In August of 1996 I moved in with the man who one day would become my husband. That first night, during a nasty windstorm, a huge, old cottonwood tree out front broke off and crashed to the ground. Having been raised Catholic, I wondered if God was trying to tell me something.
The splintered mess we opened our front door to the next morning did not look like opportunity. Though we’d lost a towering, venerable shade tree, we had gained a sunny front yard.
When my husband and I finally sat down to plan our wedding, years later, it didn’t make sense to go the gift registry route. We had an established household. Why don’t we ask for plants? I suggested. Why don’t we establish a wedding garden in the sunny lawn out front?
Gardening was my hobby. Perhaps, my husband joked, we should ask instead for contributions to his hobby: betting on racehorses. I prevailed. In our invitations we suggested that guests bring us a white blooming perennial. If they wanted to divide something from their own gardens, well, so much the better.
Our wedding was in September of 2000. We knew we wouldn’t have time that growing season to establish a large new garden bed, so we asked guests to deliver their gifts the following spring. This proves that two middle-aged people caught up in their own happiness can be just as crazy as any young bride and groom.
Some of our friends brought gift-wrapped bulbs to the wedding: white tulips, daffodils, lilies, and narcissus. We found temporary homes for those in existing beds. Some gave us seeds: daisies, angel trumpets and baby’s breath. Others gave us gift certificates from garden stores so we could pick out a plant when we were ready.
Quite a number, though, remembered us the following spring. Tender bedding plants and bulbs began arriving by Fed Ex from commercial growers. That is how we got white gladiolas, whorled milkweed, trillium and blue-eyed grass.
People who dug from their own gardens left open-topped boxes on our front stoop, tops of plants sticking out like mussed hair. These offerings were lily-of-the-valley, violets, day lilies and feverfew.
I couldn’t help noticing that many of the plants dug from gardens were vigorous spreaders. I wondered about the metaphor: aggressive plants in the wedding garden. If someone in our marriage is lily-of-the-valley, it is me. I have a tendency to stubbornly lay claim, to take over.
As we prepared the soil out front, and began to set plants in, we paid attention to names. Dutchmen’s breeches seemed just right given the wedding theme, as did Bridal Veil astilbe and World Peace tall garden phlox. One friend, an inspired rose grower, sent us a bare root hybrid tea rose from Jackson Perkins. It is a beauty: sweet smelling, buds ivory with a border of pink, then blooms which blush light peach as they open. The name of the rose? Diana, Princess of Wales — a curious presence in the wedding garden, given how her marriage turned out.
The concept of the white garden evolved (as do so many aspects of a marriage) to include color. That peachy rose really got me going. I added near it a blood red monarda, and robins’ egg blue delphiniums.
I planted love-in-a-mist and lovage for their names. Virgin’s bower, a native clematis, was brought on board because its name went contrary to theme in an amusing way. I considered planting bleeding heart and love-lies-bleeding, but my husband and I decided that was taking funny too far.
Over the years the plants have done well, though some have died off or been moved. Ironically, one that failed early was the yummy white iris called Immortality. It had a couple of good years and then succumbed to the dreaded iris borer.
After we’d cut the sod and worked the soil, but before we’d planted anything yet, my husband and I joined hands and lay down flat on our backs, and side by side, on that freshly tilled ground. We smiled, looked up at the sky, then got up again, somehow more united than we had been before.
When I got the idea for this garden, I hadn’t thought ahead about its long-term appeal. It is just outside our front door, so we see it every day. We admire it and comment on it all summer long.
I remember who gave us each plant, and as I work the garden, I think of each giver, and hope at that particular moment they are doing well. And when the marriage needs a little tending? I go out and weed that garden. Perhaps not so strangely, it seems to help.
Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.