Love Letters to My Garden by Barbara Blossom Ashmun is like homemade mac and cheese and apple pie—comfort food reading for a drizzly winter day.
In this, her seventh book, Barbara details her 30-year love affair with her garden, sharing stories that all gardeners can relate to, paying tribute to people who have helped her along the way, and marveling at the garden’s ability to heal and soothe us. On this last point, for example, she recalls the consolation she received while working in the garden during a tough time shortly after her divorce:
“Fear would drain away completely, as long as I kept gardening. Anger, too, found release when I dug, when I pruned, when I turned over the ever-growing compost pile behind the big laurel hedge.”
Barbara lives here in Portland, and I have had the pleasure to visit her garden, so I have the advantage of being able to picture exactly what she is talking about when she describes the arrival of The Sunbathers to the garden, a larger-than-life work by sculptor Katy McFadden.
And I have seen firsthand the fine results of her eagle rock patio and pergola that went in after she lost a mature sweet gum tree and the shade it had provided.
Here’s the ‘Rooguchi’ clematis that Barbara says she loves so much, she accidentally bought twice. Has this ever happened to you?
But back to the love affair. Barbara writes in Love Letters to My Garden that when she bought her property in southwest Portland 30 years ago, the backyard was a huge grassy field with a sawdust path running through it like a freeway. On a sunny slope, she recalls, scorched rhododendrons “looked like survivors of a forest fire.” She admits that most people would have fled the scene, but she thought the one-acre property was full of potential and seemed like a paradise, especially since her previous garden had been crammed into a small city lot.
She was unsure how to begin, but remembered a visit to Alan Bloom’s Bressingham Gardens in England and felt inspired by it. Mr. Bloom had made a curious impression on her: “A tall man with long white hair, bushy eyebrows, two gold hoop earrings, and a fierce look in his eyes, he reminded me of an elderly pirate,” she writes. It was his use of island beds that got her thinking and which are now the hallmark of her own garden, pictured here.
She learned the importance of edging the beds with low, sharp-looking perennials with excellent foliage, such as heucheras.
My favorite essay in the book is “Kali Helps Me Garden,” in which Barbara describes the will for destruction that must be embraced in a mature garden. There are always plants that overstep their bounds or don’t work out as intended, and one must work up the courage to be ruthless in editing them.
“Lately I’ve become Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, ” she writes. “Wearing a necklace of skulls and a skirt of human arms, holding a severed head in one of her four hands, Kali is a terrifying vision. Her ferocious energy combats evil and decay—she destroys in order to recreate. And let me tell you, in the garden, I am Kali.”
Barbara also happens to be one of the sweetest, most generous, kindest people you will meet, and she is a pillar of the gardening community in Portland and beyond. She was one of the founding members, in fact, of the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon, which is a wonderful non-profit gardening group with a membership of 2500 today. It was through this group that I met her and got to tour her garden.
You can buy Love Letters to My Garden on Amazon.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Barbara Blossom Ashmun.