Notes From Madoo

April 2, 1998

A letter to those several friends who are beginning to garden for the first time: I am concerned that you have not yet spent that necessary year simply patrolling the site, getting accustomed to the pitch of the earth, where shadows go, where precise and vague boundaries are, how dominant near or distant views are. This is the little history of your plot. Was your builder kind to the trees, a neat or sloppy worker? Anent this last, I am still picking up nails from a major reroofing a full two years ago. But, it is spring and it is hard to resist its allurements.

You must know that, to be vital, a garden must not only be generously furnished but always expand its gifts. Always think in terms of making memorable arrangements. A magnolia carpeted with English bluebells might be one. Or an oval of rue with a clump of yellow yarrow slightly off center.

You must plant what your heart wants and your memory holds in high regard and when you plant you must plant first for shape and then for foliage. Color is at the very last.

You must ignore all fashion, except it be a plant or a shrub or a tree unjustly put beyond the pale. Cannas, for example, so often overused in municipal bedding schemes, are now re-entering the general garden vocabulary and ought never to have been kept out. There is no such thing as a bad plant but plenty of evidence of good plants badly used. There is a canna or two with finely variegated foliage but I wouldn't overdo it. A garden ought, for the sake of general liveliness, have something new added each year, very like a rare peppercorn added to the phrasing of your spice shelf or a bit of Arabian coffee mixed with the French roast.

Plant small. Liners, rooted cuttings, and whips are available for pennies.* Establish a little nursery holding bed for these, well-fenced, especially against baby rabbits.

This is no the time to make permanent paths. Such fixed installations will overrule the planting and we are making a garden and not planting paths and we must wait and see how things do and get that sorted out first. While on this, the gazebo ought to wait, too.

Plant instinctively and impulsively. First thoughts are finest. Mulled ones confuse. Further, the garden's holdings can be moved.

If lawn you must, get seed from Gardens Alive** especially formulated for your area, with varieties that are deeper rooted, slower growing. The August lawn will be greener, require less watering and mowing. If you are fortunate enough to have an established lawn, then use this mixture to reseed thin or bald spots and gradually change its composition.

You must accept the fact that dissatisfaction and impatience and irritation will be your daily bread. A garden is a most humbling creation. At the same moment it dismays, however, it will nonetheless give you many fleeting pleasures. Indeed, you just may become so hallucinated that you may think it the finest you have ever seen. At such times I bring to my own mind a certain Mr. Thomas Johnes (a rather highfalutin way of spelling "Jones"), who, in 1804, wrote:

I have just finished a new walk far superior in grandeur and variety to any I had. It even surpasses my expectations. You will be delighted when you see it for it is indeed beautiful and completes the circuit on each side the river. I mean to have a swing bridge of chains from rock to rock, so do not be surprised if you read in some Tourist of my having caused the death of several by fear or drowning.

Lordy! Finally, I wish you Godspeed and write that I have many fine things in the greenhouse and that you are welcome to the overflow. But please do not say you are coming and then not come and please do not ask me how you plant them, how tall they will be, what one may expect from them, what care they require. I did label them. Did you scramble the markers?

Last autumn, when you told me that you were beginning a garden I did tell you that you must get a good standard reference book. If you did not, all cess to you, you don't listen, have wasted my time, and I, this letter. As they say in Galway, where once I thought to live: "I'll see you for a sheep."

*Liners, whips, rooted cuttings: Mellinger's, 2310 West South Range Road, North Lima, Ohio 44452-9731, or Musser Forsts, P.O. Box 340, Indiana, Pa. 15701-0340

**Gardens Alive catalogue is missing. I believe you borrowed it.