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A handful of stolen hollyhock seeds smuggled home as contraband after a trip to England. A theft and a smuggling. Two crimes, and the beginning of a garden.
About ten years ago, I visited Virginia Woolf’s home, Monk’s House, in Rodmell, Sussex in England. At that time I was far more interested in literature than gardening, and had recently fallen for Virginia Woolf. I wanted to know more about her. I knew that Monks House was where she went to write, and where she found serenity. I knew from reading in her diaries and letters that she found the tranquility and beauty of her garden essential to her writing life. I was curious about how a garden might have such an influence on someone’s life.
I didn’t understand gardens then.
I arrived at Monk’s House in a rainstorm on a warm late-summer afternoon. I was the only visitor that afternoon. I wandered through the house until the rain started to subside, then went outside. The storm had given the garden a wild, blown, romantic look. There were formal beds overflowing with an array of different kinds of flowering plants.
The garden, rather the series of gardens, were arranged like rooms, each with its own particular focus and mood. I wandered among them, from hedged lawns, to brick terraces, to stone fountains. The garden as a whole was large, but each separate space had its own intimate mood.
I found a plum tree loaded with ripe plums, more plums scattered on the ground below. I picked up a couple. They were damp with rain, warm. Drops juice wept from small crack in their deep red skin. They were luscious. I ate them, pleased to think that Virginia must have eaten plums from that same tree one late-summer afternoon.
Everything was at the peak of maturity or perhaps a bit past. The air smelled of grass, ripeness and faint decay mixed with the freshness of the afternoon’s rain. I wandered alone through the wet garden, eating Virginia’s plums and wondering about the names of all the flowers.
I knew some of them. Roses, of course, and, um… flowers. I realized that I couldn’t name a single other flower. There were flowers that looked like daisies, flowers that looked like lilies, and one I thought looked like lavender. I realized that I couldn’t name a single rose, or another flower. I had enjoyed gardens all my life, but at that moment I realized that I knew nothing at all about them.
I suddenly wanted to know more. I realized that I couldn’t know a garden unless I knew the names for the plants. It was like being a roomful of strangers. They were familiar, they were interesting and attractive, but they were strangers. I desperately wanted to learn to know these individuals.
Then I turned a corner and saw a vast clump of Hollyhocks. I knew these! There had been a clump of them in a sunny corner of my cousin’s garden. I had loved them as a child, I think because they were so tall. And, like me, cheerful but a bit undisciplined.
Virginia’s hollyhocks were a scraggly looking bunch. Only a few ragged red blooms remained on the yellowing stalks, along with shabby leaves, and bursting seed pods. A sorry sight, but something about the thrill of recognition captured me.
I walked up to the hollyhocks and picked a handful of damp seed pods. There was no reason to be surreptitious. No one would care, nevertheless, I did feel a bit guilty as I slipped them into my pocket. Coming home through customs, I felt the same twinge of guilt as I breezed through. “Nothing to declare.”
A year or so later I moved to the country with a vague idea of having a garden and a little plastic baggie of dried hollyhock seeds. To be truthful, my fantasy was of a garden just like the one at Monk’s House. Somehow if I planted Virginia’s hollyhock seeds, everything else would follow. I planted the seeds in a sunny corner and waited.
In a way, everything did follow. That was years ago. The hollyhocks came up. My garden evolved as gardens do. Over the years I’ve learned the names of more plants that I can count. My garden isn’t even close to the same garden I fell in love with that day in the rain. It didn’t happen easily or quickly, but over the years it has become mine.