An English Country Garden

The ad in the newspaper said: English Country Garden. Specializing in the restoration and creation of imaginative landscapes and gardens. Visions of magenta and green and yellow sprang up in Delia’s mind: purple stocky things behind ochre sunburst things, a wild array of eye-popping, rambling color. She put down the paper and called.


Three days later, Ian Johnston, Master Gardener, pulled up in his green van. The logo on its side was of just the brilliant garden Delia had in mind. He put out his hand, a big hand with clean nails, a firm, once up-and-down shake. A no-nonsense kind of shake that made Delia immediately regret the way she’d burbled on when she’d called him. “We live in a very nice house near downtown,” she’d told him, “an older home, built in 1925, so that makes it, let’s see, goodness, more than ninety years old! Wow, I didn’t realize… Well, anyway, the garden, the backyard, was landscaped by someone from the university, a horticulturist or landscape architect or something and so it’s quite nice but we’ve lived here for eleven years and well, it’s suffered. Partly because we don’t know anything and partly because as the trees have grown there has been less and less light.” She’d felt a surprising twist of her heart at this last part. It had made her pause. “So when I saw the word ‘restoration’ in your ad,” she’d continued, “I thought maybe you could help us. Our garden, I mean. Help our garden. Do you think you can?”

On a whim, she called into the house to her husband, Richard, to join them, though he’d said he had no interest in gardening. He came out, phone in hand, and the three of them stood there in the spring freshness, surveying the patchy, ragged expanse of yard.


The garden patio was Delia’s favorite place to be as soon as the weather turned warm, though “garden” was a bit euphemistic. As was “patio,” which consisted of an area of concrete with a rickety metal table covered with a flowered vinyl cloth, and three white plastic chairs. And an umbrella she had bought for $12 at a yard sale. As for the garden, well… Each spring she drove to the nursery, hopeful, eager, and ended up turning in circles between the perennials and the annuals, dazzled by the possibilities and coming away with the same flats of impatiens and lobelia and potted geraniums that never quite flourished in the way she hoped. She stuffed the red geraniums into terra cotta pots, added dark purple trailing lobelia. They looked quite festive at first but the lobelia turned brown and scraggly and the geraniums struggled to bloom without enough sun. She and little Grace had planted flower boxes together the first year. Grace had chosen the plants: Columbine, Lavender, Hollyhock and Marigold – for the names of her mice dolls. Only the hardy marigolds had survived.

Surveying it now with the two men. she could see the yard looked scruffy, bits of bare earth around the old play structure, crops of dandelions and blue forget-me-nots running riot. “Pretty,” she’d thought just the other day, the yellow and blue spilling across the lawn, but now the dandelion heads had turned frowsy with seeds, the leaves jagged and unsightly. Still, whenever she turned the corner of the house and saw the table and chairs waiting for her, the graceful honey locust tree, the crabapple clouded as it was now with white blossoms that reminded her of a bride, the general greenness of it, she let out a breath.


Ian, the master gardener, made no comment as he looked around. “Do you have children?” he asked, gesturing at the playhouse and slide they’d put in when Grace was five and Peter, nine.

“Not small ones,” Delia said as if in apology. “We have a son at university and our daughter is 14. She’s at a friend’s.”

“Maybe it’s time to let it go,” Ian was saying. “And you could take down that crabapple. And maybe this one, too,” he said, patting the solid bark of the locust tree that dominated the yard and, even with its lacey leaves, kept out much of the sun in summer. A bird feeder hung from one branch. “The Eat and Tweet,” Grace had called it when she was little. They’d had a Grand Opening the first spring and Grace and Peter wrote out the menu and put up signs. Sitting out here in summer, Delia would put her book down and watch the birds wing in, perch, heads darting in and out of the seed holes, then fly off again. The original fast food.

“It would really open up the space and give you a lot more sun,” Ian was saying as he walked around.

“Well, I don’t know…” Delia said. “I really like those trees. Richard?” She turned to where Richard was hanging back, checking his phone.

“What?” He looked up for a moment.

“But the first thing you need to do is define the space. Decide on your vision and define the beds.” Delia thought the beds were defined. There was the perennial bed next to the back of the house, with the peonies that hadn’t enough sun to bloom. And the small area by the fence where they had buried their first cat, Daisy, after they found her stiff body under the basement stairs one Saturday morning. Richard had admonished her not to cry so that Grace and Peter wouldn’t get upset and she hadn’t, though she’d regretted it ever since. She’d loved that cat. Grace planted Shasta daisies on the grave as a memorial.

And then there was the former vegetable garden by the shed. Every year Delia had planted tomatoes on the long weekend, four small plants that managed to produce creditable tomatoes by August. “Now this is what a tomato should taste like,” Richard would say with huge pride as if he’d actually planted and cared for them himself. There wasn’t enough sun now for tomatoes and the rest of the bed went to various colored weeds. A “meadow” she called it. Another euphemism.


“You need to define the areas with borders of some sort between the beds and the … lawn,” Ian said, hesitating over what to call the bumpy, mossy, dandelion-infested lot. “And then I suggest rototilling the entire yard and starting again.” Was he serious? Was this some sort of landscaper’s joke? Right, bulldoze the whole thing, that’s the only way to save this. But even more startling was Richard’s sudden interest. He had put his phone down and was leaning in to Ian, asking about seed and fertilizer and heavy rollers.

