Picturing the Garden on Paper

Princess Margareta climbing English rose meets H.F. Young clematis.

OTHER PEOPLE bake bread, knit sweaters, craft origami. I draw pictures. Sometimes on random scraps of paper, but more often on pads of graph paper strewn around the house. I don’t have any actual drawing talent, which is a bummer since my great-grandfather was an artist and my sister is, in the immortal words of my mother, “very clever.”

Pink and White Roses, Paul A. Putzki, c. 1900

But I sure do like to make plans. It probably says way too much about me that when I’m anxious, creating make-believe worlds in little square boxes calms me down. But I’m going to leave that on the floor like so many discarded Legos. For now, anyway.

I’ve renovated our tiny kitchen three different ways on paper. And I’ve designed a fantasy kitchen with wrap-around windows, a baking station, a shallow floor-to-ceiling pantry, a user-friendly island, and big glass doors opening on to the deck. Light! I love light! 

I’ve sketched (aka scribbled) countless variations of this fantasy design — a room we’d actually have to add on to the southern end of our house as opposed to renovating the kitchen in situ

And stuffed away in drawers and file folders are years of garden designs.

In fact, just this week I drew a plan for a big (35’ x 40’) fenced vegetable and cutting flower garden that could (theoretically, if we wanted to take this plunge) be located in the open field in front of our house. We’d have to run water down there. We’d have to empty our pockets for fencing, soil amendments, irrigation hoses, the whole enchilada. We’d need a lot of help building this time around. But unlike the fantasy kitchen, which actually makes my teeth hurt when I think about how much it would cost, the fantasy garden has been tugging at me.

I detect a dangerous longing lodging in my bones. 

Which makes no sense.

I had my small farm, I had my farm stand. I said I was done with all that, and I was overjoyed at my partner’s generosity in immediately building me a small vegetable garden here at my new home. It would be so perfect, so manageable, so tidy. And it was, and it is, and we’ve already added on to it. Twice.

We started with the same three-square design I used for my very first Island garden in 2009. I plugged the virtues of that little design in an article I wrote for Martha’s Vineyard magazine several years ago called Holy Homegrown! That baby-bear garden, along with a mama bear and papa bear version, were beautifully illustrated by Fae Kontje-Gibbs for that piece.

Last year, I pushed aside any thoughts of bigger vegetable gardens to concentrate on a perennial garden plan instead. This was a completely absorbing depository for my Covid anxiety, which had mostly alighted on the subject of my 90-year-old dad living alone in Delaware. It had been years since I’d given much thought to perennials, and the open space between our deck and driveway was daunting. It would be a good excuse to call Dad, the Master and Commander Gardener, more often. He’s the man who passed the graph-paper gene down to me. 

My gardener friend Laura Coit brought me a stack of books to get started, and one immediately stuck to me – The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer. So many sample garden plans! The “Sunny Four-Season Border” and “The Easy Care Entrance.” The “Fantastic Spring Fling” and the “Made for Shade.” A meadow garden, a cottage garden, a white garden, even a secret garden. 

My brain on graph paper. Scary.

They all sounded (and looked) so wonderful, but I soon realized that creating a perennial garden was like solving a giant logic puzzle. Venn diagrams would come in handy if you were that sort. The challenge was fun, but keeping track of all the variables was mind-numbing. As soon as I’d wrangle all the deer-proof, long-blooming, dry-soil tolerating, bee-friendly, Zone 7, mildew-resistant plants on to one list, I’d have to start peeling off the ones that had ugly foliage, grew six feet tall, or spread invasively. And that was before considering flower color or leaf shape. 

But I persisted and finally set my pencil down, many pages of an extra-large pad of graph paper later. I went plant shopping while my partner heroically excavated the sand and rock out of what would turn out to be three (not one) perennial beds by the end of the summer.  

I can’t wait to see what’s lived through the winter and how everything looks in the second year. 

