Lessons from a Lost Garden
Written by
Jill Jepson
May 2014
Written by
Jill Jepson
May 2014

I bought my first house many years ago. It was a modest bungalow, with three miniature bedrooms, no closets, and the steepest stairs I’ve ever seen in a house—built long before the city strengthened its building codes.

The yards also left much to be desired. Front and back, they were stretches of mud and weeds. But I was not unhappy with them. To me, that Earth was an empty book ready to be filled.

I went to work. For five long, hard summers, I dug, planted, and watered. I made trip after trip to local nurseries, returning with roses and chives, sedum and daylilies, phlox, coneflowers, catmint, hostas, local grasses and all types of shrubs. I ordered trumpet vines online and struggled home with heavy bags of wood chips and rocks from home-and-garden stores. My dad gave me a pond kit as a gift, and I dug the pond, brought home stones to surround it, and filled it with water plants.

I had never gardened before, and I had no idea what I was doing. I made one mistake after the other, and I was surprised how difficult it was to create an attractive landscape. I also battled a neighbor who was continually calling the city on me because, without a nice square of lawn (which I refused to plant), it was next to impossible to keep ahead of weeds until my garden was completely filled in.

Yet, after all those years, I ended up with a lavish landscape. It was wild and strange and rather unkempt, but I loved it and was proud of it.

After I got married, my husband and I bought a new house and rented out my old one. Our new home was much larger and nicer than my first. The yard was already landscaped—and far more attractive than the crazy-quilt garden I'd planted at my old house. Still, I always carried a torch for my old garden.

Just this week, I went to visit my old house for the first time in years—having left the business of the rental to a manager. To my shock, there was no sign—not even a vestige—of my garden. Gone were my mints and ferns, my prairie flowers and juniper, the lamb’s ears my friend Gayle gave me, and the beautiful, enormous Joe-Pye weed I had loved. My pond was filled in. My trumpet vines and periwinkle were nowhere to be seen. Even my raspberry bushes had been torn out. In the place of all of them was a straggly lawn.

Through the years of renting out my house, I imagined my garden growing and filling in. While I thought my tenants might pull up a section to make room for some vegetables or add some plants of their own, I had an image in my mind of my lavish garden as enduring.

But nothing endures. It is a maxim of zen and an axiom that many consider the key to a happy life. Most unhappiness comes from attaching ourselves to things we imagine will never end.

And so today, I’m stepping back from my disappointment to think not about what I lost when my garden was destroyed, but what I gained as a writer and a person from creating it. None of this will be new to my gardening friends, who have long understood these lessons. But they were new to me.

Planting my garden taught me about hard physical workAs a writer, I have spent most of my life with my nose in a book or a pen in my hand. My garden forced me to work outside, carry heavy loads, dig holes, get dirty, and sweat. Every writer in the world needs to do all of those things at some time in their life.

Planting my garden taught me to let go of control. Time and again, I put delicate plants into the soil, tended them with care, watched, and waited. Sometimes they grew so fast, I was astonished. Other times, they died quick, unfortunate deaths. Sometimes they seemed to die, only to appear the following year. I found planting a lot like sending my writing out into the world. I never knew what was going to happen, and, although I could help things along, the results were largely out of my hands.

Planting my garden taught me about the natural world. I learned more about soils, leaves, berries, shade, sunlight, rain, frost, worms, butterflies, and bees in the five summers I worked on my garden than in all the science classes I ever had.

Planting my garden taught me to expect the unexpected. I never knew what was going to come up in the spring—half the time I couldn’t remember what I had planted where. After I planted a Joe Pye weed in one corner of my yard, I discovered another the following year all the way on the other side, then three more the year after that—all in different places. You experienced gardeners out there are no doubt saying, “Really? You didn’t expect that?” No, I didn’t.

Planting my garden taught me new words, home remedies, and folklore. I learned wonderful herb names like nodding stickseedself-heal, and mad-dog skullcap. I learned that some people apply burdock root to dry skin, that asters were once used to make wine, and that chickweed is full of ascorbic acid and calcium.

