“It is part of the life of a garden that, because the making of a garden is such an act of will, and because it becomes (if successful) the place of great beauty that the particular gardener had in mind, the gardener’s death (or retreat of any kind) is the death of the garden.” – Jamaica Kincaid, “My Garden [Book]”, 1999
Anti-colonialism aside, another theme woven into Jamaica Kincaid’s stories about gardens and gardening is the theme of the end of a garden, or death as she calls it. Kincaid reflected on this while visiting Painshill Park in Surrey, England, once a 323-acre landscape forged from weeds and undergrowth in 1738 by the associates of an Irish aristocrat/English courtier named Charles Hamilton (1704-1786).
Hamilton visited several beautiful gardens during his major tours of Europe. Returning to England after his second tour, he began borrowing money to buy the land at Painshill and create a private ‘pleasure garden’. Unfortunately, as the years passed, Hamilton’s debts spiraled out of control and he was eventually forced to sell the property in 1773, after which the garden gradually fell into disrepair.
Kincaid visited the garden during one of the restoration projects on the property (restoration began in 1981 and is ongoing to this day). She was saddened that Hamilton’s private vision for the garden was lost in the rush to revitalize it as part of England’s national heritage.
She wrote, “…I thought something crucial had been lost over time: the sense of the place not as some kind of national park but as a piece of land that a man arranged on who knows what psychological impulses.”
In the next chapter of her book, Kincaid mentions the death of a garden created by the French Impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). Like his friend Claude Monet, Caillebotte was an avid gardener and planted a garden on his property in a Paris suburb. Caillebotte died at the age of 45 after suffering a stroke while gardening. Neither his garden at Petit-Gennevilliers nor the garden at his childhood home in Yerres (both painted by him) exist today.
I don’t know why the impermanence of gardens was so important to Kincaid. Was she thinking of her own mortality, or of leaving her beloved yellow house with a clapboard and garden? (She devotes an entire chapter to explaining why she loved this house so much.)
There are many reasons gardens come to an end other than the death or absence of the gardener who created them. I’ve heard from gardeners in despair after losing their gardens in the Almeda fire and from people who lost their gardens after their irrigation water was shut off due to water shortages.
I lost my Shakespeare Garden in Central Point due to politics and misunderstandings. (I learned an important lesson about the pitfalls of planting a garden on someone else’s property from this experience.)
I’ve also heard from discouraged gardeners who have decided to throw in the trowel after a particularly hot, smoky, and/or pest-infested season. In fact, according to a YouTube gardening channel called MIGardener, 40% of new gardeners give up after their first year because they feel their gardening efforts have been unsuccessful or too tedious, or they feel overwhelmed by all the plant choices and conflicting gardening advice, or they found gardens and Gardening too expensive to maintain.
In any case, the remnants of the garden often remain for a while as a reminder of all that has been lost, and depending on her emotional and financial investment in the garden, the gardener may even go through a grieving process – denial, anger, haggling, depression, Acceptance – for the garden she had loved and which had become part of her identity.
Some gardeners ease the grief of losing a garden by starting a new one. In her book Uprooted: A Gardener Reflects on Beginning Again (2020), Page Dickey recounts the loss of her garden in Duck Hill, New York, after 34 years of tending it. She felt “stuck” for a while, but ended up planting a garden in her new home in Connecticut and was pleasantly surprised to find that the new garden space allowed her to become a different breed of gardener that was better at fit her changed lifestyle.
I think Jamaica Kincaid was right when she wrote that a garden’s death is a part of the garden’s life, just as a gardener’s death is a part of that gardener’s life. A gardener is mortal, so why should we expect their garden to be any different? Even if the garden is taken over by someone else or later restored, it will never again be the garden that its creator envisioned.
The Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) elegiacized a college friend who died at the age of 22 with the famous phrase “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved.” I have learned that this applies equally to gardeners who have loved and lost a garden.
Completion of a seasonal garden
Many gardeners mourn the loss of their garden during the winter. Jamaica Kincaid stated that she disliked winter because the garden ceased to exist for her. She wrote: “The snow covers the ground in the garden with the determination of death, an unyielding grip, and its whiteness is an eraser…”
I used to get melancholy when the plants in my garden started dying again in the fall, but I’ve overcome that feeling (mostly) by: 1. consciously celebrating my experiences in the garden during that time of year; 2. Collecting seeds from plants that will continue their life cycle; 3. to learn how alive a conservatory really is underground or otherwise out of my sight; 4. Leave plant stems over winter and watch them preserve wildlife; and 5. engage in gardening.
The Oregon State University Extension Service provides a useful list to help gardeners finish their gardens for the season. Access the October Garden Calendar at extension.oregonstate.edu/.
Rhonda Nowak is a gardener, teacher, and author from Rogue Valley. See literary garden.com or email her at [email protected]