This spring, as I combed over my garden with the patience and curiosity of someone who has literally nowhere to go due to a pandemic, I was surprised at all the plants I thought I had killed the previous year that were now miraculously thriving. I had been reading Jamaica Kincaid’s garden essays, thinking of how she described her vexation and wonder in her home garden. Now, I looked with wonder on the lush green foliage of the columbines, which last year I had mourned, and a premier blueberry bush whose leaves had been burned to a crisp at the end of last August.
“A pleasing, well-grown garden reflects the personality of its owners,” writes Donald Wyman, author of America’s Garden Book. Kincaid quotes him often in her essays. I’m not sure my garden is well-grown, and if it were, I’m not sure which of my personality traits it would reflect. In fact, the word “owner,” makes me uncomfortable. My garden exists—thrives, even—despite my haphazard approach. It is composed of plants that I picked up from neighbors and friends, seeds that I threw lazily over soil, genetically modified hybrids, and a prized selection of heirloom perennials from the Eudora Welty garden in Jackson, Mississippi.
Last year, for whatever reason, the thought of dragging out the hose on a hot summer’s day felt too daunting, even futile. I let the flowers in the front beds (which are in full sun) wither and crisp, even as the pineapple mint I had stupidly planted two years earlier threatened to take over entirely. And yet, due to the magical qualities of central Mississippi’s fertile soil, generous rainfall, and mild winters, the neglected plants survived. As the days of quarantine stretched on, I marveled like a proud mother at how the daylilies were filling out, their buds opening to reveal fleshy blooms the color of a tequila sunrise, at how the cone-shaped flowers of the buddleia butterfly bushes now tickled the underside of the gutters. I squatted in the grass and peered at the zinnia sprouts and black-eyed Susan seedlings, descendants of last year’s plants gone to seed.
The persistence of my garden reminded me of the bois d’arc tree (sometimes called osage-orange, bodark, or hedge apple) in Eudora Welty’s garden-heavy novel Losing Battles, known to the novel’s characters as “Billy Vaughn’s switch.” The tree, now large and sprawling, originated decades earlier when old Billy Vaughn stuck his switch in the ground and forgot about it. “‘Come up a hard rain, and the next thing they knew, it’d sprouted,’” the novel’s Uncle Curtis declares. I can’t think of a better metaphor for gardening in Mississippi than a neglected branch that transforms into a tree. For better or for worse, plants just grow here, a fact which never fails to astonish me.
I grew up in the high desert plains of Denver and its surrounding suburbs. Had Billy Vaughn stuck his switch in the dry prairie fields by my house, it would have quickly withered and turned to dust. For most of my childhood, Colorado was in a drought. Even in non-drought years, the state experiences an average annual precipitation of only 17 inches (compared to Mississippi’s 56). Forest fires are not uncommon. One stray spark from a careless campfire can easily catch a stand of dry, pine beetle-infested trees on fire, and soon the whole mountainside will be in flames. I have vivid memories of one particularly bad forest fire (rumored to have been started by a deranged woman who was burning her ex-lover’s letters), and the way the smoke filled my lungs and stung my eyes for days on end, how the light looked rosy pink, and flecks of ash floated in the cloudless sky.
Water was scarce, and so it was precious, something we were told to use sparingly, collecting it in buckets while the shower heated up, conserving it with low-flow toilets and washing machines. You could get a ticket for running your sprinklers on an off-day or installing a rain barrel on your gutters. Perhaps this is why, even after seven years of living here, I find Mississippi’s torrential downpours so unsettling, as if the ground will wash away, taking my garden with it. But unlike me, the plants seem unfazed by heavy rains. They are vigorous, their taproots deep. Like Billy Vaughn’s switch, they persist.
When the pandemic struck, anyone who owned a pothos plant suddenly seemed to catch the gardening bug. My friend Liz built five raised beds in her backyard for vegetables, and even dug some rows for flowers. I went over to her house with cuttings of red yarrow and pineapple mint, and we stood six feet apart, staring at the new beds filled with dark, rich Hutto’s bedding mix. I thought, again, of Jamaica Kincaid’s garden essays. She writes that “An integral part of a gardener’s personality—indeed a substantial amount of a gardener’s world—is made up of the sentiment expressed by the two words ‘To Come.’”