Planting my garden brought the cycle of growth and decay into stark relief for me, and losing my garden was just another reminder that nothing lasts. As I now plant bee balm, monkshood, and false salvia in the small, uncultivated areas of my current yard, I remind myself constantly, that this is just a temporary measure. That someday, the garden, the house, my writing, and I myself will be gone. Yet, more gardens will grow, more books will be written, and the Universe will continue.

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  • Yehudit Reishtein

    When we moved out of the country, we sold the house we had lived in for over 40 years, with its 40 year old organic garden. We had grown vegetables, herbs, vines trees, and flowers (including 1000 daffodils). The garden kept us busy many months of the year, and supplied many wonderful foods all year round. Our current "garden" is 6 plants on a baker's rack on my balcony, which supplies us with small amounts of mint and parsley. I miss the old garden, yes, but that stage of my life is over. The garden has moved on to a new owner (who probably paved over the daffodils and daylilies for a parking lot) and what is left of it would probably be unrecognizable. But gardens change as part of the natural cycle of life, and even if it were still under my stewardship, it would no doubt look very different than it did 5 or 10 years ago. But then, I do too.

    But I still have the memories of the work and the pleasure, both of which are rewards for what I had invested.

    Just like writing--the memories of the work of writing and the pleasures of publishing last our whole live.

  • Jill Jepson

    Thanks, Patti Hall. It's nice to meet someone else who has suffered the loss of a garden--or in your case, gardens! It is definitely a source of grief. And the way out of that grief seems to be creating a new garden.

  • Jill Jepson

    Hi Heather. You're most welcome! I'm so pleased you enjoyed my post. I get inspiration from nature, too, and writing this made me realize I need to spend more time there!

  • Patti Hall

    Wonderful post. As I fall into the garden mode, I can't help but miss the last two gardens that I had to leave behind. I have to keep nudging myself out of sadness for gardens past, while learning to fully enjoy the new palette that I have to work with. Thank you for the enjoyable reminder.


  • Heather Bell

    I loved your lessons learned here!  And thank you for sharing them. I find such inspiration from nature.  bellesbazaar-heather.BlogSpot.com

  • Jill Jepson

    You're most welcome, Suzanne. I'm glad you liked my post!

  • Suzanne Arthur

    You've written really well about something dear to my heart. Thank you so much. 

  • Jill Jepson

    Hi Juliana. "Continual experiment" is certainly the right phrase!

  • Jill Jepson

    Hi Isobel. Thank you so much for your comment. I have to admit, that detachment was hard to come by. I'm still working at it. Writing that post was part of my way of getting there.

  • Thank you so much for this. I gave a city garden that I love. When I see my neighbours putting hot tubs or paving over earth, my heart contracts. I do not share your detachment although I know it is the true path. Many of my blog posts come from my garden. At this point in my life, I would be lost without it. Isobel in Montreal

  • Juliana Lightle

    I live in the country in the Panhandle of Texas.  If the deer and bunnies don't get it or the usual drought, you know it is a keeper and even then, sometimes, the plant simply disappears or dies.  Gardening here is a continual experiment.  

  • Jill Jepson

    That must have been pretty painful, Carolyn! Yes, it is so different gardening in the warm climes. As a native Californian, I've never stopped being struck by how short a period of time we have here to grow things in Minnesota!

  • I have had the same experience. Put in many flower gardens in a home we owned in New Jersey. Sold the house on the strength of three season color on three sides.  A year later we drove by and the front garden was full of weeds. It was all I could do not to hop out of the car and tidy up my beloved flower bed. Ultimately I had to let it all go and concentrate on growing my beautiful flowers and veggies in my desert home. Just picked a big flower bouquet for the table for guests tonight.  The lesson I learned by my 10 years in the NE was the resting of the earth during the winter and the resurgence in spring.  In the SW where I live, we garden year round. It was kind of nice to have a break.