“A rototiller? Can you rent something like that?” he asked, as if the idea of wholesale destruction, razing and going on, spoke to him.

Delia dropped back while the men talked. She had to sit down. The memory of the year Richard had left their marriage rolled over her with heart-squeezing force. He had rented an apartment, talked about a younger woman, a former employee. “Former,” he stressed, as if that would make a difference. He said he wanted to have another child and Delia, 42 to his 46, had said she hated him. But move he did. The children loved the new apartment at first – the skylight over the bed, the little balcony off the living room. But Peter started bullying at school and Grace wouldn’t let Delia out of her sight. It had lasted less than a year. He and the woman didn’t work out after all and he had moved back home the next summer. Grace was overjoyed; Peter kept his distance. And she was relieved. No broken home. No failure. That was seven years ago. They had all recovered, more or less, but there was a shadow over their home. Less and less light.


Richard and Ian were deep in talk of lawns now. What was it about a carpet of green, smooth and regulated as a golf course, that linked in some way to the Y chromosome?

“Write us up an estimate,” Richard was saying. “Give us an idea of what all this might cost.” They shook hands. They were still talking about other improvements – flagstones, fences – as they walked back around the house. Delia lingered, trailing her fingers on the vinyl table covering. She tried to picture her sanctuary without its trees, everything dug up and replaced. What had so appealed to her about an English country garden? The dazzle, the color? When she had met Richard, he’d taken her hand and pulled her along with him, to concerts and festivals, vacations they couldn’t afford. A sense of adventure and endless possibility. But then that need for more and more, nothing ever enough. They were in serious debt until the inheritance from her parents bailed them out. The year he left she’d painted her bedroom a soothing sea blue, and felt a peace she hadn’t realized she was missing. She took a last look at the dappled green yard and turned away.

“Well, that was interesting,” Delia said as she joined Richard. They stood at the front steps watching Ian’s truck pull away. “But I don’t know where the money’s going to come from. Taking down trees, rototilling the yard? Not to mention the landscaping and the plants. It must be thousands.” She realized her mistake as soon as the words were out of her mouth.

“You’ll have to make more money,” Richard said. Delia’s stomach clenched. The familiar stone they stumbled over. Delia’s part-time job at the library brought in a fraction of Ian’s salary, and her freelance writing hardly covered the cost of the impatiens and fertilizer she bought each spring.

“Wait. Can’t we discuss this?” Delia said.

“There’s nothing to discuss. You know how I feel. I can’t tell you what to do. You have to decide what you’re willing to do.” Richard’s “reasonable man” voice asserted itself, the one she imagined he used in the office to keep his underlings in check.

“But you could help think it through, how we could both be happy.”

“I have so many dreams,” he said. “I want to go to Greece. I want to sail the Mediterranean, take a year off. None of that is possible on a salary and a half. We can’t even afford to have the yard done.” The note of bitterness in his voice was like a rusty coin in her mouth.


A lawn mower started up down the block and Delia and Richard both turned to it. The leaves on the maple tree at the curb were beginning to unfold their green edges. The magnolia was coming into bloom and soon each flower would open like a cup, a lotus blossom floating on the breeze. Richard turned and went into the house.

When had their dreams diverged so dramatically? And what was her dream, her vision? It had something to do with growing things, she supposed. Like the little green tendrils of the morning glories beside the house that were beginning to wave. Every year she soaked the seeds in water overnight to soften the casings and then buried them in dirt by the porch, watered them, left them alone in the dark, and every year these miniscule bits of green poked through and surprised her. And then the profusion of saucer-sized, Heavenly Blue blooms that covered the side of the porch from August to fall. It seemed like more than anyone could expect from a $1.99 pack of seeds.


The Eat and Tweet needed refilling. Overhead, squirrels chased each other through the branching highway of interlacing trees as the sun filtered down on the forget-me-nots scattered like a blue lake in the grass.

Delia walked along the path by the perennial garden. The quickening of spring was all around her, the ferns beginning to let down their delicate green skirts, the hostas unfurling their dapper leaves. Small purple flowers covered the wild geraniums. She bent to pinch off a spent bloom. Maybe it wasn’t about “restoration” after all. Maybe at some point you worked with what you had or let it go. Some trilliums and Jack-in-the-pulpits might do well here in the shade of the trees. A woodland garden. That could work. That would be lovely.


Author's Comment

I wrote a version of this story years ago in the midst of difficulties in my own marriage. It is fiction but it reflects the way couples can diverge in their visions for their lives and their future, and the way that shows up in the most ordinary decisions. One gift of age, I think, is coming to know who we are and what we want, what is right for us, and staying true to that.






Melinda Burns is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice for years. She also teaches writing, and mentors writers in fiction, poetry and memoir. Her writing has won awards for fiction, including first prize in the Toronto Star Short Story contest in 2001. She has published poems in various magazines, read her essays on CBC radio, and published essays on writing in Canadian Notes and Queries and The New Quarterly and in K.D. Miller’s book on creativity and spirituality, Holy Writ. Burns lives in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, within walking distance of the public library.

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