I believe) except that it should show white flowers; it does not bloom at all, it only throws out long twining stems, mixing itself up with the canes of the Rosa “Alchymist” which is growing not too nearby, mixing itself up with a honeysuckle (Lornicera) and even going far away to twine itself around a red rose (Rosa “Henry Kelsy”). What to do? I like to ask myself this question, but especially when I myself do not have the answer for it. What to do? When it comes up, What to do (slugs are everywhere) and I know a ready-made solution, I feel confident and secure in the world (my world) and again when it comes up, What to do (the wisterias are blooming out of their season), I still feel confident and secure that someone somewhere has had this same perplexing condition (for most certainly I cannot be the first person to have had this experience) and he or she will explain to me the phenomenon that is in front of me: my wisteria grown as a standard (made to look like a tree) is blooming two months after its usual time. Do standards sometimes do that at first, when they are in their youth of being standards, the whole process of going from one form (vining) to another (a shrub, a small tree) being so difficult and unusual; in trying to go from one to the other, does the whole process of holding all together become so difficult that precise bloom time becomes a casualty, something like appearing at the proper time to have your hair examined by the headmistress: you show up but your hair is not the way it should be, it is not styled in a way that pleases her, it is not styled in a way that she understands. What to do with the wisteria? Should I let it go, blooming and blooming, each new bud looking authoritative but also not quite right at all, as if on a dare, a surprise even to itself, looking as if its out-of-seasonness was a modest, tentative query?

But what am I to do with this droopy, weepy sadness in the middle of summer, with its color and shape reminding me of mourning, as it does in spring remind me of mourning, but mourning the death of something that happened long ago (winter is dead in spring and not only that, there is no hint that it will ever return again). Summer does have that color of purple, the monkshoods have that color and they start blooming in late July and I have so many different kinds I am able to have ones that will bloom all the way into October; but monkshoods do not look sad, they look poisonous, which they are, and they look evil or as if they might hold something evil, the way anything bearing the shape of a hood would. I like the monkshoods but especially I like them because friends whom I love through the garden (Dan Hinkley, Annie Thorn) grow them and grow them beautifully and they are always saying how marvelous it is to have that particular kind of color in the garden (deep purple) at that particular time of the year (deep summer, late summer) and I see their point, but deep down I want to know, why can’t there be a flower that is as beautiful in shape as the monkshood but in the colors that I like best: yellow or something in that range. What should I do? What am I to do?

The supposed-to-be-white blooming wisteria has never bloomed. I found two long shoots coming from its root stock one day while I was weeding nearby and I cut them off with a ferociousness as if they had actually done something wrong and so now deserved this. Will it ever bloom, I ask myself, and what shall I do if it does not? Will I be happy with its widish form, its abundant leafiness and the absence of flowers, and will I then plant nearby something to go with all that? What should I do? What will I do?

And what is midsummer anyway? What should I do with such a thing? I was once in Finland on the 21st of June, which was called midsummer, and I stayed up all night with some Finnish people and we went in and out of a sauna and we went in and out of a lake, the sauna was built on its shore, and then we went dancing at a place where there were some people who did not look like the Finnish people who were my hosts and the Finnish people called them Gypsies. And the Finnish people kept saying that it was in this way they celebrated midsummer, in and out of a sauna, in and out of a lake, dancing in a dance hall along with other people called Gypsies. The Buddleia “African Queen” is said (by Dan Hinkley is his catalogue) to bloom in midsummer but it bloomed before the late (and false) blooming wisteria and it bloomed just after the date of midsummer in Finland; the Buddleia “Potter’s Purple” is blooming now in late July but I had bought it because I thought it would bloom in late August to early September, and so what will I do then, when late August arrives (as surely it will, since I like it; but winter I do not like at all and so I am never convinced that it will actually return); to what must I look forward? The Aster “Little Carlow” (surely the most beautiful aster in the world) right now has formed flower heads and they look as if they will bloom soon, any time now, but they bloom usually in late September to early October and they have a kind of purple/blue that makes you think not of sadness but of wonder: how can such a color be and what is that color exactly? What to do? The sedum (purpureum) too was about to bloom in late July, early August, and I am ignoring that the Buddleia “Pink Charm” which blooms in early September and is planted especially for that, is about to bloom in late July, early August. What to do?

