Hartley Magazine

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The Garden as a Time Machine

Gardens are great for allowing us to live in the present moment. Certain jobs, like weeding, can bring us vitally into the here and now. See weed, pull weed, drop in bucket—repeat. The world has no past or future, only the interval where I wrestle with dock leaves or Russian thistle, intertwined among the roots of my ‘Marmo’ maple (Acer x freemanii ‘Marmo’).

However, the garden can also act as a time machine, moving us backward and forward, through our own lives and those of others.

#85 Time past--your grandmother's pelargonium
Time past – your grandmother’s pelargonium

Sometimes we reach back in time with our choice of plants. Perhaps you’ve nurtured unnamed pelargonium cuttings —your grandmother called them “geraniums”—that you struck long ago from her collection. You keep them going through the winter in the greenhouse or on the sunny kitchen windowsill. You put them outside in summer, knowing the same flowers will appear that she so admired when she was young.

As gardeners, we also look to the future. I planted that ‘Marmo’ maple I’m weeding around as a six-inch shoot. Today at fifteen feet, it’s tall and ungainly, a teenager, all awkward side branches. I will not live to see its future glory. With reasonable care and a bit of luck, it will grow eventually to 45 feet, massive of trunk, unbothered by insects, vivid in fall color, and never shedding weedy maple seedlings. Someday, it will shade one whole section of the garden, sheltering people who aren’t born yet.

#85 In the present--Grapes hang from the outdoor dining room ceiling.
In the present-Grapes hang from the outdoor dining room ceiling

However, there’s one moment in my garden where past, present, and future time all rush together. That’s when I cut back my grapevines. ‘Concord’, ‘Flame’, and ‘Interlaken’ grow on a rustic pergola of peeled Douglas fir logs, ten feet tall, spanning a ten-by-eighteen-foot patio. When I stand on a ladder in late winter and cut, I’m totally in the present. Snip, look, cane dead?—no, there’s a green center.

But I can also see the future, when those dormant buds will push out next summer’s vines crossing the arbor. And then, as I make the cuts, I remember summers past.

For many years in late August, my family and friends have gathered beneath the vines, seated at the candle-lit table. Lively conversations get passed around, along with delicious Northwest provisions—salmon, corn, figs wrapped in homemade prosciutto. Above our heads, the candlelight reflects on the grapes hanging through the leafy ceiling.

In our outdoor places, we gardeners gather the time-travel threads of disconnected worlds into one. What kind of travel do you take in your garden? # # # #