A Universe of Gardens

A few weeks ago I bought a book by photographer Sam Abell from the used book store in town. I probably spend too much time there, browsing and drinking espresso, but I like an afternoon pick-me-up and the book selection is excellent. In Seeing Gardens, Sam Abell reflects on gardens all over the world, expanding the definition of a garden to include photographs of Arctic landscapes and scenes as mundane as a woman wearing a flowered scarf.

Abell’s inclusive vision got me thinking. Having worked in many gardens over the years and cultivated a few as well, there’s no question that gardens have played a major role in my life. So have wild places, from the woods behind the house where I grew up to the preserves and parks that I frequent now. Cultivated gardens are a cornerstone of civilization – the Garden of Eden, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and ancient Daoist parks in China are just a few examples. But the idea of a garden can encompass more than intentionally cultivated spaces. Seeing gardens in places where the human hand hasn’t been at work is a just matter of opening up one’s perspective. For me, gardens are just about everywhere.

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1.

Cultivated gardens took center stage in my life during certain periods; wild gardens were important at other times. As a chubby toddler, I went barefoot in the grass in a yard that bloomed with tulips and roses. Flowers were always a part of life at home. I remember black ants on white peonies, the scent of lilacs in spring, and the excitement of digging up wildflowers in the woods and bringing them home to plant by the back door. If it sounds idyllic, yes, it was.

College and work in New York City changed that. For more than ten years, gardens were something I experienced incidentally against a backdrop of stimulating, busy city life. I searched out nature when I could and that was enough. Then when I was in my 30s, I got a job at a historic New York City public garden called Wave Hill. Set on rolling hills above the Hudson River, it’s a peaceful, verdant refuge from urban life. I didn’t work in the gardens but they were never out of sight and over time, the elegant landscape informed and enlarged my relationship with nature. I still paid attention to wild places – even the smallest patch of stubborn green plants in the crack of a sidewalk won my appreciation.

A few years later I landed a temporary position at an imposing Victorian-era conservatory, the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden. It was basically grunt work like pushing wheelbarrows piled with cuttings through the glass houses. But being in the presence of exotic plants from all over the world was exciting and a random cactus spine in my rear end was a small price to pay for it.

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2.

My Fine Arts degree didn’t open doors to high-paying jobs but money wasn’t my primary focus. Work wasn’t a calling, it was a way to help pay the bills. In my forties, I didn’t want to be away from home all day because I had a son at home so when the conservatory job ended, I began gardening for a respected children’s book author and editor who’d sustained an injury that prevented her from working in her garden. The quiet, restorative work in small-scale flower beds around her suburban home kept me sane during troubled times. When Charlotte got better I took another gardening job, one that gave me a far more thorough education in gardening than I could have imagined. I was tasked with managing the grounds and maintaining the gardens at the country home of two top-of-the-line New York interior designers. A Cy Twombly painting graced their living room, finicky delphiniums bloomed in the gardens, and the boxwood hedges had to be wrapped in burlap every winter to prevent freezing and burnt foliage. The topiary trees required precision cuts while standing on a ladder and the greenhouse had to be checked after snowstorms to be sure the power was on and precious specimens were intact. Perfection was the expectation. I was in way over my head.

Once I was asked to find out how a striking fountain the owners saw at a neighboring estate was installed because they wanted one like it. That neighbor was the controversial philanthropist George Soros so discretion was critical. Armed with a little New York chutzpah, I drove straight onto the estate and located the property manager. Carefully approaching him with genuine humility, I found he was surprisingly generous with information and advice. Before too long, I found myself running a major dredging operation in one corner of the estate. The pond where the fountain was to be located had to be excavated to keep the motor underwater. The project put my love of nature in conflict with my job because dredging the pond meant changing its wild nature forever. Once I saw a Great blue heron beside that pond but after the fountain was installed I doubt the heron ever came back.

Whether weeding a bed on my hands and knees or ordering thousands of dollars of full-grown trees from a nursery, I learned as I went. The inspirational year-round beauty of the gardens at High-Low gave back.

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3. Old snapshots of the houses and gardens.
4. The fountain in the distance, an assortment of Artemesia plants, your faithful gardener, and a perennial bed.

I enjoyed the challenges of the job until the owners began to behave erratically. The pressure of maintaining their social position, working for clients like Tina Turner, and having their own home featured on the cover of a major interior design magazine did not make them easy to work with. Seeing them treat loyal suppliers and employees with contempt was the final straw. It was a relief to quit but I was grateful for the education I received there.

