Garden writer Benjamin Vogt opened his home garden to visitors during the Wachiska Audubon Society 2011 Garden Tour last summer. Today, he talks about the exciting–and sometimes stressful–experience of sharing your garden with others.
It’s Sunday morning, Father’s Day, and already at 8am, three hours before the opening, it’s as muggy as an ocean. I couldn’t sleep a wink, even though when I got up I knew I had nothing to do. I’d spent days perfectly mulching the paths (literally one piece at a time), pinning back perennials, dividing plants for giveaways, and making a monarch butterfly station on the covered deck. Having a dearth of caterpillars, and wanting to promote milkweed in general (it’s not a weed!), I visited a local nature center and slowly convinced the head horticulturalist to let me steal some larvae from the prairie. I promised I wouldn’t eat them—I’d raised hundreds the year before.
If you’ve never had your garden on a tour, let me summarize for you in one word what it’s like:
My 75% native garden, prairie and Midwestern shrubs and perennials, forks midway at a disappearing water fountain. For five hours I stood at the right fork so everyone flowed in a nice clockwise fashion. By the time people got to me and realized who I was, they were either in love, denial, or envy. How many times did I answer a question with “that’s Amsonia hubrichtii?” Did my wife and I use our walkie talkies? No, but she ferried many people to me from the other end of the garden who wanted to ask what a plant was. “That’s Amsonia hubrichtii.” My wife also brought me a frozen dinner, which I ate while standing and talking. I didn’t even take a pit stop.
The steady flow of old folks, hippy GQ parents, anxious kids, plant nerds, novices, and experts numbered 500 in those five hours. I told them they’d be welcome back in a month when the eupatorium would be eight feet tall, and all the blooms bursting with insects. I insisted they return in the fall, too—that’s when 50% of my flowers come on. Several people said my garden was the best one of the five, which they almost skipped, and were amazed how thick and lush 1,500 feet could be in just four years. Some called me a liar when I said I spend only a few full days working in it, usually in the spring cut down. Right plant for the right spot, I said, research and then plant tightly. No need for chemicals at all.
In one single, breathless moment that day I noticed a little girl touching the water fountain and giggling as I was talking to a woman about writing, to a couple about what plants they’d like to add from my garden, and acknowledging some guy way down the line waving his hand and shouting something about a thistle. I nodded. I smiled. I was overjoyed and overspent. “Do you have a coaching business?” a few asked. No, but in a week I decided to start one. How couldn’t I?
At 4pm a few stragglers finally left, and I helped the volunteers at the ticket table pack up. Closing the gate behind me, shirt stuck to my skin, I walked the paths slowly and deliberately as if I never had before, surprised and charmed along the way. You bet I’d do this again. But first let me move this piece of mulch a foot to the left.
Benjamin Vogt is the author of Afterimage: Poems (SFA Press, May 2012), and two unpublished manuscripts: a mix of short essays, Sleep, Creep, Leap: The First Three Years of a Nebraska Garden, and a memoir, Morning Glory: A Story of Family and Culture in the Garden. His writing has recently appeared in ISLE, Orion, The Sun, and Verse Daily. Benjamin has a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska and an M.F.A. from The Ohio State University. He lives in Lincoln, NE where he runs Monarch Gardens and teaches at UNL.