“I can’t grow anything.”
My husband had just given me a herb cookbook. We were newlyweds in an apartment in Switzerland with a view of snow-capped mountains. I loved to cook and the book promised a thriving herb garden with corresponding recipes.
When my first basil plant wilted into the pot and the mint dried up, I laughed.
I don’t grow plants.
I cannot tell you why eight years and 10,000 miles later I felt an urge to sink my hands into the dirt of our garden in Melbourne, Australia. I wanted to walk into the weeds that reached my ankles and knees and yank them out with fury. I only knew I had to do it and one cold, sunny day in Melbourne I started.
Five years earlier we had left Switzerland and were a new family of four moving to Stockholm, Sweden. I pulled my two-year-old on a suitcase through the airport with my eight-week-old baby strapped to my chest. The picture is up on the wall in Melbourne today; I’m smiling brightly at my husband while I stride down the concourse. It was going to be an adventure, our adventure. A taxi dropped us off at the start of the long pebbled driveway to our new yellow house in Stockholm. It was an enormous property, covered in green grass, edged by trees and bushes. There were birch and plum trees, and across the street stood red and green houses as if they’d walked straight out of a Scandinavian home magazine.
We had moved in August and by October it was cold. Leaves drifted to the ground. My husband was gone from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and I was home alone in a strange, ever-darkening city with a baby and a toddler. The baby refused to sleep, the toddler turned up the defiance, and I felt like someone had attached a vacuum cleaner to my insides and switched it on. As we inched toward the darkest day of the year, I felt like every particle of light was draining out of me.
So I held on, I unraveled, I held on, I unraveled. I seesawed on postpartum hormones and sunlight deprivation and feeling cold all the time. I saw a doctor and cried about how I felt awful and low and didn’t know what to do. She sent me away for blood tests and when everything came back normal except for my vitamin D levels, I tipped back into “holding on” mode. I would make it work. Swedish winter finally melted away after seven months and May brought sunshine. The heavens opened and rays of light and vitamin D showered us all. The grass grew so fast we had to mow it twice a week. Shrubs appeared overnight. And in the middle of a few hedges, I noticed a protruding bud of color.
It looked like a peony. When our youngest was born the year before, I had set four bouquets of peonies on our dining table. White, pink, bright and light colors. Peony stems bend and twist and the petals slowly open out, but I had never seen one in the wild. The cold, Swedish ground gave it to me like a sunrise in the darkness.
Peonies are my favorite flower. Town and Country Magazine says when Marco Polo first saw one, he called them “roses as big as cabbages.” The Cortes Museum says that the earliest breed found in Europe was the crimson peony, the paeonia officinalis, just like the one sticking out in my garden in Sweden. Apparently they could survive without attention in home gardens.
The peony had felt like a miracle—a bright fuchsia miracle—the sign of life I needed after months of slow death. And so ended our first year in Sweden.
To Weed a Garden
Gardening in Melbourne is a year-round event. There is a time to mulch, a time to weed, and a time to plant tomato seedlings. But with our recent move we had been busy sorting out the pieces of our lives after Sweden and the garden was not a priority. It took us three years before we put pictures on the wall and put our snow gear into boxes on a high shelf in the cupboard. The neglected garden started overflowing with weeds and I couldn’t see the plants in our front yard.
Then one spring morning in September, a friend and I put on gloves and boots and we got to work. I threw my right shoulder out and couldn’t turn my head for a few days, but when we finished, it was clear. Camellia bushes perched on the right, white and pink, and our Australian-native plants huddled around the ornamental trees in front. The strip of land in front of the porch sat brown and empty.
Weeds come back after a few days. They sprout like baby plants, first a tender stem and two leaves, easy to pull out. I would go out daily and pull out weeds, but the garden stayed bare. I didn’t know what to plant or where to start.
Weeding, it turns out, is the easy part. It requires no skill, just strength, patience, and time. To plant I needed to know things. What kind of soil did we have? How much sunlight did the garden receive?
What could I grow? Could I grow anything at all?