How agitated I am when I am in the garden and how happy I am to be so agitated. How vexed I often am when I am in the garden and how happy I am to be so vexed. What to do? Nothing works just the way I thought it would, nothing looks just the way I had imagined it, and when sometimes it does look like what I had imagined (and this, thank God, is rare) I am startled that my imagination is so ordinary. Why are those wonderful weeping wisterias (or so they looked in a catalogue, wonderful, inviting, even perfect) not fitting in the way I had imagined them, on opposite sides of a stone terrace made up of a patchwork of native Vermont stone? I had not yet understood and also had not yet been able to afford incorporating the element of water in my garden. I could not afford a pond, I could not understand exactly where a pond ought to go in the general arrangement of things. I do not even like a pond, really. When I was a child and living in another part of the world, the opposite of the part of the world from which I now live (and have made a garden), I knew ponds, small, really small bodies of water that had formed naturally (I knew of no human hand that had forced them to be that way), and they were not benign in their beauty: they held flowers, pond lilies, and the pond lilies bore a fruit that when roasted was very sweet and to harvest the fruit of the lilies in the first place was very dangerous, for almost nobody who loved the taste of them (children) could swim, and so attempts to collect the fruit of pond lilies were dangerous; I believe I can remember people who died (children) trying to reach these pond lilies, but perhaps no such thing happened, perhaps I was only afraid that such a thing would happen; perhaps I only thought if I tried to reap the fruit of pond lilies I would die. I have eaten the fruit of pond lilies, they were delicious, but I can’t remember what they tasted like, only that they were delicious and no matter that I can’t remember exactly what they tasted like, they were delicious again.

In my garden there ought to be a pond. All gardens, all gardens with serious intention (but what could that mean) ought to have water as a feature. My garden has no serious intention, my garden has only series of doubts upon series of doubts. What to do about the wisteria blooming out of turn (turn being the same as season)? And then just now I remember that I saw the Lycoris squamigera blooming also, and just nearby the (by now) strange wisteria, in late July, and it was at the foot of the wisteria; but it looked sickly, its bare stalk was stooped over, limp, its head of flowerets opening almost, and then not at all. What to do? The Lycoris had such a healthy flourish with their leaves resembling a headmaster’s strap first thing on a school morning, before it had met the palm of a hand or buttocks (not bare the buttocks, they were shielded by khaki) in the spring, so abundant were they, that they made me worry about the ability of the Anemone pulsatilla, which I had so desperately pursued (I loved the blooms, I loved what came after, the seed heads which perhaps can be only appreciated if you like the things that come after, just that, the mess that comes after the thing you have just enjoyed). And still what to do? Who should I ask what to do? Is there such a person to whom I could ask such a question and would that person have an answer that would make sense to me in a rational way (in the way even I have come to accept things as rational), and would that person be able to make the rational way imbued with awe and not so much with the practical; I know the practical, it will keep you breathing; awe on the other hand is what makes you (me) want to keep living.