As Liz and I looked at those beds, we were thinking in terms of days and weeks, even months ahead, when her kitchen counters would be overflowing with cucumbers and peppers and tomatoes. That is, if everything went right. To come. Those two little words were in everyone’s mouths. What would life in a pandemic look like in the days and weeks ahead? (Back then, we were still measuring our new reality in days and weeks.) Though Liz and I could imagine the futures of the still un-germinated beds of flowers and herbs and vegetables, we had no blueprint for what our new lives would be like.
I, too, had started spending more time in my yard—digging, transplanting, potting, weeding. I installed a pollinator house, then a bird feeder, then a hummingbird feeder, then a bird bath. I paid a friend who owns a landscaping business to install a brick border around the front beds (where before I had just used branches and logs). I began documenting the changes in my garden, filming Instagram stories of new seedlings, blooms, and the various insects I noticed crawling or flying around the yard. I nicknamed these mini video series “garden tours.” At first, I felt self-conscious about sharing my little patch of garden with the world, until a friend who lives in Minnesota commented these garden tours give me life!!! Every hobbyist was taking to the internet with their sourdough bread starters, their new embroidery hoops, their pickling projects. I was no different.
In his posthumously published essay “Why We Need Gardens,” Oliver Sacks writes that “In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.” Though he doesn’t know exactly how nature has a healing effect on our brains—that it does is undeniable. “Biophilia,” Sacks writes, “the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage, and tend nature, is also deeply instilled in us.”
For many of us, enjoying our natural world as it is is not enough. We are innately designed to interact with it, to tend to it, to manage it, to control it. And yet this impulse makes me uneasy. I find myself pushing back against any notion of control in the garden. I leave a section of my lawn unmown for the enjoyment of native plants and pollinators, and let my flowers and vegetables go to seed as they would in nature (though, of course nearly all the plants we grow today have been selectively bred for their beauty and/or nutritional value, and thus would not exist were it not for human intervention). I avoid pesticides and herbicides, instead using permaculture techniques that mimic natural ecosystems. I compost food scraps and mulch with leaves, incorporate native plants, and collect rain water. But by definition any garden is an artifice—permaculture is just a more convincing mimicry of nature. Without my time and attention, my shovel and clippers, the flowers would go to seed, the grass and amaranth and plantain and wild violet would reclaim what was once theirs.
When I am in my own garden, I often think of the garden that surrounds the Eudora Welty House, where I work. Now a literary house museum, for 76 years it was the home of the eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. The surrounding garden was designed in 1925 by Eudora’s mother, Chestina, who also founded the Jackson Garden Club, and was visionary in her landscaping methods and ideas. “Borders not beds,” was Chestina’s radical departure from the more rigid designs of the time. She designed her gardens to ebb and flow in organic, rounded shapes with arbors that lead naturally from “room” to “room.” Though Chestina shaped the garden into a made thing, she took her inspiration from nature, creating “deep borders in the light and dark of their natural surround of old pines and hardwoods.”
To build a garden is to build a world. When Eudora reflected on her memories of working in the garden with her mother, she drew parallels to her experience writing fiction: “If work hadn’t proved it real, it would have been hallucination; in this sense gardening is akin to writing stories.” And yet, unlike writing and publishing a book, making a garden is much like building a sand castle—it is an ephemeral thing. Jamaica Kincaid calls a garden “the most useless of creations . . . Time is its enemy.”
My mother never showed any interest in gardening. Occasionally, she would buy a cactus on impulse at the grocery store and put it in the kitchen windowsill. Within months, the cactus would inevitably die—either from under- or over-watering. “I can never keep plants alive!” she would say, throwing up her hands. Around our suburban home, the landscaping was mostly what could be called xeriscaping, though there was very little thought or planning that went into it. Aside from patches of grass in the front and back yards, there was mostly lava rock and stone and a few drought-tolerant shrubs. Both my mother and stepfather worked busy, full-time jobs, and neither cared much about landscaping. “If only we lived in a place with no lawn,” I often heard my mother say. She dreamed about one day moving to a downtown loft apartment. Hortophilia was not an impulse they understood. And yet, they both cared deeply about nature. They would often take my brother and me camping in the mountains, or on hikes in the foothills. In the summers, we would go on road trip to national parks. Nature was not something we appreciated in our backyard. Nature was a destination.