I could not shake the question because I felt like what I touched died. So I left it and the garden I had emptied slowly filled with weeds.
Our second year in Sweden had begun with long summer days. My husband didn’t work in July as a way to help me get back a sense of normalcy. I slept in. Took a short writing retreat. Licked blueberry ice cream off my hand. Dug my toes in the sand of the Baltic Sea while my face soaked in the sun. Remembered who I was before I had children.
Drop by drop, particle by particle, light and life returned. And I made a plan for how to cope with the second winter.
I joined the gym and, as days shortened and darkened, I got high on endorphins. I made a gratitude list daily. I saw friends. I helped organize a conference for women. I worked hard to make my life work. I drove my son to kinder every day while my stomach clenched and turned. I thought it was reasonable fears of a new mother who was leaving her three-year-old in the care of someone else for the first time. I fell into bed exhausted every night.
If I had no idea what happened in year one in Sweden, year two was going to be the year I got myself together. I was going to make my dark skin absorb the vitamin D it needed. If I couldn’t get it from the sun, I would get it from the gym. If I couldn't get it physically, I would find joy through thinking differently. I would throw myself into something beyond myself.
I believed that everything hard could be beaten.
South to Sunshine
When my husband called in February to tell me that his work changed and we had to leave Sweden unexpectedly, I felt like I failed. Eventually we decided to move to Australia to be nearer to my family. It was a relief. It was sunshine. The peonies had bloomed for a second time in Stockholm in June, again without any work or effort from us. The bushes were gone and the cold had begun to set in when we packed up and drove away on September 1, 2015. It felt like God had looked at my life and judged that I couldn’t make a life in Sweden work. It didn’t make any sense, and it was not true, but I could not shake the sense of failure.
Last year after my first attempt at clearing the garden in Melbourne, I decided to try again. But this time instead of hope, I just felt silly. I had wasted my time and my friend’s efforts before. Why would it be different this year? I had no answer, but the overgrown garden stared at me daily and it reminded me of what was left to do. It always would.
She came over again. We weeded again. The patch of brown earth sat empty again.
How do we know to do things differently the next time? I don’t know, but I know that, on a day full of winter Melbourne sunshine, I was dreaming of a front yard full of peonies.
I drove to a plant nursery. It was empty, so the man who owned the store had time to talk. He did not have peony roots.
“What kind of garden do you have?” he asked. “Peonies need lots of sun, but they also need the ground to get very cold in the winter, colder than it gets here in Melbourne.”
He went on to tell me that when people look for plants, they plant what they want without considering what kind of garden they have. He told me he could order peony roots in a few weeks, but I heard what he was saying.
The peonies I saw in the Instagram feeds of gardeners in Pennsylvania had roots in frozen ground. The ground would never freeze in my part of Melbourne.
I told him our garden was partially shaded and that it would get more sun in the summer. It was winter then, so the plants needed to be able to survive the cold. I’m a good weeder, I told him, but I’m still learning how to care for plants.
He pointed me toward the azaleas and hydrangeas. An azalea bush is humble, somewhat round with small, sturdy oval leaves. There is nothing glamorous about it. If you walked past a garden, the glossy green leaves will blend in with other bushes. I bought four plants and, as I drove away, I knew I would not have a garden of peonies.
I knew one day maybe I would become a gardener who knows how to transplant and grow from a cutting or seed. Perhaps there were complex flower gardens in my future and subsistence vegetable farming. But however competent I became, I knew then that I could not make peonies grow where they cannot grow.
You cannot make something live by the force of your will.
I brought the four azalea seedlings home and dug holes in the ground. The hole needed to be the same size as the temporary pot. I sprinkled some slow-releasing plant food in the hole and around the plant, I coaxed the plant out of the pot and put it in the ground, filling in the sides with compost. Then I watered it and kept watering for a few days.
In a month, the tiny flowers appeared. Blossoms covered the shrub all over, like uneven pink popcorn. Six months later they are a little bigger, still humble and somewhat plain, but the azaleas live and so do I.
Cover image by Annie Spratt.