Gardening in Eden: Seasons in a Suburban Garden

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9781416540632: Gardening in Eden: Seasons in a Suburban Garden

"Though an old man," Thomas Jefferson wrote at Monticello, "I am but a young gardener." Every gardener is.

In Gardening in Eden, we enter Arthur Vanderbilt's small enchanted world of the garden, where the old wooden trestle tables of a roadside nursery are covered in crazy quilts of spring color, where a catbird comes to eat raisins from one's hand, and a chipmunk demands a daily ration of salted cocktail nuts. We feel the oppressiveness of endless winter days, the magic of an old-fashioned snow day, the heady, healing qualities of wandering through a greenhouse on a frozen February afternoon, the restlessness of a gardener waiting for spring.

With a sense of wonder and humor on each page, Arthur Vanderbilt takes us along with him to discover that for those who wait, watch, and labor in the garden, it's all happening right outside our windows.

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About the Author:

Attorney, author, avid gardener, Arthur T. Vanderbilt II practices law in New Jersey and is the author of many works of nonfiction, including Fortune's Children, Golden Days, and The Making of a Bestseller. He lives in northern New Jersey.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Waiting Weather

I
Dark.

Dreary.

January days.

Days of leaden skies, of sleet and snow flurries, day after day, depressing days of winter. Layers of heavy woolen clouds blanket days without sunlight, murky gray days from morning until late afternoon when the gray gets darker.

"As the days grow longer," my grandmother used to say, "the cold grows stronger." And so it does. Cold gray January days, on and on without end, bleak days, one after another, when juncos seek shelter deep in the old rhododendron outside my kitchen window, huddling among its leaves curled tight as a child's cold fingers inside a mitten, and squirrels stay snuggled in their tree-trunk nests, their tails wrapped around them like winter scarves.

II

My house is perched on the side of what geologists call the Second Watchung Mountain, though with its five-hundred-foot elevation, it's more a ridge than a mountain. From the front door, you can look far off to the east and, on a winter day, see the skyline of New York City and pick out the tallest buildings, then look southeast across the valley all the way to the ridge of the First Watchung Mountain and, to the left and right, along the horizon, follow the curve of the earth. Most of the year, though, you see trees, the tangle across the road at an edge of the two-thousand-acre Watchung Reservation, which stretches out between the ridges, and the canopy of treetops over the neighborhood below.

From the woods across the road, a deer emerges on this bleak January afternoon etched in shades of gray; like a ghost it materializes from the tangle of trees and wanders up my driveway. Something is wrong. It can't put any weight on its front left leg without it buckling all the way to the ground. The deer hobbles up into the bushes, looking, looking, taking a painful step, then another, always looking. Was it injured by a car, a fall, a mistimed jump? It seems to be seeking shelter in the lee of my house, shelter from the dangers of the woods, from the coming snow. Despite years of deer wars, I feel no hatred toward this enemy straggler, who, without the use of a leg, has lost the very essence of what he is, of what makes him a deer, who has come here, to my yard, seeking refuge. Could I set out some apples? Would he know I was trying to help or would that frighten him? What if he took up camp in my yard, what would I do? If he died here? I think of him as the snow arrives with the dark, another freezing wintry night to get through, to survive, wet, cold, starving, frightened, alone, a night when the cold is an enemy trying to break into the house, and the next morning I'm out early looking for him, searching for his tracks, but the dusting of snow holds no clues of his fate.

III

It doesn't seem to snow anymore the way it once did. Of course, when I was growing up, weather forecasting had none of the computer-model sophistication it has today; a hurricane would slam into a coastal town that wasn't ready for it, and snow would arrive without warning. As a result, children back then seemed to have much more of an influence over the direction and intensity of a storm, so that a school filled with students intent on a snow day could, just as a lightning rod attracts lightning, actually draw a blizzard into town.
Maybe we had some sixth sense about storms. Maybe, like animals, we could feel a change in atmospheric pressure and sense when a storm was approaching. However we did it, we always seemed to know with uncanny prescience when a big one was on the way. We knew just what sort of day was a blizzard breeder, the necessary weight and texture of the clouds, the exact sickly gray-yellow hue of the sky, the specific temperature that would be best, the precise feel of the air, and when these conditions converged, our teacher would be hard-pressed to keep our attention as we'd sneak glances out the oak-framed windows to make sure the conditions held, passing folded notes to establish the telephone chain if someone learned that school was closing.