Much of what I know about gardening and growing flowers, I learned from my stepmother. She was a master manipulator, which in many ways made her a fantastic gardener. Her aesthetic control extended from the house—which she furnished with fussy mahogany antiques and oil paintings—and into the gardens that surrounded the property. After working part-time at a plant nursery for a couple years, she started her own landscaping company. I worked alongside her for three summers, first in the yards of the wealthier families in our neighborhood, and then in the yards of the ultra-rich—people with luxury pools, automated gates, and horse stables. “My clients prefer having white ladies working in their yards to Mexicans who can’t speak English,” she would often say.
Similarly, our suburban lawn became a byproduct of her ambition, filled with lush and thirsty plants that depended entirely on her for their survival. Xeriscape, she said, was ugly. Lava rocks were ugly, too. Unlike Chestina, my stepmother did not attempt to blend her garden into the landscape; she imposed her vision and ownership onto it. Hollyhocks lined our back fence in the summer, and she held up their top-heavy stalks with twine stapled to the wooden slats. Clematis covered an archway by the patio, and climbing roses were trellised against a stretch of fence. She filled the side yard with four o’ clocks (which just so happen to grow in the Welty garden) and installed a gurgling water feature under the juniper bush. In the evening, she would play her favorite “Piano by the Sea” CD on the outdoor stereo while we ate dinner on the back patio in our dry, land-locked homeland, sitting quietly as the sky darkened and the bats began to flicker across the yard.
I can still picture my stepmother with her blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, pacing across the yard in shorts and a bikini top—to catch the eye of any neighbors who happened to be watching. She called this “puttering” in the garden, going from task to task, sometimes calling me over to admire a new flower bud or water feature. Now I find myself puttering in my own garden, noticing how one chore flows organically into another. While watering my potted plants, for example, I notice my lemon ball sedum outgrowing its pot, which leads me to transplant the sedum to the front garden bed as a sort of border, which then reminds me to mulch the bed with leaf litter, and so on, and so forth. Puttering. Hortophilia. These impulses can bring me joy, yet they also remind me of a woman who brought so much pain into my life.
From my stepmother, I learned how to loosen a plant’s roots before transplanting or re-potting. From her, I learned how to pluck the dry heads off the marigolds, then scatter their spiny black and white seeds back over the soil—a task I still do regularly today. I never saw her get frustrated with her garden, or annoyed if a plant’s leaves burned up, or a fungus got the roses. She treated her plants with a tenderness that was completely lacking in the way she treated people. After dinner one night, she might back me into a door frame with her finger in my sternum, spitting rage because I had forgotten to tell her about an upcoming band concert, and in the morning, she would be outside with the hose, watering the flowers, snipping off their dead blooms with the pair of scissors she kept in her back pocket. I wondered what she thought and felt in those moments of garden solitude, as the mourning doves cooed dreamily, dew still glistening on the grass. Did her words replay in her head, the way they echoed in mine? Did she feel bad for making me cry, for treating me like a thing to be controlled and punished? She never admitted fault, only accused the world of messing up her perfect designs—a classic trait, I would later learn, of narcissistic personality disorder. In the garden, the morning after one of her rages, she might turn to me with a smile, and call me over to look at the pink spidery heads of the cleome, just opened in bloom. The odd sense would rise in me that this idyllic beauty was tainted, deceitful somehow, but I kept those thoughts to myself. “It’s beautiful. Just gorgeous,” I would say, as if cleome was the only thing in the world that mattered.
Gardening has always had a darker, more nefarious side. “And what is the relationship between gardening and conquest?” writes Jamaica Kincaid. “Is the conqueror a gardener and the conquered the person who works in the field?” As a gardener in Vermont, and as an Antiguan who knew little about the botany of her homeland, Kincaid uniquely comprehends the relationship between colonialism and gardens. The garden as a modern construction is rooted in the history of conquest. Plants extracted from the “New World” and brought back to Europe were among the first to be given Latinate names by Carolus Linnaeus. There was no one there to dispute him, to take back what was theirs. “This naming of things is so crucial to possession—a spiritual padlock with the key thrown irretrievably away, that it is a murder, an erasing,” Kincaid writes.
