Pearl Cleage’s fantasy garden

Every spring, I dream of filling our entire yard with fragrant camellias

Pearl Cleage Garden essay

Illustration by Babeth Lafon

I love gardens. I have bought innumerable calendars with beautiful photographs of Japanese Zen gardens, French flower gardens, Italian vegetable gardens, formal English gardens. I even visited one of the most famous British landscapes, the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, which were created by Vita Sackville-West, a poet, novelist, journalist, and close companion of writer Virginia Woolf. The grounds were huge, wilder in some parts and more strictly organized in others but overall very peaceful, with little gravel paths to separate the white blooms from the purple bearded iris. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine Vita and Virginia strolling there at twilight, as lovers are wont to do, touching this blossom or that one, talking about what they were writing.

But the truth is that I’m more of a fantasy gardener—in much the same way that I clip complicated, multistep recipes I have no intention of ever actually cooking. I mentally plant beautiful flowers in the beds of my front yard, which are pretty much empty except for one giant pink azalea and one camellia, whose blooms send such sweetness into the air every spring that I immediately abandon my other horticultural plans and determine to surround my house with nothing but camellia bushes.

The imaginary planting began when I read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden as a child. The main character is a plucky little girl who, along with two equally plucky friends, discovers a long-neglected garden and creates a magical space where they can play together in peace while healing old family wounds. After I finished reading that book, I looked out my bedroom window at the disorganized tangle of our backyard and wondered if my sister and I had sufficient pluck to transform it. We never did.

The first real gardens I remember belonged to my grandfather and my mother, his youngest daughter. Living in Detroit, they didn’t have much land to work with, but they made the most of it. My grandfather grew bright marigolds and deeply orange poppies. My mother was famous for her tomatoes. She also grew green beans and sweet corn and tiny potatoes that were just the right size to drop into a pot with the aforementioned green beans. My mother usually fried fish or chicken to round out the meal, but all I needed was a plate full of those vegetables with a little butter, a little salt, and maybe a pan of cornbread to honor my grandfather’s Alabama roots.

My husband, Zeke, who is an actual gardener, does his best to accommodate me. Our sunny backyard in southwest Atlanta is the site of his annual summer garden that includes squash, eggplant, hot peppers, sweet peppers, and enough tomatoes to share, cook, and eat at the kitchen sink. He does every bit of the work while I rush in at the moment of perfect ripeness to harvest a whole meal from our own backyard. Until then, we walk in the garden at sunset, as lovers are wont to do, and talk about what we’re writing.

Pearl Cleage is the Distinguished Artist in Residence at the Alliance Theatre.

This article appears in our Spring 2021 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.