My Grandmother’s Garden

– Posted in: Design, From my files

Today is my grandma’s 98th birthday. I originally wrote this essay for a Fine Gardening contest (which I didn’t win), and decided to revise it and share it with you in honor of her special day.

It’s funny how gardens are such emotional things. You enter some gardens and feel as though you are in someone’s living room, the kind of living room where they keep the plastic on the lampshades to keep them from getting dirty, and you are afraid to move for fear of breaking a knick-knack. Then there are the gardens that speak to something deep within yourself, that open up the hidden places inside you that bear witness: Yes, this is truly a garden. And it’s a place that draws you to itself; you want to go back again and again. But understanding what it is about a garden that creates that sense of recognition, of kinship, almost, is another thing altogether.

It wasn’t until I was an adult, attempting to create my own garden, that I realized how deeply my experience of my grandmother’s garden influenced my idea of what a garden should be. But of course, no one called it a garden, even though there were ornamental plants in it. We always called it the yard. The house itself was built close to the street; the yard was primarily to the right and the rear of the house. The entire property was enclosed by a hedge probably three to four feet high. There was a gate in the rightmost side of the hedge, allowing easy access to the neighbors. The main lawn, bordered on the left by the driveway and the right by this hedge, was the location of many family reunions and happy memories. My grandfather had built a brick patio and barbecue grill, and various male members of the extended family took their turns cooking everything from hamburgers to London broil. Meanwhile, the women were in the kitchen, frying peppers and onions and preparing other dishes. We children wove in and out of them, taking in the gossip and talk of politics, until the food was ready to eat. Eventually, the grownups settled into lawn chairs in the dappled shade. The great-uncles slipped us sips of their drinks.

When all of that got boring, the children explored. About midway back, the property was divided by the garage to the left and a very tall conifer to the right. The conifer was the anchor to a flower bed that curved toward the garage. The effect was to partially hide the back half of the property, lending a sense of mystery and surprise that I was very sensitive to as a child. The stone path leading from the brick patio and following the right side of the garage made the lure of adventure irresistible. If you followed the path you would find my great-grandfather’s vegetable garden. It was small as vegetable gardens go (after all, he was in his nineties), but I have a memory of him standing in it hoeing, and of eating fried squash blossoms that had come from it. Further down this path you arrived at that most mysterious and ominous place, the chicken house. I was not permitted to go here without an adult companion, which made it forbidding enough. Inside, it was dark and full of Dangerous Junk, and even with an adult I never went in. Instead, behind the chicken house, in the furthermost reaches of the property, were the neglected remains of a berry patch and a grape arbor. It may be that my great-grandfather tended these plants in his “younger” days, but by the time I was old enough to remember, no one did anything with them except to glean the occasional raspberry when they were in season. Still, the sense of going somewhere completely “other,” where a sense of danger loomed (who knew *what* could come out of that chicken house, even with the door shut?), where the rewards were meager but certainly sweet, was very strong.

Retracing your steps out of the chicken house back to my great-grandfather’s vegetable garden, you would come to a fork. The one fork led back to the patio; the other fork led to the other side of the house, the leftmost side if facing it from the street. This mysterious path was a narrow alleyway serving no other purpose than to provide access to the front, but beyond the hedge I could hear a vicious (to my mind) barking dog. For me, it was the height of bravery to tread that path. I usually did so only to follow my far more intrepid cousins, hiding my fear of the dog in order to be privy to whatever feats of daredevilry they had in mind. However, I was most likely to visit my favorite part of Grandma’s yard when my cousins weren’t around. If, upon reaching the vegetable garden from the patio, you looked to your right, you would see a dwarf apple tree snuggled up against that tall conifer. This tree was the only tree of my acquaintance that I could successfully climb. Because it was hidden from the main lawn by the conifer, it provided yet another venue for daydreaming, vanquishing fears, and accomplishing previously unattainable feats.

Josephine LaFemina, 1991Though I am far from achieving my goals, it is this sense of mystery, adventure, and even not-too-dangerous danger that I hope to create in my garden, not only for myself, but also for my children. A path–or even better, several paths–is key to creating this experience. That a path exists gives a sense of safety. You know you won’t get lost or swallowed up as long as you can see the path. The fact that you can’t see where a path leads is what lends it the air of mystery, what gives you a little tingle of excitement. And being a child in Grandma’s yard taught me that.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow. . . . Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

~Adrian Higgins in The Washington Post, November 6, 2013

Comments on this entry are closed.

commonweeder June 12, 2014, 7:37 am

There are no gardens or paths in my childhood, but I do remember what we called a mulberry bush (surely not its real name, and hiding under its weeping branch at the house of my aunt and uncle. Now I have a weeping birch and sometimes sit in the privacy of its weeping branches.

Kathy Purdy June 12, 2014, 4:30 pm

There is such a thing as a weeping mulberry, so perhaps that was the correct name. And I do think childhood memories influence our gardening aesthetic.

