My First Garden

When I took my Mom to see this house I had bought-she cried.  She was aghast.  Then she was mad-eventually she was just plain scared.  I was 30 years old-I had sold my little house in Ferndale at a profit of 7000.00-and bought this decaying uncared for wreck of a dwelling for the princely sum of 60,000.00.  I say princely, as I was blithely unconcerned about what it would take to make it liveable.  All I could see was the land-almost 5 acres.  I barely glanced at the house.  Too bad I no longer have the picture that showed a drive-in garage below grade. The furnace in a dirt hole under the house.  The garage had stacked, unmortared concrete block for columns, and roof from interior plywood.  Needless to say, I was unable to obtain any reasonable homeowner’s insurance; I had to go into a high risk very expensive insurance pool.  I did hire an excavating company to tear down the garage, and bring in fill.  The hill you see above-fill dirt.  The rocks-I persuaded a neighbor with a 1927 Ford tractor to haul rocks up that slope.  My idea-a rock garden.  Why not? 

My first house ever in Ferndale did not have a garden.  I had been making my living in my late twenties, such as it was, in fine arts.  A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts awarded me a grant to teach, and have a studio, in the Ferndale school district- in an artist in residence program.  I had to live in Ferndale, so my grandmother fronted me the down payment money for a house-5000.00.  I did pay her back, by the way.  My 15,000.00 a year salary/stipend was lots more than I was accustomed to.  All of my exposure to gardening, via my Mom, was only barely beginning to surface in an adult way. Gardening is a solitary pursuit.  Not so social.  Once I turned thirty, things changed.   The house in Ferndale-I had no garden.  But  I did have a huge collection of bearded iris.  This second house I bought for the property, as I was determined to garden.   I was 31.     

The house had lots of problems.  The brick was falling off.  It was heated with oil-filling the tank took 600.00-at 65 degrees, that oil lasted for 10 days in January.  Out of money, I turned the thermostat down to 45.   My first March in the house,  the hole under the house housing the furnace flooded-the furnace was ruined.  The place falling down around me, all I thought to do was plant.  I piled on the clothes, and lived without any heat.  The red heuchera you see here-an Alan Bloom introduction.  This is my memory of this time-more about the future, than the present.  The house you see here-a shambles.  The inside was just as bad; it smelled terrible.  I was young, and had a particular vision.  I lived through it.       

I had lots of energy-the kind that borders on and crosses over into obsession.  Politely put, I was so passionate about growing plants I could barely sleep. Composition was an idea I brought to bear in a painting.  My efforts at composing my garden ran into trouble.  I knew next to nothing about growing plants.  To this day I still say, if you want to learn how to garden, start gardening.  Put something in the ground, nurture it.  See how you like it-where you have placed it.  You will grow up eventually, if you keep at it.   I hauled no end of soil, rock, and plants around.  These Siberian iris planted in the shade of some old spruce-a beginner’s mistake.  I would learn plenty by virtue of what prospered, and what languished.  What was going on in this bed-not much, besides a collection of plants.  Every gardener has to start somewhere-there is no shame in that.  I got my feet wet. 

A few years passed.  Every spare dollar I had went to plants, and more plants.  My cat Babyhead was in his glory outdoors-much like I was.  Most of my first gardening choices were perennials.  Later I would add dwarf Hinoki cypress, and other shrubs/evergreens that seemed interesting.   

The rock garden-I planted into that noxious fill dirt- thymes, dianthus, antennaria, saponaria, dwarf spirea, calamintha, iris pumila-iris; how I loved them. 

Iris-how I better loved them.  This stand of spuria iris still looks good to me.  Though I loved the bearded iris, I grew as many types and species as I could.  Louisiana iris.  Japanese iris.  Siberian iris.  I grew species iris native to Turkey under hats that would keep the late summer rain off of them.  Nuts I was-for iris.    

The concrete steps out the front door eventually got a bluestone cladding. I had no idea how to do this-I just went ahead and did it.  My first garden-the encrusted saxifrages, the martagon lilies, the paeonia tenuifolia, the clematis Sho-Un, the iris species, the peonies-I had a mind to grow plants.  Just like you.


  1. Great story about your first garden — or maybe your first love affair with gardening?

    I hear you’ll be joining us at Garden Designers Roundtable for a guest post later this year. I can’t wait!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Pam, love affair is right! I am so pleased to have been asked to participate in the the Garden Designers Roundtable-thanks. Deborah

  2. I enjoyed this post for many reasons. I love knowing how you evolved into the magnificent gardener you have become, however I understand why you mother cried when she FIRST saw your house but I have a feeling she was smiling within the year.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Jane, it took 3 or 4 years before she was happy about it! A ramshackle house and 5 acres was a lot to take on. There are days when I am sorry I do not have it anymore. Deborah

  3. this is like watching a miniseries….can’t wait for the next installment!


  4. The photos brought back so many memories.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Denise, you are one of but a very few old friends that knew me then. These pictures have brought back a lot of memories for me too. Remember the shopping trip we took to Anna Mays to buy Japanese iris-what fun that was. It has been a lot of work going through boxes of old photographs and rephotographing them-but I have really enjoyed it. Deborah

  5. What a generous story….thanks for sharing it with us. I am also happy to know the truth…you demurred when I referred to you as “an artist.” Well…even the NEA thought so. Just in from four hours outside in the garden cleaning up on this instant spring day…the witch hazel and galanthus bloomed while I was at work today…absolute heaven.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Michael, how you feel, and how you write about what you feel is something I really treasure. Bring on the witch hazels and galanthus-like you, I am so thrilled to see some signs of spring. We share this-how and why we are ready. Thanks, Deborah

  6. Deborah,
    I can still see us in your Volkswagon Rabbit with daylilies filled to the roof and hanging out the car windows with barely for room us to sit and you to drive.
    We were so excited with such a haul.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Denise-I do remember! Were we not something else-how we loved to garden? I have really good memories-and just as much hope for the future. Buck and I had burgers outside tonight-how good is this? Spring is in the air. Deborah

Leave a Comment