In the moment: ‘mon petit jardin’

In the moment: ‘mon petit jardin’
The Virginia creeper is the star.

AVERNES, France—Here in my garden, I sow, I grow, and I remember my mother. She didn’t have a garden. No one did in that part of Manila, but beside our house where the neighbors had the right of way, she planted hardy San Franciscos and greens with heart-shaped leaves (Homalomenas, I now think). Asparagus ferns hung by the windows. And she planted trees—imagine, trees!—bearing small, sweet guavas and big, pink-fleshed chesas, and papaya. 

Later, there was also a sampaloc tree. My friend and I decided to plant seeds of the sweet tamarind we were eating one lazy day in May. Mine grew into a tree and from then on, I became my mother’s designated planter because, she said, my hands were “light” (magaan ang kamay mo). 

Today, I’m fortunate to have a small garden. I guess it started to be mine when I moved to France in 2005. But I didn’t fall in love immediately. I’d always loved nature—beaches, trees, flowers—which I thought was simply normal, but I had no deep connection with a perfect garden of the past to make me jump at the opportunity of restoring one. 

Death and resurrection

With no fictional secret garden in mind and certainly no skill, and confronted by many other pressing things that needed my attention in those first few years of my not-yet-French life, the garden was mostly there to put on the show of the four seasons’ death-and-resurrection cycles.

The Virginia creeper, especially its gorgeous fall foliage, has always been the star. As the leaves fall on their beautiful deaths, its deep-blue, berry-like fruits also develop and ripen, already hinting at rebirth. Then, winter darkness. Not so soon enough, delicate snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis, literally meaning “milk flower of the snow”) will poke their heads through the leaves announcing the end of winter. Bright-yellow primroses grow under the winter debris, too. And then the sweetly scented lily of the valley comes back year after year in spring, like a nodding reward for my patience in the winter months.

There were “lessons” to be had and the garden was slowly deepening its power on me for sure. But from the start I had miniscule knowledge about gardening. I just knew I had a garden now and I wanted to take care of it. My husband Claude and I sought help and, together with a gardener, decided which plants to get and where to plant them. I remember I wanted Mexican orange blossoms because the pure, white scented flowers reminded me of the sampaguita

After the gardener’s foundational work, we did light gardening—weeding, watering, deadheading. In spring, we’d buy annuals that caught our attention—impatiens, pansies, petunias, snapdragons, begonias, cosmos, marigolds. These annuals have become regulars in our garden along with the profusion of pinks and reds and violets of geraniums and hydrangeas from late spring to early autumn. 

Related: How to survive… (II): Setting up an urban kitchen garden

Hardy, generous, inexplicable-beautiful

I have much love to give and my hands may be light, but I’ve no illusions when it comes to gardening. I plant what does well in my garden. I’ve had to deal with tricky, damp, shady parts. I don’t think I have any plant that needs serious looking after. My plants are hardy and generous and, in some cases, impossible to kill. My Mexican orange blossom (choisya ternate) is a fabulously fragrant, dense shrub that looks good all year round. It needs just a little pruning and is virtually disease-free. Tough heathers are also low-maintenance and not afraid of cold weather. 

Astilbes aka false goat’s beard

I wish I had known sooner about the inexplicable-beautiful astilbes (also known as false goat’s beard) because they were exactly what I needed in that shady part of my garden. Their elegant plumes of feathery, fluffy flowers last for weeks. Hosta plantaginea is another shade-tolerant plant. When it rains a lot, it produces lush, fat leaves and towering, fragrant lilies. Hosta la vista

The lily of the valley is a stalwart of spring.

In late summer or early autumn, just when other plants are dying down, Japanese anemones will seem as though they’re floating delicately. They’re easy and can survive minimal care once they’re established. Eye-catching nasturtium thrives on poor soil, is fast-climbing and, best of all, edible. 

Classic and timeless

I couldn’t resist the most classic and timeless of garden plants, the roses, and I’ve had climbing ones and in different colors and intensity of fragrance. The most recent variety (rosier fox trot) stuns admirers with its strong fragrance and ornate blooms in clusters. 

In 2020, while everyone was gripped in anxiety during the bleak and frightening pandemic times, my garden was flourishing. There was no secret. The garden thrived because I was there and I gave it full attention. Claude and I planted, not just flowers but also herbs, some vegetables and fruits. There were tomatoes (there are no sweeter tomatoes than the ones you grow in your own garden), cucumbers, bell peppers, chili peppers, melons (epic fail, this one, though) and strawberries. There were basil (four kinds!), rosemary, chervil, thyme, mint, parsley, dill and coriander. We didn’t have the space for all that so we bought planters. My garden did its best; the plants gave their all. 

I was learning from the garden, from reading up and from Instagram posts of fellow gardeners sharing stories of their own paradises. (Marigolds are good company for tomatoes, hashtag companionplanting) There was something moving about seeing plants sprout, forging their way through. They always seemed to find their way! When I started feeling weary, thinking that life just didn’t make sense (usually after the morning news!), I’d go out to the garden and just be there. I was welcomed to the spectacle of optimism and audacity of plants, as opposed to the relentlessness of our life in those days.

Absorbed and engaged 

Lizard poised on a leaf

Writer and gardener Olivia Laing says she’s never found an activity as soothing or as wholly absorbing as gardening. It’s the same for me. I’m fully engaged and in the moment in my garden. I can very easily just let it flow. Right now, I’m watering the cosmos in vivid bloom. Right now, a lizard is eating a strawberry. Right now, a white butterfly is hovering about the summer lilac; now, the lavender. I’m getting some mulch for the planter. I’m replenishing the bird feeder. 

Just this scene. Just this task. I’m the right plant in the right place.

I still think about my mother, who insisted on having plants and trees in a space she couldn’t even call her garden. I often think about how real my own little garden is, how real its companionship is. I step into my garden in my pajamas or in a two-piece, and I am not judged. I take a deep bow of gratitude—“Santé!”—to my garden, late-blooming joy and ongoing cheer.  

Patricia Corre taught subjects in English, literature and communication arts in several institutions in Manila before moving to France in 2005. She lives in a small village in Val d’Oise, in the Paris region. —Ed.

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