Kathy's mother Marie July 9, 2005, 7:16 pm

My mother and father bought that house when I was in college. We had always lived in rented apartments and to have our very own home was an impossible dream come true. The house itself had three doors, a basement, an attic – many places to go and many ways to get there. The windows over the kitchen sink looked out on the side yard.
Most of the property was to one side, and in the back as others have mentioned. The yard was divided into sections by a grape arbor that ran from the driveway to the neighbor’s yard. The section behind the grape arbor was a private area. The property came to a point in the back, already narrow at the cement chicken coop with paths on both sides leading to the final point where there were some wild berry bushes. A weeping willow on the front section was another grace note; a gingko hovered over the driveway near the side door. Both the house and the garage were close to the property line with enough space for yet another pathway.
Because it was spacious it was a good place for family get-togethers on both sides of the family. My mother’s father, Pop, lived with my parents and his birthday in the winter was the occasion of her siblings congregating. My father’s brothers and sister, neices and nephews, and occasional cousins came in the summer. My father had laid the bricks for the patio and the long special design fireplace. London broil was his specialty served on rolls with fried peppers. One of the uncles brought clams. Those gatherings were long remembered by everyone.
Pop lived to be 100 and was active in the vegetable garden till about 98.

Marianne Hardy July 1, 2005, 11:08 am

Was the apple tree that produced three varieties not mentioned. I think of super soft grass, very cool to the touch.Oh everything that has been said and more.I remember picking berries and sitting down eating a bowl full with unsweetened yogurt. There was great mystery and intrique. There were distinct smells even from the garage. It seemed around every corner was a secret place and possibilities of new places to explore.And a cesspool lid that seemed more like an entrance to a dungeon. I can’t recall a single flower I have to admit but more like the yard was seperated into seperate places and it was as if each room had a different mood and a different story to tell with theWilliam Tell overture in the background( that’s probably overkill) but surely there was something about evry corner of that garden that evoked all our imaginations that as adult I too am trying to recreate the magic I found there and simple pleasures I enjoy such as berry picking may have originated in that yard

rosemarie hanson May 24, 2005, 7:57 pm

I went to Grandma LaFemina’s house with Gerry and Louise after Grandma O’Keefe’s funeral, and I can tell you, it was so much smaller than I remember it.
Does anyone remember mint? Marianne and I were at the farmer’s market in Watertown and both smelled some apple mint and thought it smelled like grandma’s mint. So, of course, I have apple mint growing in my garden now. I also have some 30 berry bushes, and several fruit trees planted, in an attempt to duplicate that apple tree, that my children will have something to climb (Henry gets his cast off in two weeks, by the way). My big question is, what were the cocktails that the men were drinking?

Jacqueline May 23, 2005, 2:23 pm

Thank you for sharing your heart warming story. I just recently became interested in gardening and I feel strangely pulled to try to recreate some of the same things that my grandmother(and her mother) had in their garden at their 100 acre Charleston, Maine farm. I have the hollyhocks and am now trying to find out what vine grew up and covered the porch. It had little purple flowers and came back every year as my mother remembers it. Thanks again. I enjoyed your memories so much. Sincerely, Jacqueline

Laurie Gano May 22, 2005, 8:09 pm

What a very evocative description! I also love paths to hidden places, my paternal grandfather built a wonderfully mysterious path down a steep hill to the beach below their house on Bainbridge Island. Part of it was a tunnel through the thick bushes. However, my strongest garden memory is of the scent of snapdragons in my maternal grandfather’s tiny trailer park flower bed in Portland. I still love that scent.

Kathy Purdy May 20, 2005, 7:34 am

There were two fig trees, one on each side of the back stoop. To my mind they were more like bushes than trees. The “stoop” was steps molded out of concrete with a half wall, sort of like a conrete handrail, integrated into it. When I first began voraciously reading garden magazines, I read an article about figs that made me realize they weren’t considered hardy in Grandma’s area, so I asked her about it. She agreed that they weren’t supposed to be hardy; she knew of other people on Long Island, but they grew there with no added protection from her for as long as she lived there. I guess it was the perfect microclimate.And yes, the back door did lead into the laundry room, a very cramped and awkward space that children were not encouraged to visit.

john May 20, 2005, 2:00 am

I too loved to explore the grounds and buildings, the cookouts and the cousins coming in the middle of the night and camping in the yard.

No one has mentioned the fig tree just outside the back door. But now I cannot think where the back door lead into? Maybe a laundry room?

I suggest that the next person who travels to NYC make a side trip with a video camera to re-visit the secret garden and give us an update. I am sure it is not the same but some of what we remember must remain.

The joys of a lost childhood. I cannot image giving my children the freedom to travel the yard and grounds like I had as a youth.

JOK/Dad/Granpa May 19, 2005, 3:30 pm

he was at the top of an 8′ stepladder pruning the vines. At that time he was 88 years old and arthritic.

Rob I doubt that you visit No Bellmore since the La Feminas moved to Arlington shortly after we moved to Manlius. The cookout menu also included baked fresh clams as well as Italian sausages and chicken. The “london broil” was vcery well aged slabs of beef broiled over charcoal sliced on an angle.,

Rob May 19, 2005, 1:36 pm

I guess because I was a younger tot, I don’t remember nearly the detail you do, but do remember the adventures. I seem to remember going out into the yard to watch fireworks up in the sky, maybe 4th of July? Being up past my bedtime probably.

