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Pulsatilla vulgaris
Pulsatilla vulgaris

Pulsatilla vulgaris, at Heronswood, arriving at, and soon departing from, a vaporous notion of perfection.

Seeking the Ideal

How we wish to believe that an ideal exists, the garden of our minds, accurate and precise. It rains at night, just so softly, yet still it soaks the earth. Varmints live off weeds that are rarely encountered. Slugs ooze beyond the hosta that remains unblemished through the seasons. Fruits and vegetables are bountiful, while the continuum of perennials and flowering shrubs remains a never-ending crescendo from the first of spring until late autumn. No staking necessary.

This is not our garden. Yet I am left with the vestiges of an Arcadian desire, birthed by Brown’s romantic landscapes and the dandyism of Montesquieu and Whistler, which makes me wish that somehow it was. In pursuing the consummate garden I have discovered the conflicts that sabotage earthly perfection. Plants get aphids. Sometimes they die inexplicably. The desired continuum of seasonal interest is dashed by crashing waves of overgrown plants and retreating colors. In late summer, our real garden is crumpled like a little boy’s dollar bill held too tightly and too long.

Yet it is precisely the experience of imperfection that fuels my desire to continue. The plants are not staked, but certainly next year they will be. The combinations were good, but… The weeding was adequate, but… It allows us as gardeners the time to set aside any thoughts of Arcadia and capture if but briefly a moment of heavenly beauty; a germinating seed, unfolding leaves caught by early light, embracing fully the essence of a simple flower. It permits, in the words of Claes Oldenburg, slow study and respect for small things.

Comfort in this realization that it never will be perfect shall nonetheless not keep me from trying to make my garden better. The longer that I garden, the more I realize that it is only here that I will be nearest the unobtainable. As gardeners, we know in our hearts that there is no Arcadia. In that thought, I cannot but feel the irony; that I was first exposed to gardening at the youngest age by my mother’s father, who gardened on the northern shores of Lake Michigan, in a place they call Arcadia.

– Dan