Down to Earth: My Paradise on Earth

What will happen to your garden when you're gone?

010-98-074-DTE-Goldenseal.jpg

illustration by michael eagleton

Content Tools

A television interviewer recently asked Tasha Tudor what she thought would happen to her garden when she was gone. “Oh, it’ll be gone in six months after I’m dead,” she said matter-of-factly. “Weeds will take over; no one will remember where each plant came up each season. It’s just a garden as long as I’m the gardener.”

I look at my garden and wonder whether that’s enough for me. Does it really matter that after I’m gone, no one will remember which bed the lemon balm belongs in? Or that no one will care whether the lemon balm and lime balm cross, or whether the shavegrass gets out of its container and runs all over the place?

I recently made out a will, something many people don’t seem to take care of until later in life. It no longer seemed the morbid act that I had imagined it to be when I was younger. Doing so spurred me to think again about my garden’s longevity. I imagine that all gardeners wonder what will happen when they leave their garden. After all, for most of us, it’s paradise on earth, our most relaxing spot, and the place we feel most in control.

Before I bought this farm, Dale and Stella White had gardened here for most of their lifetimes. They had bought the property as newlyweds, built a house, and grown their own produce here for years. They surely were full of hope and excitement at the prospect of building a life for themselves on this piece of farmland. They must have felt it was their paradise, too. How many aching backs from hoeing did they have, how many pounds of sausage did they season with the sage and peppers they grew and how many times did they look out at their garden and admire it in the moonlight as I do mine?

I was well acquainted with Dale and Stella. After they sold me the property two decades ago, they moved a couple of miles down the road, where I visited them off and on until they died. We often talked about what they grew and how they lived fifty years ago.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Dale and Stella grew goldenseal (which they called yellowroot) and ginseng as cash crops. A lake now covers the wooded area where they once harvested the roots of these two medicinal herbs, and today, pastureland and dry hillsides rise above the lakeshore. About five years ago, I planted some goldenseal in my garden, and I think of Dale and Stella whenever I see its tiny white blossoms and crinkly olive green leaves like those of miniature mayapples.

The goldenseal is thriving in moist, fertile soil in a spot near a grapevine-covered arbor where it receives morning sun but is fully shaded during the rest of the day. Growing next to it are a ginseng plant, a few foxgloves, violets and native sweet cicely. Coltsfoot, wild ginger and bloodroot grow nearby as they might in a natural setting. Each year, I renew the pine-needle mulch—in my opinion, the best mulch for any herb bed—but otherwise I don’t disturb the little planting.

Dale and Stella are both gone now, and their most recent garden has been bulldozed for a new landowner’s project, yet I feel that a piece of them survives in my garden in the plants they liked and grew. Maybe the best legacy for me to leave for some future gardener is a bounty of wild and naturalized plants scattered among the stones and the pathways I’ve built. I can only hope that whoever lives here in the ­future will find as much pleasure as I have in tending the soil and growing something new and wonderful each year.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.