a great cloud of witnesses

One of the aspects of gardening I love best is the congregation of stories and histories that comes together in any one garden. The history of the land itself joins with that of the gardener as well as the stories and interests of plant breeders and purveyors. There is a great cloud of witnesses in any garden.

This cloud of witnesses is especially numerous and palpable in our gardens here at the monastery. We have lived on this property since 1902. In those 114 years many monks have had their hands in the dirt of our gardens. Though no trace of them remains today, in the earlier days of the monastery we had large vegetable and fruit gardens. A 1904 article in the New York Times claims that “the fathers themselves will help till the soil and reap the harvests” from the 2,500 grape vines and hundreds of fruit trees that were planted on the property. No one living seems to know whether we ever actually did harvest those grapes.

Harvest or no, our property still bears the marks of those who have watered its ground with their sweat. The magnificent copper beech that dominates the guesthouse lawn testifies to Br. Will Brown’s vision of simple elegance. The daffodil lawn still glows in the spring, reminding us of our former brother Kevin’s passion for naturalizing bulbs. And the iris garden behind the enclosure, as full of weeds now as iris, highlights the vision of a unnamed gardening forebears. All around us the voices of our ancestors invite us to join in the song of their creative praise.

The unsung heroes of our monastery gardens, however, are the hundreds–perhaps thousands–of volunteers who have watered our grounds with their sweat over the last century and a bit.


the small cloister before renovation


It has been my primary goal in my work as groundskeeper to renovate our garden spaces and retune our collective ears to the voices of those who have worked this land before us. These workers include not just brothers but also hundreds of volunteers, associates, and friends whose vision and labor has gone into making our grounds beautiful and productive over the years. In the last two years most of our gardening work at the monastery has been largely the work of uncovering. We have cleared away weeds and debris, cut back encroaching brush, pruned dead tree limbs, and excavated crumbling flower beds. Beneath all the clutter that nature had accumulated, we have found beautiful plants, yearning for a little space to spread themselves out and flourish once more. They just needed a little attention.


the small cloister after renovation


This work of renovation extends, too, to the choice of new introductions to our gardens. I am captivated by historic and heirloom cultivars, many of which have their own histories and stories to add to our chorus. Take my favorite daylily, ‘Theron,’ for instance. This beauty dates back to 1934, when A.B. Stout introduced it as the first red daylily. It’s so rarely grown now that you almost never see it, yet its simple, straightforward beauty is remarkable. Plants like these remind me that my work as a gardener is as much about preserving beauty as it is about creating it. Knowing the histories of the plants that fill our flower beds also gives those plants a personality and brings them to life beyond their short bloom time and connects us to the community of people around the world working to preserve heirloom plants and their histories.


‘Theron’ daylily, 1934


Much like the monastic life itself, our gardens are much the more beautiful for the hundreds or thousands of lives that have been lived, at least in part, in proximity to their blooms.


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2 Replies to “a great cloud of witnesses”

  1. Will, What a wonderful post! I sometimes feel that way in my garden, too — that the beauty I’m enjoying is the result of so many others , and if we could only see them all we’d be stunned — and overwhelmed with gratitude. I’m glad to hear you like ‘Theron’ so well, too! I don’t know if you ever saw our newsletter article about it, “Uncle Theron Returns Home,” but you can read it at http://www.oldhousegardens.com/DaylilyArchives#UncleTheron. — Scott Kunst, Old House Gardens


    1. Thanks for the link, Scott. I’ll check it out. And thanks, too, for the all the work you all do to bring these gorgeous heirlooms back to us. It makes gardening so much more fun to have the stories to go with the flowers!


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