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Unique gardening book is a call to 'hope and glory'

Published 04/04/2014 12:00 AM

Kathleen O'Beirne might well ask of Mary, Mary, quite contrary, "How does your garden grow?"

But she'd never stop at that.

She'd also ask: And what do you grow? And how did you choose them? And how do they make you feel? And what does gardening give you?

Just as she asks readers of her newest book, "Gardening: A Window on Our Soul."

"As gardening is the number one hobby in America, there must be nourishment of all sorts going on," she writes in the book's introduction. "This book is designed to help you tease out the richnesses in your horticultural endeavors."

For O'Beirne, gardening isn't just about irises and primrose and daffodils and sage and pachysandra and such. It's about life. . . and what she calls "lifescaping," which, for her, means choosing one's own creative balance and rejecting any task or responsibility or request that unbalances the scale. Serving on yet another board, say, or tackling the monthly newsletter for this-or-that club.

Almost every page of her book is a chapter unto itself: 240 pages of ruminations on a lifetime of sowing and reaping – and invitations to her readers to contemplate their life's work. Somewhat like a workbook, each chapter asks questions of its armchair audience. Writing about the "good days" of summer, she asks: What special pleasures come this time of year in your garden? In your life? Writing about "a gorgeous October day," she asks: As we experience the autumn of our lives, how can our perspective enhance our reality? And writing about the "sorrow" of approaching winter, she asks: Does the sorrow part of the equation intensify the sweetness?

"I want people to take responsibility for developing their own insights," she explains. "I want them to be very aware of their environment, to know what moss feels like, to know that some leaves feel like velvet and some are sticky, to see drops of dew that sparkle."

O'Beirne delights in her own gardening – the flowers and trees and shrubs around her 1926 Dutch Colonial home in Mystic and in Ledyard, at the pond-front, summer-retreat site with its 1930s farmhouse. All together, the plantings (plus her husband Mick's vegetable garden) supply ample opportunity to ponder the verities of nature, both plant and human.

"Let's walk the windows," she says on a winter morning when the temperature has just crept up into double digits, and savoring the view from indoors seems wise. From the living room's mullioned windows, she gestures to a favorite: the vivid red winterberry back-dropped against a winter-white garage. "They will stay that way until some magical day in February when the robins come back and they're famished and it becomes a tree full of robins."

And that row of tall, sturdy pines? She planted those years and years ago, when they were slender little things and Mick, then a submariner, was out at sea. The window tour shifts east, then south, each stop offering both a stark winter landscape and its hint of promise. Which brings to mind her Chapter 19, "Expectations," and the line quoted from a hymn: "In the cold and snow of winter, there's a spring that waits to be ..."

A riff on bulb-planting follows – how they're trusted to survive winter and burst forth in spring. "What many consider the sweetest season follows the most challenging," she writes. And then asks readers, Are our lives like this?

At 75, and with a bout of breast cancer in her past, O'Beirne finds herself given to a sort of winter-of-our-lives introspection, and a blessing-of-spring optimism.

"I want to pull a sort of psycho-spiritual parallel to the rest of our lives," she says.

She finds one such parallel in lady's slippers, wildflowers of the orchid family that can take 10 to 17 years to mature and bloom – often, as she writes, in a colony of other lady's slippers, "And the fact that these are plants that grow in the presence of others fits the human paradigm as well."

Like her previous self-published books – "Life Is a Beach: Musings from the Sea," and "Birds of a Feather: Lessons from the Sea," – this one came together piecemeal, her preferred method of working. She jots her thoughts on envelopes or church bulletins or whatever scrap of paper is at hand, often the tiny notebook she'll tuck into a hip pocket.

Her thoughts range across the gardening spectrum: planning for the spring, flashy annuals and sure-fire perennials, thinking about colors, fall clean-up, watering well into fall, thinking about a garden's year-round look, winter challenges, summer challenges. And more. And more. And more.

And, like a parent who shouldn't have a favorite child, or a teacher who shouldn't have a favorite student, O'Beirne loves all her plants but also has her favorites.

"I literally have things that call out to me," she says. "The witch hazel calls out to me. It says, 'Look at me, I'm full of hope and glory, and I'm ahead of everyone else.' And I have something called the royal catchfly, a little clutch of a pink plant. The catchfly did something quite astonishing – it cascaded up and produced more pink flowers."

O'Beirne had planted the catchfly, a perennial, before it shot up two feet, three feet, a surprise growth spurt that delighted her. Happy surprises in the garden, like those in life, are part of the fun, and her book celebrates them.

"You have a garden of opportunity," a friend once told her, remarking on the profusion of plant types on display there. "You see a plant you like and you buy it."

Recounting that observation, O'Beirne laughs at herself. "I do the same thing in how many other facets of my life," she says. "I'll be in a store and see a fabric that I like, and I'll buy it and take it home, and I will decipher, at some point, what to do with it."

The book is about that: the surprise, the wonder – all a part of gardening, all a part of life.