In the Welty garden, there is a vigorous climbing rose called Lady Banks, rosa banksiae, which dominates one of the arbors in the lower rose garden. Each spring, Lady Banks explodes into bloom, her flowers a rich, buttery yellow. I have often admired this rose, coveted it, photographed and posted its likeness on Instagram. For the ten days it’s in bloom, you see Lady Banks everywhere in Jackson, its arms draped on fences and crawling up the brick facades of houses. Only after reading Jamaica Kincaid, did I learn the story of its name, how the plant was “discovered” in China by William Kerr, who had been sent on a plant-hunting expedition by the esteemed British botanist, Sir Joseph Banks. Banks, upon seeing the rose, named it after his wife. This same Banks also zeroed in on breadfruit as a cheap, nutritious, and easily propagated food for slaves in the West Indies. Here in Mississippi, Banks’ legacy lives on, the plant’s Chinese origins erased. A spiritual padlock. A reminder that each plant contains within it a history of conquest and defeat, a web as complex and hidden as mycelium.
The garden is a luxury, and we are right to be wary of what luxuries represent. The Welty garden, under the guidance and supervision of historians and landscape experts, is now a carefully preserved historical landscape. The garden tells the story of the women who tended to it—their ingenuity, their grief, and their joy. It does not tell the story of the young African American men who were hired to weed, trim, and prune alongside the Welty women, though it should. Aside from a few mentions of these men in letters and unpublished drafts and stories, their imprint is nearly invisible. Welty’s initiation as a storyteller involves a memory in the garden of her mother and a sixteen-year-old African American boy named J.W. who was hired to help trim the roses.
It was a thundery day and he was shining with sweat as he stood
transfixed from moment to moment and briar to briar as she called
to him again and again exactly what and what not to do. His black
moon face looked out from the Silver Moon flowers and he said—
his was the mourning voice—“I wish there wasn’t a rose in the world.”
. . . I didn’t see that far then, but it might have been the first time I had
consciously placed myself at a story-teller’s remove.
This scene is memorialized in fictional form in Welty’s first novel, Delta Wedding, published in 1946. Today, the Silver Moon rose (not the same plant, but the same heirloom variety) climbs a reproduction of its original trellis in the Welty garden. It blooms every April in fragrant abundance, and the creamy white petals scatter across the grass like a romantic scene in a movie. But what happened to J.W.? We do not know his last name, or whether he had any descendants who might be alive today. Welty understood that the garden was a pleasure for some and a punishment for others. For her, it was a reminder of mortality, a refuge, a repository of memory. These nuances didn’t escape Welty’s attention, but how much of that translates to our understanding of the garden today? As someone who is tasked with telling the story of Eudora Welty’s life to guests who visit from all over the world, is it even possible for me to communicate the complexity of history, violence, and love contained in just one single plant?
In my own garden, I am constantly reliving and defying history. My stepmother’s garden was defined by conquest, by her desire to control, to create an artificial oasis within a parched desert. My own garden is an exercise in relinquishing that control—as much as I am able.
Gardening, says Jamaica Kincaid, is an “exercise in memory,” but it is also an exercise in the present. When I am in the garden, I am fully there—dirt under fingernails, sweat dripping down spine. I am noticing the new leaves on the ferns, and wondering if I should move the hydrangea to a place where it will get more sun. I am inspecting the new ladybug larvae that have emerged under the pecan tree, and pinching the buds on the basil plants to encourage new growth. Only when I pause do I think about the world, about what the future holds, and maybe that—the mental space—is the biggest luxury of all.
Last week, after a long day in the garden, I moved my canvas folding chair to the edge of the carport and sat with my dog on my lap, his paws folded over my knees like a sphinx. The moon was low in the sky and clouds drifted swiftly across its face. My eyes swept over the front garden beds, and I noticed, with pleasure, how the salvia’s indigo flowers played against the soft, silvery foliage of the yarrow. The birds were settling in for the night but still chattering. Then, as though following the cues of some invisible conductor, they fell silent and the crickets started in. As I listened, I could hear the distant drone of motorcycles on the highway. The bats came out, and they were the same bats that I remembered from summers in Colorado. A fire fly hovered nearby, flashing its neon light like a distant satellite. I felt very small and insignificant, and this was a comfort.
 Welty, “Pages omitted from A Writer’s Beginnings notes and tryouts” n.d. [summer 1983], Welty Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
 Welty, “Pages omitted from A Writer’s Beginnings notes and tryouts.”