To get the kind of accumulation we needed, the snow would have to start in earnest by suppertime, and it had to be the right kind of snow. Several times between supper and bed -- repeatedly, actually -- my sister and I would turn off all the lights in a room and pull back the curtain to check how it was doing. None of that Robert Frost "easy wind and downy flake" stuff for us; nor were big wet flakes acceptable, or snow that fell tentatively, like it was finishing up for the night. Such snow would be shamed by our hisses and boos. We were looking for a snow with a seriousness of purpose, a heavy, hard, steady snow that wasn't going anyplace anytime soon, and we'd fall into sweet sleep with its steady swish against the storm windows.

Instantly, on waking, we'd know even before we looked. There wouldn't be a sound. Not a car passing by. Not the push and scrape of a snow shovel. Not the grinding rumble of the city's snowplows. Total, absolute, pristine, wonderful silence, which could mean only that the snow was so deep it had shut down the city. Snow Day!

Snow stuck to the storm window, covering it. This was a good sign; there must be just enough moisture in it for perfect snowmen, for snowballs and forts. A dash to a window in the front of the house: outside, a silent snowbound Currier & Ives winter morning. We were expert surveyors then, and by bouncing from window to window, we took all the necessary sitings and triangulations to gauge its depth -- eighteen inches, a good two feet at least, two and a half, three feet, as high as the top step out the front door, higher than the wall around the terrace at the back of the house, deep enough to turn the bushes by the porch into mounds, and down the side of the driveway, wind-swirled drifts that could cover a car. Oh, yes, this was a snow day, no questions asked, no debate about it, no worrying that there would be a delayed opening. This was a snow day, and maybe even with a little luck, a two-day cleanup.

As Mole in The Wind in the Willows knew, "the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working." A snow day was even better than that; it was an unexpected holiday for everyone, a gift of a pure day. Whatever had been planned had to be canceled, no explanations or apologies required. What errands and chores should have been done couldn't be. We were isolated by the storm, enveloped together in the house, with a fire in the fireplace and a long do-nothing day stretching endlessly ahead: a snow day was more wonderful than a Saturday or Sunday or any holiday.

After breakfast, shoveling out was the first order of business. By the time our mother made sure we were properly outfitted in bulky layers of heavy woolen clothes, shirts and sweaters and stiff winter coats, snow pants with straps that went under the foot, those black galoshes that buckled up the front, cumbersome mittens and itchy ski caps covered over with a hood tied too tight under the chin, attire that would have been excessive for explorers on a three-month expedition across the ice floes of the Arctic, we would have agreed to do anything to get outside. The idea of shoveling seemed an adventure, humanity against the elements, and off we waddled down the stairs to the garage to get the shovels.

Opening the garage door was like raising the curtain on a spectacular stage setting: the storm had taken away our familiar world and replaced it with the Yukon. Either we were a lot shorter then or those snows truly were monumental, for it was all we could do to hopscotch through the virgin depths up the drive to where the sidewalk should be and, shovelful by shovelful, begin to clear a single-width path through the snow into the house.

There were always gangs of older boys (dressed in flannel shirts and jeans, with a ski band around their ears and boots flapping open) who'd come house-to-house to shovel driveways for a few dollars and neaten up our wavering paths where we thought the sidewalk, more or less, should be, so there was plenty of time to get on to the real business of building the forts from which bombardments would be launched and repulsed. If the conditions were just right, you could cut out building blocks from the snow in the backyard and stack them up and smooth them together, igloo-fashion, to construct a pretty formidable fort that would be stocked with rounds of snowballs. Later, when a truce was called, the old wooden toboggan our parents had when they were growing up was hauled out of the furnace room for rides down the hill along the side of the house, all the way to the back of the yard, and once that path was established, the runway was perfect for the sleds and plastic flyers.