I do remember the cookouts and everyone gathered ’round the BBQ area. Like cooking the evening’s meal was the most important thing in the world, probably everyone giving their opinions on how things should be cooked or the fire tended.

I can picture more details about inside the house, a string for turning on and off the hall light that i used to try with all my might to jump and touch. I remember the TV… SOOOO LOUD.. yet Grandma sleeping through it. I couldn’t believe how someone could sleep through that racket, although I thing I myself have come close to mastering that today!

I was always scared of the small winding staircase, behind a small door, that went up into the attic. I imagined what monsters and things must be up there to capture me and tie me up, or eat me!

Like Trish, I wish I had been older and had known Pop and all the other relatives. But certainly it was a very special house and special place to visit because of the people that lived there, our grandparents!

Trish McClain May 19, 2005, 11:17 am

Dear Kathleen,

I miss grandma and grandpa’s yard even to this day. As you say, there were always little corners to explore and places where you could experience serenity.

As you mentioned, me and my brothers were not content to experience the yard from ground level. One of our favorite pasttimes was climbing on top of the garage. And what a garage it was! It was large enough to fit an industrial sized dump truck, and was separate from the house. Since it stood between the house and the further reaches of the yard, it heightened the sense of privacy and quietude.

Somehow the abandoned garden added a sense of ancient, abandoned ruins. It made me wonder what kind of a man pop was when he was younger. I would picture him in my head tending the now forsaken garden. I would like to have known him as a younger man. The photos of him smiling give me the sense of a hardy, earthy soul. It’s this sense of what a real Italian is that causes me to be so incredibly offended by commercials for the Olive Garden Restaurant Chain.

As for the chicken coop, I really don’t recall it. But I seem to remember some kind of potting shed. Could it be that they were one in the same?

I have lots of grand ideas for my own yard, including the addition of a berm alongside the sidewalk on top of which I would like to plant blueberries and other flowering shrubs. We live on a busy corner lot with a smallish backyard, so there is little sense of privacy and retreat. Now that I’ve read your homage to grandma’s garden, I think I know where that desire for serenity comes from. I like quiet, outdoor places where your mind can wander and your soul feel refreshed. Where there is suprise, mystery and a feeling of ease of spirit. Maybe one day, I can create that in my own yard. I have to accept that it will take many years to achieve.

Thanks for writing about the garden. It has refreshed my own memories of a cherished childhood experience that has probably shaped my life more than I’ll ever really know.

Chan Stroman May 19, 2005, 9:20 am

This is so evocative, Kathy. I’ve never been in a garden like the one you have described here…but now I feel I have. Gardens are all too often described in terms of outdoor “interior decorating”—and I love glossy color pictures and pretty plants as much as anyone else—but it’s often very hard to put across what it means to experience a particular garden. Thank you for doing it here.

Kathy Purdy May 19, 2005, 7:54 am

I also had the sense of rooms, but in writing this I had to focus on one element, and I think the paths were a stronger element for me. It doesn’t surprise me that you didn’t know you weren’t supposed to go in the chicken coop; you were never as concerned about “the rules” as I was, and, being the oldest, I was probably escorted there with an adult holding my hand the first time I went. Having been told–once–not to go in there, I would have regarded it as an inviolable dictate for all of time.

My understanding was that the house was built in the 1930s, and if Grandma and Grandpa weren’t the original owners, there at least hadn’t been many owners before them. In the first ten years of my life, there was still one neighbor who raised chickens. I think it was fairly common to keep a few chickens when the neighborhood was built.

You’re right, I left out “the big pine tree.” Originally that was also a tree that I could climb, but after our cousins climbed high enough up it to alarm the adult population, several lower limbs were removed, with the intent of rendering it unclimbable. Having seen one cousin shimmy up a flagpole on another occasion, I have no doubt that they managed to go up two stories in that tree, and I wonder if cutting off those limbs deterred them any.

My biggest regret is that I didn’t go back there with Gerry when we were “in the neighborhood” for our other grandmother’s funeral.

Jim OK May 18, 2005, 9:55 pm

It’s interesting that to you it’s all about paths. To me it’s all about spaces. Outdoor rooms and indoor rooms. Private spaces and public spaces. I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to go in the chicken coop. I went in there all the time. It was spooky, but it added a dimension of time. Was this Pop’s chicken coop, or did it remain from a time when the entire neighborhood was a farm? What was it like back then? I always had a lot of questions about that place, but I don’t think I ever sought answers. Maybe I preferred the mystery. One space you left out was in front of the house. there was a giant conifer that had lost enough of its lower branches so you could stand up under it. Along with the hedge it made a very cozy little hideout. You could spy on the unknown neighbors who had a swimming pool. Places you can see but not get to are good for a garden, although if you stumble upon them unexpectedly that’s good too. I also liked the dark, greasy black insides of the garage. Peoples basements, attics and garages are always more interesting than the more public parts of a home. There’s probably a garden design lesson there too.