Tulips, Books, Gardens, and Dirt

I’m not much of a gardener. Yet when I return to Minnesota and look out at spring trying its best to happen, I want to help things along. The trees are working hard at their new leaves. They make it look so effortless. Mysterious green sprigs are trying to poke through the sodden mulch in our forsaken (for Florida!) flower beds. So maybe that’s why I think: It’s time to do something with dirt.

Good news! My friend Mary and I signed up for a special garden book discussion group with beloved teacher Toni McNaron. I was a student in Toni’s Virginia Woolf classes at the U way back! The group meets once a month at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

How delightful to talk about books and gardens in the glorious surroundings of the Arboretum–where other people create all that color and order! The tulips were absolutely astounding–announcing to the world: “Here we are. We made it through that bad winter. See how strong and bright we are! Can you believe it?”

Tulips at the Arboretum

Tulips at the Arboretum

So as much as I enjoyed the novel we discussed with its focus on Japanese gardens, I must say that it was the real, in-the-moment tulips that live in my mind. Their stunning display of exuberance rather over-whelmed the small brown Japanese garden tucked beside them. Color!

The book under discussion was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. Now if you’re looking for a carefully written novel about Japanese gardens, Malaya during and following World War II, internment camps, tattooing, communist guerrilla warfare, kamikaze pilots, memory and forgetfulness, all entwined around two amazing love stories, then you will enjoy this novel.

I certainly did. It is one that invites re-reading and lots of time to unravel a challenging, non-linear plot. I read it in three versions: Kindle, audio, and paper, but I most enjoyed the paper where I could flip back and forth and write in the margins.

Sam: "Which shall I read? Both!"

Sam: “Which shall I read? Both!”

For our next meeting, we’re reading Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, a collection of  seventy-two alphabetized essays full of practical, personal, and witty musings on topics like “Annuals,” “Earthworms,” “Mazes,” “Longevity,” and “Tulips.” This last short essay was one of the first I read after that lovely meeting with the profusion of tulips waiting outside our classroom door.  IMG_2165

After a long section on tulipomania, the origins of the name tulip, and certain tulip disease, Perenyi writes: “Linguistics and unclassifiable diseases aside, tulips are one of the gardener’s joys and I can’t imagine anyone with even a patch of ground not growing them. Unlike most northern gardeners, I’m not much moved by the first crocus, poking its brave little head up among the dead leaves….the tulips are what I wait for.”

So I’m going to search for Perenyi’s tulip reccomendatons in a few on-line gardening catalogs and order striped ones, Darwins, modern Ottomans, Rembrandts (great names) which follow a magical sequence of spring-time blooming. I’m going to dig down deep into the dirt and plant some tulips. Then sit back and hope!

If the tulips don’t appear next spring, at least I will have satisfied my urge to dig in the dirt.


P. S. If you want to hear a young woman read “Night,” one of the essays in  Green Thoughts, click here. She makes one mistake: the book was first published in 1981. Eleanor Peyenyi, who passed away at age 91, was born in 1918.


Writing Jumpstart:

Here are a few gardening quotes. If you feel so inspired, take out your writer’s notebook and write about gardens, tulips, dirt, spring–whatever comes to mind.

To garden is to let optimism get the better of judgment.”                                                    — Eleanor Perenyi, Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

“Then I went out for two hours late in the afternoon and put in a hundred tulips. In itself that would not be a big job, but everywhere I have to clear space for them. . . . I really get to weeding only in the spring and autumn, so I am working through a jungle now. Doing it I feel strenuously happy and at peace. At the end of the afternoon on a gray day, the light is sad and one feels the chill, but the bitter smell of earth is a tonic.”
— May Sarton, 1912-1995, New England poet, author, and feminist
“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
— Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist, poet, and environmentalist


8 thoughts on “Tulips, Books, Gardens, and Dirt

  1. HI Vicky,

    I really enjoyed this post. Say hi to Mary for me. I’m gardening some too…but hadn’t considered tulips. Now maybe I will, but we have gophers so maybe not. My tomatoes are jumping to the top of the whatchamacallit circular structures that hold them up. They should — I added about 8 “amendments.” Did the same with my basil but they are full of holes and I can see they won’t make it. May start over.

    Happy gardening, happy hands in dirt….I must start writing again!

  2. So good to hear from you, Pegatha! Glad you enjoyed this post. My gardening expertise is limited; in fact, I realized after writing this that I need to wait until fall to plant my tulips. So I’ll have to plant some perennials or make a vegetable patch to satisfy my “hands in dirt” need.

    All of this relates to writing…composting, digging. Your tomatoes are an excellent example of how little ideas can grow and branch. Revision? Your basil–how we have to start over? Always beginners.

    I hope you do return to your writing! Send me something.

    • Thanks, Carol. Those tulips were breathtaking. I wish you could have seen them. It seems they like cold weather! You just don’t see blooms like these in NC. But then you have the azaleas, camellias, gardenias, and dogwood.

  3. Gardening and books are two of my favorite pass times, your reading/garden group sounds wonderful. Thanks for the book recommendation, I will check it out. As always you inspire me to write, I will use the suggested jump starts and hopefully my pen will start moving again.

    • Thanks for your comment,Deb. So good to hear from you! I could use a few gardening tips since I’m aspiring to learn more about gardening. Also I’m glad to hear you’re ready to write again. Let me know how it’s going. Best wishes.

  4. What a delightful post. It elicited many smiles in our still darkened room. Tulips remind us all that hope and nature’s beauty springs eternal. No tulips here, but astounding fields of volunteer orange/red poppies waving in the breeze along the beautiful and winding Tuscany roads. Thanks for the lovely gift of your spring inspirations.

    • Wow! My first comment from Tuscany–or anywhere across the oceans! There you are so far away, yet so close. Thanks for the wonderful comment, Arlene, and for the photo of the Italian poppies you sent via e-mail. It makes me happy so see that so much beauty can just pop up and “volunteer” itself to our imaginations. There’s the Bible quote about how we struggle and worry. “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.” I’m in that stage of me life when it’s time to “consider the lilies” ! Safe travels, my friend.

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