But as much as I love perennials for landscaping, I’m truly obsessed with cutting flowers, which are driving this new obsession with the big garden down the hill. The big garden would have room for long rows of zinnias and dahlias (yes, here in Deer Central, even cutting flowers need to be fenced), as well as room for all of my favorite vegetables, including space hogs like potatoes and perennials like asparagus. Plus berries— and fruit trees! 

For so many reasons, I hope I’ll let go of this fantasy soon. There’s still a wee bit of room to expand the little garden, anyway. 

But then again, I just got my friend Ellen Ecker Ogden’s new book, The New Heirloom Garden in the mail. And guess what it is full of? Garden plans! Beautiful and smart designs, each with a different theme, and … oh dear, I think we’re doomed.

P.S. Thank you to all of you who continue to email and comment on the blog since the reboot! So nice to be reconnected. If you feel comfortable, I encourage you to post your thoughts in the comments section under the blog, so that we can share conversations with each other. 

Book Recs This Week

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7 thoughts on “Picturing the Garden on Paper”

  1. Hi Susie,
    It’s “Pammy Mac”. Thrilled to see your gardening designs and I love planting as well and have had many a vegetable garden and flower garden. Cutting flowers are such fun and Dahlias are the most rewarding flowers ever after all my years of growing roses and peonies! My brother Scott is an amazing architect and landscape architect. I’ll try to get him following your blog too!
    All my best,
    P Mac

  2. Hi Sue

    This is very exciting! I’m really looking forward to starting my first big garden this spring and you’ve really inspired me to get going on plans. The books you recommended look great! I’m so glad your back up and running.
    Oh! And one more important question….will you be coming out with a new cookbook anytime soon? I have to say your cookbooks are favorite and I have a lot of cool books!
    Thanks for your inspiration!

  3. Pam! I miss you and think of you often. Sorry I missed that MV visit of yours and keep thinking I’ll stop in CT sometime but I’m always on a tear to get to DE to see my Dad (that is, when traveling, which hasn’t been lately of course!). Hope you have been doing well. I can only imagine the beautiful flowers you would grow! I love roses and peonies too, but it sure is nice to have those repeat-blooming flowers. You will have to warn Scott that I’m all over the map now on the rebooted blog, so it won’t always be about gardening (though flowers and vegetables seem to sneak into everything…) It’s about life in all its crazy forms! Hope you’re in touch with Sarah. And I dream of a camp reunion some time! xoxo Susie

  4. Hi there. I’ve been enjoying your articles and recipes on Cook the Vineyard since your blog was on hiatus. It’s nice to have you back here. I’ve been following you for several years. My husband gave me your cookbook Fresh from the Farm when we had our large garden. Such a beautifully written book. I collect cookbooks and yours is one of my favorites to reread as a novel and enjoy your delicious recipes. I love your connection to Delaware. I am a native Delawarean and have recently settled in the beach area. I just reread your article about cooking with your father. He’s very lucky to have you checking in on him. Enjoying your new postings!

  5. Hi Donna,

    Love hearing from a fellow Delawarean. My Dad is in Milton. We were so lucky to get a small house at a modest price there three years ago. I’m wondering which town you settled in!

    I’m so glad you enjoyed Fresh From the Farm. I loved getting a chance to write in that book!

    Thank you for being in touch and following along, and happy cooking! Susie

  6. Hi Susie,
    I grew up in Wilmington and then lived in Dover for almost 30 years (with the big garden). My husband’s Mom and Dad bought a lot and built a beach house in South Bethany in 1968. We enjoyed countless summer weekends and vacations with our 2 sons. It finally became Mom’s full time home. After her passing, my husband and his brother inherited the home which sat on 2 lots. We divided the property and each couple built new homes to retire here in 2017. We hadn’t planned this out – it just happened. We’re so happy that our children and their families can continue to enjoy this special place with so many memories.

  7. How wonderful that this all worked out Donna. Love Bethany! And there’s nothing like those summer beach memories. Thanks for letting me know!

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