GArden entangle us in the cycles of life: each winter is a preparation for more permanent losses, each spring a reminder of the possibility of renewal to come. Lulah Ellender started writing grounding after her mother’s death; Searching the family home, she found a journal in which her mother recorded the rhythms of her gardening year, and this becomes a guide to her own engagement with her garden. Ellender recognizes that her garden—as a physical space and a way of life—represents a point of communion with her mother, a way to keep in touch with her through plants and flowers. “Your duties are now my duties,” she writes.
The book begins with Ellender and her family – a husband and four children, all unnamed – at a turning point in their lives. They rent a house in a town in Sussex (also unnamed but probably Lewes) and their landlord has just died. There is a legal dispute about the property: one party wants to evict the tenants, the other wants them to stay. At first, Elender feels defeated. She and her husband raised their children in the house. The large garden is a place of beauty and sanctuary (although, as she later says, “to tend this garden is to engage in a constant struggle not to be overwhelmed”). The possibility of losing her home is reminiscent of a previous loss – the West Country farmhouse where Ellender grew up and from which she was banished when “my parents split up, my father went broke and we had to move out”.
grounding is the record of a summer tending the garden with a fervor that is a “modest and silent act of defiance” that makes the place beautiful even if it may no longer be hers to enjoy when the of her planted cosmos seeds burst into bloom. Moving from spring to the autumnal equinox, the book chronicles both the specifics of Ellender’s struggles with climbing roses and a garden too clearly divided between sun and shade, and a broader consideration of why so many of us devote so much of our Spend life living tending our gardens. “In gardening, part of us is trying to recapture some of that dreamy quality of being a child outdoors,” she writes at one point in a delightful chapter on childhood and gardens.
I have read many gardening books – if I spend my summers gardening, my winters are all about gardening books and seed catalogs – but I have read very few that were as moving and literary as grounding. Ellender lives near many wonderful gardens and writes beautifully about Charleston and Monk’s House (she notes that the Bloomsbury gang also rented her estates), Sissinghurst and Great Dixter. We find many of the great garden writers here – Christopher Lloyd and Vita Sackville-West, Sue Stuart-Smith and Mirabel Osler – but also Tove Ditlevsen and Jorge Luis Borges, Helen Simpson and Katherine Mansfield. We understand that these writers are part of the garden for Ellender and shape her perspective. As summer draws to a close—and Ellender’s possible eviction—we join her in marveling at the beauty of the garden, despite—or perhaps because of—its ephemeral nature. We leave Ellender with hope and the garden has helped to strengthen that hope. As Alice Oswald says, “If anyone knows how to bet on the future, it has to be gardeners.”