A job at a local Starbucks offered good benefits for part-time work (and as many espresso drinks as I wanted!) so I took it. One year, the district manager asked me to design and install three small garden areas at different Starbucks stores. Serving espresso in the morning and digging in the dirt in the afternoon suited me better than the unpredictable demands and stress of my previous job. Expanding on the garden side jobs, I created The Garden Steward, my own garden maintenance business. It didn’t bring in much money but it kept me outdoors, surrounded by beauty (after I finished weeding!).

A different kind of immersion into gardens came with a two-year course in botanical illustration I enrolled in at the New York Botanical Garden. Botanical illustration requires careful observation, which I enjoyed. The slow, engrossing work deepened my understanding and appreciation for plant life.

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5.
6. Ink drawing of a Common blue violet.

In 2001 I was fortunate enough to be able to buy a home. The previous owner of the modest house in upstate New York gardened intensively and I picked up where she left off. Around that time a friend hired me to join the gardening crew he directed for a billionaire hedge fund manager and philanthropist who kept a sprawling estate in bucolic Dutchess County. It seemed to me that the owner was hardly ever there. That didn’t stop him from hiring the influential British garden designer and author John Brookes to fly over and make his mark on the landscape. As we snipped dead blossoms from enormous potted plants and planted hundreds of flower bulbs for drifts of spring color, we were a friendly little cadre of workers. Between microgreens sprouting in the greenhouse, a horse stable, and the perfectly manicured garden rooms behind the house, it was an elaborate setup made to please someone who was rarely present. I appreciated the beauty but not the waste.

In any case, it was time for a change in direction: I decided to go back to school for a Master’s degree in social work. The busy schedule of classes and internships pushed gardens to the periphery of my life. After graduating, I worked at an organization that supports people with severe mental illness, then found a better position with the state health department. I was back in the urban setting of my late teens and twenties, soaking in what nature I could after work and on weekends. But gardens were never forgotten. I continued to cultivate them in my mind.

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7. Autumn garden in the city.
8. Flowers behind a curtain at home.

A confluence of unexpected events caused my partner and me to change course. We’d lost our jobs at about the same time and we thought it might be the perfect time to leave city life behind. So we took a leap of faith and moved across the country, to the west coast. Suddenly I was immersed in a world of mountains, forests, and water. It didn’t matter that we lived in a small apartment because nature loomed large everywhere, even out the windows. When finding a job took longer than expected I volunteered at a public garden. We pinpointed plant locations in the garden using a GIS (geographic information system) data system. Ultimately, detailed plant information would be accessible to visitors and employees. The work put me right back in the garden. It felt good to be there.

Soon I was working full-time in Seattle and had little time to think about gardens. Driving from one appointment to the next I took note of my surroundings: the softly drooping tips of hemlock trees and the majesty of Mount Rainier in the distance made me glad to be living in the Pacific Northwest. If I felt the need to spend time in a garden, there was one close enough for a brief stroll on slow days.

On vacations, we explored the desert southwest, now just a few hours away by plane. It was all new to my eastern-bred eyes: the whole west was an immense garden. The weathered granite landscape of Joshua Tree National Park, the extraordinary Chiricahua Mountains, and the spare beauty of Death Valley astounded and delighted me. I had a better camera and became serious about photography, focusing on the wild gardens of the West and the cultivated gardens near home. And I began this blog.

Then we retired and left the city and suburbs behind to move to an island halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. I have all the time I want to appreciate gardens of any kind now. That’s what I do.

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9. Death Valley.
10. Bamboo in the garden where I volunteered.
11. An inadvertent garden. Los Angeles County.
12. Bringing the desert home.
13. The wild gardens of Mount Rainier.
14. Japanese architecture at Bellevue Botanical Garden; Bellevue, Washington.
15. A Trillium in a public garden south of Seattle.
16. Down the garden path with a Lensbaby.

17. A wetland wildgarden after flooding; Fidalgo Island, Washington.
18. The calcified remains of Coralline algae entangled in a tiny seaweed garden; Fidalgo Island.
19. A roadside memorial near Ajo, Arizona.
20. An urban park on Long Island, New York.