By dusk, when our neighbors started drifting home and we had filled the bird feeders with sunflower seed and suet, the buckles of our galoshes were embedded with snow and ice, ice pellets stuck to our mittens and filled our shoes and socks, and every layer of clothing was pretty well soaked with sweat and snow and smelled like wet wool. We sat by the fireplace with mugs of hot chocolate laced with marshmallows as the oak-log embers sputtered and flared colors when our father tossed in a handful of the special salt powder, and we read in the flicker of the flames whether school would be closed again tomorrow.

IV

This was real snow, not today's slushy mess that's gone before the week is up. January snow froze solid and stayed around, day after day getting older, more scarred, pitted, stained, finally overstaying its welcome until it became as tiresome and oppressive, as maddening, as the snows of Willa Cather and O. E. Rölvaag.

Physicians don't talk about it, but it's a fairly simple matter to self-diagnose when you're coming down with snow madness; the symptoms are obvious and easy to spot. Complexions assume the waxy tallow sheen of candles. You feel too hot inside the house and too cold outside. Family members begin casting black looks at you as if, when arguing about the most inconsequential trivialities -- which are all that is talked about now -- they are contemplating setting your mattress ablaze as you sleep. You begin to feel an uncomfortable physical pressure in being housebound, and when you step outside to escape the pressure, you feel hemmed in by the frozen drifts that loom above the narrow walkways. Every single time you pass the Burton house, you stare at the discolored spot in the snow where a dog relieved itself weeks ago, and by the corner of the Picketts' driveway, you kick that annoying jagged edge of ice again to try to break it off and again hurt your toes and again stomp at it with your heel, and still the accursed chunk won't break off, and the sound of the snow crunching under your feet becomes as grating as Mr. Stoltz dragging his fingernails across the blackboard, and you track in grit and salt. Life has become mere existence. Bundled up, winter-weary, you plod along day after day. "Spring is too far away to comfort even by anticipation," Joseph Wood Krutch wrote of these depressing days, "and winter long ago lost the charm of novelty. This is the very three A.M. of the calendar."

When such symptoms persisted for more than a week or two and you felt yourself teetering close to the abyss of snow madness, a sure antidote was to visit one of the local greenhouses. My favorite was a rather small one attached to a garden center and gift shop where, the snowy January I was in the seventh grade, I went to buy plants and supplies for my science-fair project.

To open that door from the gift shop into the greenhouse was to walk right into a tropical rain forest, a humid, fragrant jungle so impenetrable that a pith helmet and machete seemed appropriate. Lush, shiny leaves and feathery fronds spilled over every wooden table, poked out from under the benches, crept over the mossy white pebbles of the walkways, pushed up and out at the glass. There were bushes whose branches were laden with miniature oranges, tables of African violets with white, pink, and purple blossoms, benches of strangely shaped, succulent cacti protected by fearsome spikes that made you tingle just looking at them, trays of tiny seedlings and coleus cuttings, palms growing up from giant pods, the sensuous waxy flowers of hibiscus and vining jasmine, ferns hanging from the ceiling, tumbling in luxuriant profusion, coffee plants and ginger plants and snake plants and philodendron with smooth leaves and variegated leaves and jagged indented leaves, geraniums, a Christmas cactus cascading with orchidlike flowers, an enormous rubber tree that must have been decades old, plants with curious fleshy leaves and fuzzy leaves and knobby spiked leaves that had to be touched, a trellis here and there tangled in vines of exotic unknowns. And the heavy moist air held the wonderful fragrance of damp sphagnum moss and potting soil and sand, the citrus of the lemon trees, April's aroma of hyacinth, the green chlorophyll smell of leaves, of growing, of living, of life.

