“It is part of the life of a garden, that because creating a garden is such an act of will, and because (if successful) it becomes the place of great beauty that the particular gardener had in mind, the death of the gardener (or a withdrawal of any kind) is the death of the garden.—Jamaica Kincaid, “My Garden [Book]», 1999

Besides anti-colonialism, another theme woven into the tapestry of Jamaica Kincaid’s stories about gardens and gardening is the subject of the end of a garden, or death as she calls it. Kincaid thought of this when she visited Painshill Park in Surrey, England, once a 323-acre landscape forged from weeds and undergrowth in 1738 by those working for an Irish aristocrat/English courtier named Charles Hamilton (1704-1786).

Hamilton visited several beautiful gardens during his extensive tours of Europe. On his return to England after his second tour, he began borrowing money to buy the land at Painshill to create a private “pleasure garden”. Unfortunately, over the years Hamilton’s debt got out of control and he was finally forced to sell the property in 1773, after which the garden gradually fell into disrepair.

Kincaid visited the garden during one of the estate’s restoration projects (restoration began in 1981 and continues today). She was sad that Hamilton’s private vision for the garden had been lost in the zeal to resurrect it as part of England’s national heritage.

She wrote: “…I thought something crucial had been lost over time: the sense of place not as some kind of national park but as a piece of land that a man arranged to from who knows what psychological impulses.”

In the next chapter of his book, Kincaid mentions the death of a garden created by the French impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). Like his friend Claude Monet, Caillebotte was an avid gardener and designed a garden on his property in the suburbs of Paris. Caillebotte died aged 45 after suffering a stroke while gardening. Neither his garden in Petit-Gennevilliers nor that of his childhood home in Yerres (which he both painted) exist today.

I don’t know why the ephemeral nature of the gardens was so important to Kincaid. Was she thinking of her own mortality or of having to leave her beloved yellow house with its shingle roof and gardens? (She devotes an entire chapter to explaining why she loved this house so much.)

There are many reasons why gardens come to an end other than the death or absence of the gardener(s) who created it. I have heard of gardeners in distress after losing their gardens in the Almeda fire and of people who lost their gardens after their irrigation water was cut off due to water shortages.

I lost my Shakespeare Garden in Central Point to politics and miscommunication. (I learned an important lesson from this experience about the pitfalls of establishing a garden on someone else’s property.)

I’ve also heard of discouraged gardeners who decided to throw away the trowel after a particularly hot, smoky, and/or pest-infested season. In fact, according to a YouTube gardening channel called MIGardener, 40% of new gardeners quit after their first year because they think their gardening efforts were unsuccessful or too laborious, or they felt overwhelmed by all the conflicting plant choices and gardening advice or that they have found gardens and gardening too expensive to maintain.

In any case, the remains of the garden often linger for a while as a reminder of all that has been lost, and the gardener, depending on his emotional and financial investment in the garden, may even go through a grieving process. – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – for the garden she had loved and which had become part of her identity.

Some gardeners ease their grief at losing a garden by starting a new one. In his book “Uprooted: A Gardener Reflects on Beginning Again” (2020), Page Dickey recounts the loss of his garden in Duck Hill in New York after 34 years of cultivation. She “felt smitten” for a while, but then started a garden in her new home in Connecticut and was pleasantly surprised to find that the new gardening space allowed her to become a different type of gardener who suited her new lifestyle better.

I think Jamaica Kincaid was right when she wrote that the death of a garden is part of the life of the garden, just as the death of a gardener is part of that gardener’s life. A gardener is mortal, so why should we expect his garden to be otherwise? Even if the garden is taken over by someone else or restored later, it will never again be the same garden as the one envisioned by its creator.

The Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) elicited a college friend, who died aged 22, with the famous phrase “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. I learned that this is also true for gardeners who have loved and lost a garden.

Finish a Seasonal Garden

Many gardeners mourn the loss of their gardens in winter. Jamaica Kincaid said she disliked winter because, for her, the garden had ceased to exist. She wrote: “The snow covers the garden floor with the determination of death, an unyielding grip, and its whiteness is an eraser…”

I used to get melancholic when the plants in my garden started dying in the fall, but I (mostly) overcame that feeling by: 1. consciously celebrating my experiences in the garden during that season; 2. collect seeds from plants that will continue their life cycle; 3. learn how living a winter garden is actually below the ground surface or otherwise outside of my vision; 4. leave plant stems standing over winter and observe how they feed wildlife; and 5. take care of gardening tasks.

The Oregon State University Extension Service provides a helpful list to help gardeners finish their gardens for the season. Access the October Garden Calendar at extension.oregonstate.edu/

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher, and writer. See Literarygardener.com or email him at [email protected]