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69 comments

    • Thank you very much for stopping by and commenting – I appreciate it.
      Vielen Dank fürs vorbeischauen und kommentieren — Ich schätze es. Die Eltern meines Vaters stammten aus Deutschland. Er hat Deutsch gelernt, aber ich nicht, sorry!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. I so enjoyed reading this, Lynn. It sounds like a full and interesting life and good to know that you’re in a place now where you can indulge your love of nature. With those surroundings, you couldn’t help yourself. Wishing you a happy festive season playing in nature.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I really enjoyed the brief tour of the gardening aspect of your life. So much so that the thought: I’d be only happy to read a book that expands upon this story – went around in my head. Have you ever considered writing a memoir? I’d buy it. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yours is a generous, flattering comment, thank you very much. I’m drawn to writing memoirs and have been thinking about the medium for a long time but the idea of a book is daunting.
      I began an online version a few years ago but I haven’t published another installment yet – it’s sitting in my drafts folder, waiting for more edits.
      Here’s the first part of that memoir if you didn’t see it before:

      (UN)STILL LIFE WITH FLOWERS


      I did another memoir post exploring a different theme earlier this year –

      REFLECTIONS on Water and Life


      Thanks again!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What an interesting facet of your life. I envy you. I love gardens.
    Back n the day, when I could work at gardening, I had over a 100 rose bushes. I was big on heirlooms and Explorers, and any David Austins that would hold up here in Mn.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Ah, that’s another thing I was tasked with – installing a rose garden with David Austin roses, which were getting very popular here in the states in the 1990s. At least I didn’t have to dig it myself – they told me to hire laborers to double-dig the bed. It was such hard work – I was very impressed with the strength, work ethic, and warmth of the laborers, most of whom were from Mexico. The chosen spot was a little too shady but the roses that grew were lovely. You had over 100 – that’s an astounding amount of work! And an even greater pleasure. Thanks for sharing that, Don, and here’s to garden memories.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Fascinating life story, Lynn. I really feel like I know you a little better and it helps me to understand your photography. One photo that stands out for me here is #20 because it reminds me of some of theparks I visit here at home in Webster (Where Life is Worth Living).

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you! I think getting to know one another better is valuable – maybe you’ll share some bits and pieces, too!
      If I remember right, the day we went to that park on Long Island, we were waiting to go to JFK to fly back home. We’d been visiting friends and family in New York. Between the familiar sounds of eastern birdsongs and the general look of the woods, that park really felt like New York to me. I can imagine seeing similar woods in your area, where life is worth living, especially in the warmer months! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved reading this chronicle of your life. Thanks for taking the time to write it down and pair it with images. From gardens wild and planted to the meandering path of your life to your current photographs, you’ve been creating beauty all along.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I love your notion of the whole of the US west being a wild garden of sorts (LA excepted perhaps?) And I also loved reading the story of your relationship with gardens. What’s more, I’m pretty sure we had coffee in that same bookstore! It’s in Anacortes I assume? On a corner, with the coffee area overlooking the street? If I remember rightly the opening photo in my Anacortes post (https://www.toonsarah-travels.blog/gallery-the-anacortes-murals-project/) was taken very near there. Are those murals still in place around the town?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Amazing, Sarah! Yes, that’s the place – and I’m sorry I missed your Anacortes post – I’ll take a look tomorrow. The murals are still there and though the artist died a few years ago, there’s a plan to ensure the murals are preserved. I love that you were there at Pelican Books and Cafe – good memory! Thanks!!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. A very interesting post Lynn. Thank you for sharing your (garden) memories, your life (you were so cute as a toddler!!) with us. And what a life! It sounds exciting, all the different places and all the different jobs you were doing. I like it when you write, it wasn’t for the money. You have been richly rewarded with your experiences, right. I like that you write what inspired you and where the limit / line was for you. Impressive, in what kind of gardens you have been working and what you have done or gone through with your different clients. You must have learned a lot in all these years. That frost protection for all these hedges looks like a syphillis job. Crazy! Yes, the garden civilized / tamed or wild – runs like a red thread through your life 🙂
    I like #5, very aesthetic and your ink drawing is wonderful. It is a kind of perfection in plant drawing I like, reduced to the essential.
    #9 fascinating and great captured, this landscape in black and white!
    #10 wonderful – could be a textile print
    #12 I love this one, a wonderful still life and a tiny plant that looks strong somehow
    #13 beautiful the greens and impressive this large mountain in the background (we are so small). Great picture!
    #18 fascinating this Coralline algae. It reminds me of bones
    #20 I suppose this kind of urban park can be found in many cities of the world, not exactly like this one, but similar, a small piece of wilderness. It looks familiar! I feel at home here 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • Your comment helps me keep going, Almuth, thank you. It’s helpful to know what is interesting in the text. It’s true, I learned a lot about gardening but I have forgotten so much! You have to keep doing it to keep it fresh in your mind.
      I don’t know about perfection but reducing a drawing to its essentials is an idea I like a lot. I enjoyed the violet drawing and felt good about it – you know what that feels like! And I can see #10 as a textile print for sure! Bamboo is a great subject to work with. #12 is a little collection of plants that I brought home after a trip to the southwest. I put it onto an old piece of water-stained, yellowed paper for the photo. 🙂
      Mt. Rainier (#13) is a very beautiful mountain. It rises up from the surrounding land pretty suddenly, about an hour south of Seattle, and is a major landmark there. On very clear days, from a high place, I can even see it from here, about 3 hours away. I had no idea what the little “bones” in #18 were until I looked it up. I like what you said about the last photo. A reader who lives in New York State, far away from the city, also said it looked familiar. 🙂 Thank you!

