Garden Metaphor

By: Megan McCaslin

Megan McCaslin, a former journalist, was introduced to the wonders of gardening by her father. As a child, she wandered…

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The author's exuberant new front garden, with Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) and other grasses, Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas), and California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)

The author’s exuberant new front garden, with Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) and other grasses, Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas), and California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)

I had never thought of my garden as a metaphor for my marriage. Nor as a reflection of my life after divorce. It took my sixteen-year- old son, standing thoughtfully at the curb, looking back and forth, back and forth—between his dad’s garden on the south side, and mine, on the north—to make the connection. Yep, across the street from each other: forgotten but not gone; out of mind, but not out of sight. I’ve heard it all—and much, much worse.

To be fair to me (the offending party who moved so near after the relatively quiet breakup of a twenty-year marriage), I am not directly across the street from my ex’s house. I am across and over—a knight’s move away. But more significantly, I am behind a colorful forest of Echium, Euphorbia, and some startling fuchsia roses that grew unexpectedly from my freedom.

My son’s recent comment revealed an unconscious deliberation in my garden design. Now, I see symbolism everywhere.

“Your garden, it’s so . . . colorful and exuberant, like it’s on steroids. Then look at Dad’s: it’s so different.”

“Yes,” I replied. “Dad’s is quietly elegant. And it is colorful, but in a more subtle way. Mine is flamboyant; you’re right. But it’s also elegant, in a weird way. But they’re both beautiful.”

To myself I thought . . . how perfect a metaphor is that?

The author’s garden seen from her former garden. Photographs by RGT

The author’s garden seen from her former garden. Photographs by RGT

Garden Number One

In 1991, when my husband and I designed our front garden on a wide, quiet street in Palo Alto, we decided to ignore the existing landscape, except for the driveway and a wall too expensive to change. We dug up the lawn, moved the three Australian tree ferns, all in a row—one, two, three—to another part of the garden, and extracted a shaggy bottlebrush tree. The house and bare front yard looked so bad to some that one neighbor, mistaking me for the gardener, drove by and yelled “tell them they ought to burn the whole thing down.”

A low-maintenance, native-looking garden seemed to be most compatible with our 1936 Streamline Moderne house. We spent hours placing eight young olive trees, the structural element of our plan. It was an excruciating process: place one, back into the street, observe, return, place another. Move one an inch or two, twist another so the branches spread evenly. Strive for perfection. I was trying to learn to be as thoughtful as he was, to make each action count, to acknowledge that planting a tree had long-term consequences, which I then only partially realized. I participated in the placing of the trees, but it was not a natural ritual for me. Not that I’m a sloppy, unthinking person. But I probably would have done it intuitively, with the belief that nothing is permanent, and it would be easy enough to change the layout by repositioning a tree.

He was right, of course—his eye sublime. The olive trees looked perfect as they grew and balanced the wide front yard. People stopped to see the river of blue Lithodora diffusa snaking through a low plane of Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), bearded iris, euphorbia, and salvia. It was a unique front yard, a muted and sophisticated alternative to the lawns so revered in our neighborhood. We didn’t think of ourselves as pioneers. We just liked the look: the intense blues, the ice-cool ones, the purples, the gray, and the surprise shout-out of lime yellow euphorbias.

A New Chapter

A grove of olives (Olea europaea) give structure to the author’s former garden

A grove of olives (Olea europaea) give structure to the author’s former garden

And then we got divorced. And, in purchasing the nearby, 1937 house with forty years of deferred maintenance to contend with, I was again faced with a lawn. This time, a dying ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), two white birch trees (Betula pendula), and a copper beech (Fagus sylvatica, Atropurpurea Group) presented an additional challenge. The city, in recent years, has provided incentives to homeowners who replaced thirsty gardens with natives. But I was too early to be inspired by the discounts: I simply wanted something completely different.

