Purple Asters

John Clark with a reprint of an essay I wrote in 2005 for Wolf Moon Journal. I’m sharing it because it relates to fall and when I came out of the Alfond Center this morning after my aquatic exercise class, the purple asters hit me with a wave of nostalgia.

Gardening, flowers and my family have been intertwined for as long as I can remember. My father, a frustrated horticulturalist, had flowers growing wherever and whenever he found time and space. My mother went him one better, both raising flowers in numerous gardens at Sennebec Hill Farm and carving out a fifty year career as a garden writer.

My Uncle Leland, postmaster in New Vineyard for many years grew dinner plate dahlias all along the edge of his wraparound porch on Rt. 27 so the folks heading down country or up to Sugarloaf could enjoy a spot of color as they passed by. My Grandmother Clark fascinated my sisters and me with her hundred foot long garden in New Portland when we were small, often reading to us as we sat in the little arbor on the path that bisected this magical place.

Like most kids, I fought vigorously against working in the garden when assigned chores, trying every trick I could think of to avoid pulling pigweed or witch grass. I loved flowers, but rebelled against the hands-on aspect of their care. However, the seed had been planted, so to speak.

My college years exposed me to flowers in the desert. Tempe, Arizona in the late 1960s provided an interesting contrast in sights and smells. On those rare nights when humidity crept east from the Pacific Ocean, we could smell the Phoenix Stockyards in all their glory. Imagine your local dairy farm, multiply it tenfold and you would have some inkling of the smell. This minor annoyance was trumped majestically when the orange trees came into bloom and a wave of natural perfume filled the Valley of the Sun so pervasively that one went to bed smiling and woke with the same sense that the world was a dandy place to be.

Rain in the desert is a rarity. I became fascinated by nighttime thunder showers as the lightning was clearly visible when hitting the desert many miles away with the rain evaporating before touching the ground. On those occasions when meaningful amounts of rain did fall, the waiting plants responded by blooming so quickly it resembled watching a slow motion video of gardens shown at high speed.

One of my best friends from my college days invited me to visit him in Pasadena, California a couple years after we graduated. He inadvertently introduced me to a place that laid the next step in my growing love of flowers and their possibilities, the Huntington Library and Museum. (http://www.huntington.org/) Imagine a place that teases your spirit with beautiful furniture, great art and endless acres of themed gardens and you have the Huntington.

Thirty-five years ago, the Australia and Zen gardens had yet to be created, but the cactus and Japanese temple gardens along with the hundreds of rosebushes in bloom caught my imagination and fired a desire to create some form of designed garden when I had my own place.

We moved to Chelsea in 1977, and surveyed our new back yard with dismay. Chaos started six feet from the back of the house, presenting us with a mix of burdock, a rotting pigsty, large rocks, broken glass and rusting cans. Anyone with an ounce of sanity would have given up then and there. Instead, we spent the next 25 years sifting and adding to the soil while gradually carving out a lawn, a vegetable garden, a small orchard and several flower gardens. The level of beauty and order rose and fell with the demands of raising two daughters and both of us returning to graduate school twice. No matter how hectic life in Chelsea was, we always found time to ensure some color flourished around the house.

Both the flower gardens and the small orchard benefited from family donations. Our Concord grapevine came from Beth’s Aunt Sylvia in Hudson, N.H., while phlox and iris came from the farm in Union. Along the way, we learned as much from failure as from success. I discovered that planting fruit trees two days after hernia surgery wasn’t terribly smart and that those hardiness zones in the catalogs really do apply. Things hardy in zone 7 will not survive a winter in zone 4.

There were many failures, but these were always offset by unexpected bounty. Our Stanley plum went wild one year, bearing 628 purple treasures. Sadly, the same tree perished two years later when a combination of borers and a harsh cold snap were too much for it to bear. Our Niagara grape provided a similar bounty a few years later bearing so many clusters we gave up trying to eat them all and sent the girls around to the neighbors with shopping bags filled with the surplus.

You cannot garden without having the experience evoke strong feelings. Weeds and woodchucks evoke irritation and frustration. A wave of brilliant blooms or foliage can summon awe and satisfaction. The great ice storm of 1998 brought forth a scream of despair as I watched my cherry tree lose the fight to remain whole and slowly split down the center. The moments of angst are few in comparison to the joy that grubbing in soil brings.

Our move to Hartland in 2003 came with unexpected bonuses. By that point in our lives, gardens were so important we included in our offer that we would be able to plant the vegetable garden before we closed on the house. The thought of losing an entire growing season was too terrible to bear. In the process of working the soil to get ready for planting, I spent some time chatting with the seller. She recognized a kindred soul and confided that a friend who was a medium had said that spirits in the back yard would nurture darn near anything planted there.

We are now at the end of our third growing season and I suspect those spirits are real. Fruit falling from the twelve apple trees has added a natural percussion to my gardening rhythm since late July while keeping the deer away from the tall green wall of kale that divides the garden. Melons and ever-bearing strawberries have provided a pleasant addition to the endless salads. Broccoli that had nearly been chewed out of existence by a woodchuck continues to bear more shoots than we can cook and the row of cherry tomatoes looks like some giant strew edible rubies in a three by twenty foot swath.

Trumping this bounty is the flower garden we inherited from the previous owner. Hartland lies in a mini-climate zone. June brought a string of storms that lashed us with wind, lightning and monsoon-like downpours. The weeks of labor that revamped the Maltese cross shaped garden a year ago seemed like they had all been for naught as the low area where this garden lies filled with water that sat there for nearly a month. When it finally drained away, the cannas and most of the gladiolas had rotted and walking through the center resembled passage through a freshly drained beaver bog. Dying plants were replaced and twins of many that survived were planted.

Every gardener finds secret symbolism in their work. For me, the first purple aster triggers a mix of sadness and excitement; sadness because this flower irrevocably signals the end of summer and excitement at the prospect of fall, my favorite time of year. The purple asters have been in bloom for more than a month now, the large single blooms in the garden waving in the wind at their multi-blossomed wild cousins rising from the tall grass beyond the lawn’s edge. I stop to admire them before turning to those tasks their blooms remind me must be done before the winds of November chase me back inside for a winter of writing.

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2 Responses to Purple Asters

  1. Brenda Buchanan says:

    Thank you for this garden meditation, John. It was a wonderful way to start my day.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Lovely, John. Ken and I were just talking about purple asters this weekend. I think he noticed them for the first time. And Grammie Clark’s garden was magical.


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