      Liked by 2 people

      • The word perfection wasn’t the best, but you got what I meant, and yes, I understand you very well 🙂 Mount Rainier must be a beautiful view. I could feel it in your picture, how special it is! It must be some hundred miles away from where you live?
        I think you still know the basics of gardening, but true, some things we forget so soon when we don’t use them. But I am glad, you go out into your wild gardens now and make us happy with your posts of beautiful nature 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

  8. Nice to read that gardens and gardening play such an important role in your life! They seem to have opened your eyes and heart wide ! So we can enjoy your photos so much now! I love number 7 above all with its contrasts , their light and shadow and message (somehow). Aren’t we often or sometimes like leaves stuck in our technical environment and progress? You have managed to walk your way and always followed out what was good, enriching and helpful for you! Congrats!

    Liked by 4 people

    • I guess my love of flowers and plants started at a very early age and never stopped. 🙂 It really makes sense that you would find #7 appealing – it has a similar feeling to your work – dramatic, colorful, and strong. Petra, I have not always followed what was good for me, believe me! But as I get older and wiser, I learn and hopefully, I don’t fall into the wrong patterns as much. Thank you for such a generous comment. Have a good weekend!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. In this “garden” that is life, you planted many plants and experiences, shared many moments, gave and received many teachings, etc, etc, etc. A life full of choices and nature!
    There is no doubt that plants and botany were always part of your choices, specializations and that they took root in your life.
    I’ve felt that connection since I started following the blog, but this post helps to understand very well the true “green energy” that inhabits your soul. And that is very good!
    Congratulations for the post, for the honesty of your path … and for the sensitivity and beautiful photos that you always “plant” in this little corner of the blogosphere!

    Liked by 4 people

    • The garden of life has its beautiful spots and its problem areas, doesn’t it? But as you said, that green energy has always been important to me and I think it has saved me many. many times. I imagine the same is true for you. You have written such a nice comment that I hardly know how to thank you. Not only that, but you frame what you say in such a creative way – it brings a smile. Maybe a simple thank you is best. 🙂 Have a wonderful weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Lynn, it was a privilege to read this memoir, a wonderful essay into an interesting, well-lived life. Your’s has always been such a consistently thoughtful, introspective voice…..that while this essay was enjoyable and fun to read for the surprises it yielded about you, it also seamlessly connected certain dots you’ve formed over the years with your writing and photography.

    Liked by 4 people

    • What a pleasant surprise to read your comment, thank you very much. I guess that’s the potential reward for writing about one’s personal life – there may be reactions that bring a feeling of great satisfaction. Thank you so much for paying attention and sharing your thoughts.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. So rich & multi-dimensional. Indeed, what constitutes a “garden” & who sets the criteria? (Akin to, “What is ‘art’ and who decides?”) A friend here, a Master Gardener, volunteers with a project that both oversees a roof-top garden in a care facility and also the after-thought “garden” in an alley bordering one wall of this building in a very modest neighbourhood. They hear more comments about, and take more quiet pride in, the work in the alley than the much more elaborated work on the roof… When we open to more definitions, we get to enjoy more beauty. Thanks for another series of openings.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Exactly – we can ask that question about many things and it’s often a fruitful quest. Your friend’s observation is gratifying. It isn’t really surprising but it’s still very gratifying to know that people DO pass along those compliments. But then, y’all are Canadian! What do I expect? 😉
      “When we are open to more definitions, we enjoy more beauty” is a quote I’m tempted to keep handy. Thank you!

