Taking Root: A Landscape Love Story

Turf's editor recalls her first experiences in the transformative power of gardens and gardening, plants and planting, land and landscapes.



The transformative power of gardening and landscaping. My own personal before and after.

landscapingIt’s a New Year, a time when we all tend to reflect on the past and form hopes for the future. So please indulge my posting of this essay on gardening I wrote several years ago but just updated for Turf readers. It’s a recollection of how I came to love plants and planting, land and landscapes. I’m hoping you may find common ground (pun intended) in these words.

It was a simple question on a form: How long have you been gardening? And there was a simple answer. I could vividly remember my first garden. I was in my twenties, living in a half-underground basement apartment. Several steps descended to my front door. On either side of the staircase was bare dirt leading up to my ground level windows. I did the math and realized it had been over 30 years since I first dug a hole in the ground and put in something pretty. A little token of beauty, a little act of faith, a small measure of ownership in my twenty-something world of rental living.

But something bothered me about the exactness of this answer beyond the number of years that had passed so seemingly quickly. It was too finite. Soulless. I felt the real answer wasn’t a number, but a story. For my love of gardening and landscapes came not as sudden epiphany, but rather as something latent, dormant, waiting… that when given enough air and sunshine, was ready to bloom and steadily grow.

Yes, I was in my twenties, living in a basement apartment. Indeed, sometimes I couldn’t escape the distinct impression that I was living a bit like a prairie dog, coming and going from my burrow, peeking my head up from time to time to sniff the air and feel the sunshine.

But most days, I came and went with little notice of my surroundings, busy with the frenetic business of being young. Yet despite my hurry, one day a little patch of color beside the stairs caught my eye. Something had started to grow in the dirt! Was it a weed? I didn’t know. Within a little while, the plant was covered in sweet purple flowers. I was immediately enchanted. And it was my favorite color!

Unfortunately, the bare patches of soil surrounding this purple anomaly now appeared even more bleak by comparison. How could I not fill the void? Especially when bright, riotous swathes of blooms stood as easy enticement at every grocery store entrance. Deep velvety purple petunias, tall pink and white cosmos, and stunning yellow and orange snapdragons. I know their names now, but at the time I happily grabbed whatever I thought pretty with the blissful exuberance of the totally ignorant. Requirements of heat, shade, sun, and soil never thought to cross my mind.

Fresh from college art appreciation classes, I went about the task of planting with the neurotic precision of a master artist. The orange in the back, the blue to the right, and a splash of yellow in the corner. No, no. The blue in the back, a splash of red to the right and… Oh, but then the orange is next to the pink. It was like a Rubik’s cube of plants. With each combination, I would stand a few feet away and critically eye my creation, fussing and fretting over achieving the optimal balance of color and texture. Finally, at long last, I was ready to dig and darn, if it didn’t look pretty fantastic at the end! I was surprised at just how rewarding an afternoon could be.

But over the weeks, reality set in. Things needed watering, some plants had stopped blooming, and some had grown taller than the ones planted behind them. Clearly, transforming my little plot of earth was no one shot deal encompassing a single afternoon. I probably would have given up if it weren’t for the inordinate amount of pride and pleasure I found in my initial creation. Knowing I had the capacity to transform something ugly into something beautiful was empowering, exhilarating, and inspiring. And thus, the siren song of gardening had gotten its thorns into me.

So I began to pay more attention, to ask more questions. Some plants are annuals and some are perennials…what?! Clipping off old blooms is called deadheading? What a nice reminder of college friends! Clematis is, thankfully, not a disease to be feared, but instead a rather nice climbing vine. Mint, once planted, will not only overtake your garden but will likely survive an Apocalypse. I was learning more every day.

One day, covered in sweat and dirt, listening to loud music through my windows and using all my strength to rip out some tenacious roots, I had a moment. I realized I was totally focused, totally present. I felt alive and connected to something. This planting habit was not just the stuff of serene elderly women clipping rose blooms in voluminous sun hats. This was intense and suited my twenty-something demeanor perfectly.

And while gardening was not yet a calling card for those in my generation, it did attract others. Or maybe it was the simple accessibility of spending a lot of time outside. But soon I became the darling of the rather large senior citizen set in the apartment complex. They would stop to chat and admire the garden. They would “just happen to grill an extra burger” and bring it to me for dinner. Even the grouchy Italian woman upstairs would bring me fresh herbs and offer advice.












The kids in the complex were equally drawn to my small garden. Two little boys became my constant companions, bouncing around me, chatting incessantly, helping me dig in the dirt. I looked around for parents but never saw any. Five-year-olds were rare and exotic creatures for my single, largely nocturnal demographic.

Besides children and seniors, there was yet one more person I became acquainted with due to my garden, though I never learned their name. To this day, they remain a shadowy, mysterious figure. It was the former caretaker of the garden. Just as that first purple blossom (which I now know was a perennial geranium) miraculously appeared out of nowhere, soon other plants emerged. There was no way I could fathom what would appear next or where. I was inheriting an unknown legacy I never asked for from a person I never knew, each emerging tendril an unexpected gift.

I came to understand that every patch of soil has a history. And working that soil links you to a past that you unearth like a detective. It’s a process of surprise and discovery. You realize you are dealing with something larger and more eternal than yourself. Caretakers are temporary and shifting. The patch of soil and its secrets lives on.

When I eventually evolved from my burrow into above ground living, I packed my newfound love of soil, plants, and gardening along with my sofa and books and moved it to my next house. It followed me through two more rentals and finally came to rest in the home I have owned for the past 20 years. Now I’ve experienced what it’s like to work the same small plot of land for two decades. I’ve learned that gardens have minds of their own. The weak are killed. The bullies survive. The nomads will move themselves out of foolish locations you thought were perfect. There is no such thing as a shrinking violet — only tough and clever ones. And for every rule, there is a plant that breaks it. The shade lover that thrives in the sun. The water lover that is fine in arid August.

People now tell me things like, “You have a green thumb,” or “You have such an eye.” While immensely flattered, I can’t help but think how wrong they are. My yard is lovely but I know I am only one element of its vast ecosystem. I am equal to the bee, the sunshine, the water, the soil, the shade, and the plants themselves. I am merely a temporary factor in a dark, beautiful, and mysterious business.

Menapace is the editorial director of Turf. A professional writer and editor for over 30 years, she has also worked as a plant nursery associate, a floral designer, and park system naturalist. All Photos: Christine Menapace

For more on plants and landscape design, see:



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here