But what to do? That year of the wisteria behaving not in its usual way, not in the way I had expected it to behave when I bought it based on its firm illustrious description in a catalogue, other events occurred. And so what to do? One afternoon, a proper afternoon, the sun was unobscured in its correct place in the sky, a fox emerged from my woodland (and it is my woodland, for I carved it out of the chaos of the woods and bramble and made it up so that it seemed like the chaos of the woods and bramble but carefully, willfully, eliminating the parts of the woods and bramble that do not please me, which is to say a part of woods and bramble that I do not yet understand). I had never seen a fox so close by at that time of day; I was startled (really, I was afraid of seeing something so outside my everyday in the middle of my everyday), I screamed, it is possible I said, “It’s a fox!” The other people who were in the house (the housekeeper, Mary Jean; my own clerical assistant, Vrinda) came out of the house and saw it also. When the fox saw us looking at him or her (we could not tell if it was a male looking for a spouse or a mother looking for nourishment) it just stood there in the shadow of the hedge (a not-accounted-for, yet welcome Euonymus elata) looking at us and perhaps it was afraid of our presence and perhaps it was curious about our presence, having observed us at times when we were not aware of it. The fox stood there, perhaps in the thrall of my shriek, perhaps never having heard such a thing as a shriek coming from the species to which I belong (I believe I am in the human species, I am mostly ambivalent about this but when I saw the fox I hoped my shriek sounded like something familiar to the fox, something human). What to do when the fox looked at me as if he was interested in me in just the way I was interested in him (who is he, what is he doing standing there just a few steps from my front door, my front door being just a stone’s throw from where he/she might be expected to make a den). The fox after looking at me (for a while I suppose, though what is a while really) walked off in that stylish way of all beings who are confident that the ground on which they place their feet will remain in place, will remain just where they expect the ground to be. The fox skipped through the soft fruit garden, that section of the garden that I have (it was a whim) devoted to fruits whose pits can be consumed whole with a benefit that Adele Davis (she is now dead) might have approved.

What to do about the fox? The wisteria at the moment the fox appeared was not on my mind. The fox, seen in the shade of the euonymus was gray in color, its coat looking like an ornament, a collar of the coat of someone who could afford such a thing, or a part of a handbag of someone who could afford it, or a spectacle on the wall of someone who could afford such a thing and then not have the good sense to say no to it; when it (the fox) gallivanted into the part of the garden that was not in the shade, the part of the garden that was full of sun, he wasn’t gray at all, his entire coat looked as if someone had just put a light to it, as if he had just been put on fire. The fox did not run away from me, only advanced away from me as I tentatively went forward. The way he would run away from me with his head turned toward me, watching me behind him as he propelled himself forward, was frightening: I cannot do that. And then he disappeared into another part of the wild and I could not follow.

What to do about the fox? For that spring as I looked worriedly at the wisteria, seeing the little nubs along on the drooping stems grow fattish and then burst open into little shoots of green, I saw a small round thing hopping behind some rosebushes (Rosa “Stanwell Perpetual”) and then disappear behind some pots in which I meant to grow sweet peas. The small round thing moved faster than a chipmunk, did not have a long tail and so was more attractive than a rat; it emerged from the behind the pots slowly, peeking, and then came out altogether and stared at me. It was a baby rabbit, and I could see (I felt I could see, I thought I could see) that he was not familiar with danger; he was not malicious and never (as far as I could see) ate anything that was of any value (ornamental or otherwise) to me; he was a pest only because sometimes, when I did not expect him, he would suddenly hop into my view startling me out some worry or other (I mostly worry in the garden, I am mostly vexed in the garden). His mother must have worried about him because one day I saw her (I felt it was his mother, I thought it was his mother) looking for him. I saw them once emerging from the woodland part of the garden; I saw them again in the company of some other rabbits, and I could tell them apart from the other rabbits because none of the others were as big as the mother or as small as him. And then I didn’t see them anymore and never even thought of them anymore until that day I saw the fox emerge from the woodland. It still remains so that I never see them anymore, but it does not remain so that I never think of them anymore. I thought of them just an hour ago when I put three lobsters alive in a pot of boiling water and it is possible that I will think of them tomorrow when I am eating the lobsters sometime during the day. Will the shells from the lobsters be good for compost? I will look it up in a book, I have a book that tells me what to do with everything in the garden and sometimes I take its advice and sometimes I do not; sometimes I do what suits me, sometimes I do in the garden just whatever I please.

Copyright © Jamaica Kincaid

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