A Back Porch Recipe for Peace

From left: dogwood and winterberry. bark of three-flowered maple.

Gardening offers me an outside recipe for inner peace, or at least the opportunity to go hide on our screened-in back porch and ponder the meaning of life, mortality and the furrowed bark and brilliant fall colors of our three-flowered maple.

I look out, and the pink and white dogwood trees I planted almost 40 years ago at a time and place in life where I was as uncertain and vulnerable as they are now fully grown, their arching limbs solid and secure, and yet still reaching out beyond all that toward whatever must be.

I sit alone on that porch of our 150-year-old farmhouse and see a once bare and weedy landscape flowing with such home-made history, promise and fate, becoming every day more aware it’s all passing me by. What began with my hands will quite soon be out of my hands.

My recipe to deal with that approaching finality is to enjoy the moment, to look out where the dogwood limbs almost touch the bright-red fruit of the winterberry bush, itself to soon serve as desert for the cedar waxwings before they -as with so many Louisvillians – head south to Destin, Florida for the winter.

It is a recipe equal parts joy, pride and resignation. I knew very little of raising dogwood trees 40 years ago, or the winterberry bush, or the nearby blackgum tree with its waxy red and orange leaves that add to my autumnal joy and back-porch satisfaction.

I dug their birth holes with a sharp spade, enjoying the clinging dirt and easy sweat that came with it.  All that helped create my atavistic responses to some long-gone ancestor who went at the same basic chore with a sharpened stick and no need of pricey garden gloves or three-dollar bottles of water.

History and recipe come thickly in that area, which is named “Janet’s Garden” because it is well-weeded and organized – two attributes that own my wife but have so far escaped me.

Her garden, perhaps 30 feet behind our back porch, is our museum and water-fountain-mecca. It is flanked by two massive concrete planters that once served as cattle feeders at the long-gone Louisville Bourbon Stockyards.

Its low front iron fence came with our house – or at least we like to say so. There is no one left to prove us wrong. Its tall, spikey back fence came from a century-old Louisville Highlands home.

The garden centerpiece is the rusted metal frame of a window from the nearby Jeffersonville Quadrangle that first let in light in 1874 and served as a storehouse and shirt factory for the next four American wars.

All peace recipes must come with their own bloody histories, too.

The recipe ingredients on our eight acres go well beyond Janet’s garden. They include a massive pin oak, itself once so vulnerable my father backed over it in his car.

It now towers over all in our yard, nurturing squirrels – our guests in need of shade – and memories of my parents.

Our barn is rough-cut, lumber, a new-old structure built from other wooden barns that were torn down one board at a time and hauled home to recycle history once the old nails were removed.

The beams that support it came from a forgotten funeral home, its ghosts all left behind. The barn went up over a year’s time with help from a lot of hammer-handy friends and about ten cases of beer – another old recipe.

The stone wall that angles around the barn came from a stone wall at the back of a neighbor’s field that time and weather had laid low and buried in the weeds.

Robert Frost was right about that one. Our good neighbor sold it all to me for $100. Our son and I loaded all those heavy, hand-chiseled keepsakes into a once-white pickup truck – 14 loads in all – and brought them home for reuse, this time as my wall.

Such ownership is temporary. I have no doubt that after I’m gone someone else will come to buy those stones to mix into their back-porch recipe.

Our daughter still lingers here at our farm home, too.  She loved its nature. She joined our local 4-H with her mother as her teacher. She grew her own flower memories.

A straight-A student, she learned the multi-tasker jump shot that helped her gain an Ivy League entrance on a cement basketball court constructed with the help of even more friends in the shade of our volunteer maple trees.

The view out our back porch slides over to a paw paw tree, a weeping green fir, a now massive sugar maple first transplanted in a wheelbarrow, and a dominant Kentucky Coffee Tree with its dark, heavily ridged bark and wide welcoming arms. Even Hoosiers need a Kentucky Coffee Tree.

The ingredients all blend together – the old and the new, the sense of time, the sense of place -and I never tire of its meaning and offerings of peace.

It is history. It is friends. It is family – the three ingredients of life that have always meant the most to me, and surely must be the same with you.


  1. I too have found at hopefulness, peace and connection to the earth in gardening. Having just planted a black gum, oaks, Kentucky coffeetree, dogwoods and more in the last five years, your beautiful piece really filled me with optimism. Thank you.

  2. A beautiful reflection on the view from a certain place, age and stage. I have no pawpaw (and in truth, mostly I content myself with photographing the trees in a nearby cemetery), yet I share your sentiments about tree planting. Tomorrow I’ll take delivery (through the kindness of a young friend for whom I’ll make lunch and offer a glass of wine) of two sassafras trees, long on my ‘coveted’ list. I must say, given that I have now reached three-score-and-ten, that I’d forgotten how bloody hard it is to dig a hole for tree!

  3. Thank you for your lovely essay. I understand your bittersweet feelings about your garden, and how gardens are only ours for a time. I planted a lovely Stella dogwood in my small (compared to yours!) backyard when I was feeling pretty low with serious health troubles, and not sure I’d be around to see it grow and bloom. It was a stick, only about as tall as my shoulder. The first time it flowered, it was a sort of victory to see it.

    Now, its 18 years later, I’m still here, and the tree is more than 20 feet tall and wide, and produces beautiful pink flowers every spring. I look out and remember when I planted it, and thank the good Lord that I get to see those flowers (and all those daffodils and azaleas!) every year.

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