Scurrying in and out of this jungle was a wiry old man who, at his workbench in the corner of the greenhouse covered with a jumble of projects, seemed to me as remarkable as a medieval alchemist. I remember Ted always in a red plaid shirt, a ubiquitous pack of Camels in his shirt pocket. He had, always, a day-old white stubble, dirt packed under his fingernails, and his hands, constantly moving, looked as though they would always be the color of potting soil, even if scrubbed and scrubbed.

Ted was absorbed in his work and would let customers wander around his greenhouse for as long as they wanted without bothering them; but when he learned I was working on a science project about the propagation of plants, those preoccupied eyes behind the thick glasses with heavy black frames became the eyes of a fellow seventh-grader opening up a much-hoped-for chemistry set on Christmas morning.

I had been working that winter on our jalousied side porch, planting seeds saved from the Halloween pumpkin and breakfast grapefruit and oranges, poking toothpicks into an avocado and suspending it in a glass of water, collecting spores from the underside of fern fronds and germinating them in a terrarium, cutting off the tops of carrots and turnips and a slice of a potato and watching them grow into new plants. Ted took me on a crash graduate-level course in botany. He showed me how to unpot a snake plant and divide it into five plants; how to take a leaf from a rex begonia, cut some slits into the veins of the leaf, fasten it down on the soil with unbent paper clips, and wait for roots and leaves to form. He explained what vermiculite and perlite were and in what proportions they should be mixed with potting soil or soil from the garden; the differences between clay pots and plastic pots; how rooting hormones were best applied in making cuttings; the uses of fertilizers and plant foods. He knew the Latin names of all the plants in his greenhouse and used them conversationally until they became as familiar as my own. He taught me how to take a gratula plant and cut off a ring of bark on one branch, rub the cut with Rootone, wrap the cut in sphagnum moss and surround the moss with plastic held on by rubber bands. A new plant would grow at the incision. I watched, as I would have watched Dr. DeBakey perform open-heart surgery, as Ted grafted a section of an oxilo tree cactus (the scion) onto an obruntal cactus (the stock).

That winter our side porch became a plant laboratory, the wooden shelf along the windows covered pot to pot with experiments. I dug through the snow and hacked out a bedraggled pachysandra, brought it into the gara...

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Book Description SIMON SCHUSTER, United States, 2007. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****. Though an old man, Thomas Jefferson wrote at Monticello, I am but a young gardener. Every gardener is. In Gardening in Eden, we enter Arthur Vanderbilt s small enchanted world of the garden, where the old wooden trestle tables of a roadside nursery are covered in crazy quilts of spring color, where a catbird comes to eat raisins from one s hand, and a chipmunk demands a daily ration of salted cocktail nuts. We feel the oppressiveness of endless winter days, the magic of an old-fashioned snow day, the heady, healing qualities of wandering through a greenhouse on a frozen February afternoon, the restlessness of a gardener waiting for spring. With a sense of wonder and humor on each page, Arthur Vanderbilt takes us along with him to discover that for those who wait, watch, and labor in the garden, it s all happening right outside our windows. Bookseller Inventory # APC9781416540632

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Book Description Simon & Schuster. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Paperback. 208 pages. Dimensions: 7.4in. x 4.9in. x 0.7in.Though an old man, Thomas Jefferson wrote at Monticello, I am but a young gardener. Every gardener is. In Gardening in Eden, we enter Arthur Vanderbilts small enchanted world of the garden, where the old wooden trestle tables of a roadside nursery are covered in crazy quilts of spring color, where a catbird comes to eat raisins from ones hand, and a chipmunk demands a daily ration of salted cocktail nuts. We feel the oppressiveness of endless winter days, the magic of an old-fashioned snow day, the heady, healing qualities of wandering through a greenhouse on a frozen February afternoon, the restlessness of a gardener waiting for spring. With a sense of wonder and humor on each page, Arthur Vanderbilt takes us along with him to discover that for those who wait, watch, and labor in the garden, its all happening right outside our windows. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Paperback. Bookseller Inventory # 9781416540632

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