“The Happy Hoe”

A Memoir by Patricia E. Shevlin

It began with a serendipitous experience five years ago this month: I accompanied a friend on a weekend of house hunting in East Hampton. When we opened the gate to the property, I felt the earth move — the grounds took my breath away. My friend clearly did not have the same experience. “They’re adorable. My sister has two; one is a long hair,” he said, responding to the appearance of the owner’s two Daschunds. So today I own the scant half-acre “park,” and yes, the house that sits upon it.

Every return brings no less wonder or joy than that first day. Seriously, joy and wonder? Unless you are a gardener you may not understand. I am not a fan of dirt; not an insect lover. I don’t have knees meant to kneel, yet I endure all to enjoy the short-lived wonder of a garden in bloom. I am a gardener. The signs are obvious:

I can name at least five garden catalogs.

I have a collection of gloves and footwear for different tasks.

I have subscriptions to both hard-copy and online gardening publications.

I attend the annual garden tours; I’m a garden tour “hoe.”

Even my watercolor classes were garden-centered.

Gardening is not difficult. It does, however, require patience, resilience, and a dash of reckless abandon. One learns by trial and error, witnessing birth and death, observing wanted propagation and unwanted invasion. Be diligent but genteel or you can lose the buds of your labor in the flicker of a butterfly’s wings. Once in a while, if the garden gurus are smiling, your efforts may be rewarded with a symphony of color and texture, a tapestry created by you. While I celebrate those days when my garden resembles that tapestry, every day I have to work toward that goal — worthy of my effort.

As a child, I thought peonies were the most beautiful flower — except for the ants that shared my love of the petaled pink fluff growing in my driveway. “Don’t worry about the ants,” Mother would whisper as we tended the blossoms in and around the yard. “They are not interested in you.” She explained that the ants were attracted to the nectar produced by the bud and that they actually helped the buds to open. Wow, was my mother smart. I don’t remember any of my siblings engaging in this activity. Imagine being one of five and having Mom’s full attention. We anchored the bursting blooms of climbing pink roses and clipped hydrangeas in the vase. I learned that all flowers are not the same; the difference between a perennial and an annual is that only perennials return. This mother-daughter ritual was not something I forgot. When I was grown and out on my own, my Mother’s Day gift to her was always a bouquet of pink peonies. Until her last years, she knew why I had chosen the petaled pink fluff.

I was in my early teens when I came home to a huge hole in the space outside the dining room window where the lilac shrub had stood. My brother was, by his attire, the obvious culprit. “What did you do? Why did you dig up the lilac? Does Mother know what you did?” I had been patiently waiting for the day when that lilac outside the dining room window on the first floor would grow tall enough to greet me at my bedroom window. “Shut up! She told me to dig it up.” I didn’t believe him. When she got home from work, I could not wait to escort her to the back window to see what my stupid brother had done. Oh yes, she had asked him to dig up a shrub, but it was the hydrangea, or snowball bush as we knew it. Mother consoled me, “It will come back. It will grow and bloom again and you will enjoy its scent even more.” While it survived and bloomed, it never made it to the second floor.

Gardening likely provided an escape for her, a 30-something mother of five and victim of spousal abuse at the hands of my alcoholic father. I know now from my own experience that the garden was much more than a task; it likely was a sanctuary. I wonder if she ever enjoyed true peace, because she always had me around and, in retrospect, I don’t think she sought me out.

My garden has already provided sanctuary. It was there for me the day my brother died when I drove out east from the Bronx hospice early on a September Sunday morning. I stopped at Atlantic Beach in Amagansett and then drove to my “park,” put on gloves, and grabbed my spade and claw. I puttered around, watering things with my tears.

My garden was there waiting for me last spring as I recuperated following knee replacement surgery. It survived the lack of T.L.C. I rewarded it with a new addition to the family, Anemone Honorine Jobert. It has proven to be a mistake — spectacular, though, in its invasive expansion. My hoe will make its first appearance of the season to curb the trailing suckers that are already spreading beyond its boundaries.

The mass of Russian Cypress planted to stabilize a poorly constructed berm is growing, spreading, and providing a wall of lacey arms reaching out and dancing softly in the breeze. The poolside garden, originally a nutrient-deficient base for the blacktop driveway I ripped up for the pool, is filled with color and texture — 40 feet of grasses and perennials in shades of yellows, whites, blues, lime greens, and purple.

My ideal garden is where promise lives. I am a creative naturalist and my garden is just like me — evolving.


Patricia E. Shevlin splits her time between East Hampton and the city. Her passions are her garden, writing, and photography.