I was getting battered by family, friends, and mere acquaintances who criticized my move. I didn’t always do well with their cruelty. It hurt. But I believed in what I was doing, for my son’s sake. I realized, though, that adding distance between the homes, even if only visually, was probably a good idea. Now, even on the bleakest day of winter, with as little foliage as there’s going to be, I cannot see my ex’s house at all, unless I lean out a side window and contort my upper body in a way no fifty-four-year-old should do. So I don’t.

A meadow-like carpet of flowers blooms in spring in the author’s former garden; highlights are blue Lithodora diffusa and white Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus)

A meadow-like carpet of flowers blooms in spring in the author’s former garden; highlights are blue Lithodora diffusa and white Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus)

At a Sunset magazine event, I heard nurseryman John Greenlee speak about his passion for grasses. Soon, he was surveying my front yard and giving me some ideas, the best of which was to turn my straight concrete driveway into a curve and add a small path from the driveway to the brick walkway that leads from sidewalk to front door. I never saw John again, but his driveway suggestion is the key to my magical garden. The new alignment created space, on the far side, in which I could plant two specimens of Arbutus ‘Marina’, as well as several salvias and pride of Madeira (Echium candicans). This wall of foliage completely blocks the view to my old house. The resulting psychological barrier is surprisingly sturdy. Out of sight, really can be out of mind.

I bordered the decomposed granite driveway with pavers so that the whole effect resembles a country lane—albeit a brief one—leading to a hideaway at the end. Without the original “landing-strip” driveway that went straight to the curb, the house and garden feel separate from the street and what lies across.

If I had felt confident enough, I would have copied my former garden. I loved the look and it had done so well with so little effort. After all, why shouldn’t I copy my own design? But I thought that would add insult to the injury of my being here at all, so I conceded that an Italian front yard wasn’t in my future. I nervously planted three olives, to echo the olives there and in other neighbors’ front gardens, and to create a little continuity on the block. But no olive grove.

The author's new garden leans out over the sidewalk

The author’s new garden leans out over the sidewalk

A Full and Exuberant Garden

For the rest of the yard, I chose more arbutus, for a total of six. Against the wall, which is back about forty-five feet from the street and encloses an inner courtyard, I planted more pride of Madeira, Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), lavender, and Euphorbia characias subsp. wolfenii as the basic foundation plantings. Interspersed were a few lavender cotton (Santolina rosmarinifolia), society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea), fleabane, lithodora, creeping thyme, and many kinds of grasses. I primarily wanted grasses that moved in the wind, like Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima). As some of the grasses grew into more formidable, less graceful clumps, I’ve transplanted them elsewhere. For color, I wanted yellows, purples, and blue, with a bit of drama performed by the occasional heritage rose in a strong contrasting hue.

The curving driveway allowed for the planting of two Arbutus ‘Marina’, to the right, that help screen the view of her former garden

The curving driveway allowed for the planting of two Arbutus ‘Marina’, to the right, that help screen the view of her former garden

Even at its weakest moments, my new garden’s whimsy demands attention. The colors may be muted but the variety of textures and heights, and the contrast of firm stolid trees with fluttering grasses, distinguishes the space and sets it apart from anything nearby. Spring brings the thrilling shock of explosive blue echiums mimicked by the aggressive rockets of chartreuse euphorbia. It is a garden that makes me smile, even as I know some think it odd, unkempt, and overly busy. I often catch people just standing dead center in front of my garden, their heads tilted, trying to decide whether they like it or not. I can almost hear them saying it’s too crowded, and I agree. I’m constantly thinning and editing, evolving even as I’m cutting back.

My garden is me: clearly defined by borders and paths, and some modicum of balance and design, but willing to be different and try something new. A little out of control some might say, but, if you look carefully, not at all. It propels itself from a plan that’s not immediately obvious. Colorful, cheerful, a little primitive, it leans outward beyond its edges, it bends the rules. My garden stretches itself, reaching for connection and response.

It isn’t really a quiet garden, but it’s a peaceful one.

And it is exuberant. Or, as my son said, “It’s so powerful.”

Indeed.