      Liked by 3 people

  12. I’d say you qualify as a garden guru. Maybe we should call you Eve?

    If you’re ever in Portland, you should check out the Chinese garden, and definitely the Japanese garden. I think you’d find your happy place.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I don’t know about Eve…but I do know a little about the Portland gardens. I liked Lan Su Gardens better than the Portland Japanese Garden, though I think the Japanese garden has more of a reputation. Maybe I was tired the day I saw it. I had a lot of fun at the Chinese garden (2015) The Portland Rosarians were there in full regalia to greet Al Roker, who stopped at the garden during a country-wide tour. (Smaller man than you would think!) And there was a Barred owl in one of the trees by the water being attacked by a jay. Plus there was an autumn flower arrangement exhibit going on. Checking my files, it looks like there are some nice photos from the Japanese Garden though – one of these days maybe I’ll post them. Thanks for reminding me!

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Pingback: A Universe of Gardens – Your ultimate blogpost editions.

    • It’s great to hear from you! And that’s surprising news – keep in touch – I’d love to hear more about the move. [The news on this front is that my son had twin boys on Aug. 24th. That’s him with one of them at the bottom of the recent post about rest,] Thank you for writing – brought a smile to my face!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Very interesting post!! What a wild ride your love of gardens has taken you on. Nice that you were able to work doing something that you loved from time to time. And your pictures…just beautiful. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s true, it was great to have those experiences, and in such rarefied environments. I miss having a botanical garden nearby but the wild gardens nature creates here are endlessly interesting. I hope you all are keeping warm over there! Thanks for stopping by – have a happy holiday!

      Liked by 2 people

  15. Lynn’s garden history! Nice story. I can imagine you digging around in a flower bed.. No shots of the garden around your house?.. Shot Nr18 intrigues me; almost alien.. We have a 5x20m. small piece of wilderness in the middle of a pretty standard new housing estate, that I like way better than my sweetheart.. 🙂 See you!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hmm, the garden around the house…I do have a few photos somewhere. Another time, there’s always time for gardens, right? I used to spend an hour or so after work picking grass out of a big area of moss that I was trying to make into a moss garden. It was therapeutic. 😉 I’m glad you have that little piece of heaven but seriously, do you want to put that in writing about saying you like it more than your sweetheart? Maybe you could like them both the same amount?? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I love your passion for gardening. My dad was a botanist in his spare time and had a big garden where he would host extravagant gardening parties. I miss those days…thank you for sharing all of your lovely photos with us and your passion for nature, and happy holidays! 🥰

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      • Thank you! Most definitely! Though I don’t have the gardening bug like my dad, I love riding my horses through the mountains and out on trails 🥰 of course! This is a great post that brought back some amazing memories that I hope I never forget ❤️

        Liked by 1 person

  17. It is interesting to read of your variety of gardening experiences! When I think of your work I definitely think of your close observations of plant-life. Perhaps the botanical illustration helped develop that even more. The images are wonderful. I have often thought of different wild arrangements as Mother Nature’s garden and I like that thinking. All my best to you and yours in 2023!

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re absolutely right, botanical illustration classes developed my already keen appreciation of plants and their details. Drawing them is such a pleasure! Trouble is, photography is quicker and easier. 😉 I’m glad you enjoyed the photos – and of course, you totally get the idea of gardens everywhere. 🙂 Best to you and your family, too!

      Like

  18. These are amazing photos! Thank you for sharing your story. It’s very inspiring. I have never has a job, besides tutoring. I mean I have my blog, podcast, books, and online shops, but I have never worked something where I had a boss and got paid monthly except for 6 months as a tutor, then I married my boss and got pregnant and stayed home.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Everyone has a different story, right? My employment story has a lot of twists and turns. It actually helps me to sort it out in my mind when I write about it. Thanks so much for your enthusiasm, I really appreciate it.

      Like

  19. It was enjoyable to read of your gardening history which laid the foundation for your current love of nature. Knowing a little about you I can understand why working for a billionaire and seeing the waste for a wealthy person’s amusement would rankle you. Your odyssey from NYC to the Northwest taught you much about gardening and how you wanted to spend your days. I’m impressed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Steve, for a thoughtful comment. I’d say the foundation is the love of nature and I fell into gardening because of that, but it’s all intertwined. My gardening odyssey seemed like a good lens to look at my life though but I’ll probably find other lenses along the way. Having readers like you makes it worthwhile. I hope 2023 is very good to you!

      Liked by 2 people


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