I make flower gardens for a living. One of my clients is dying. Last September I was cleaning out overgrown annuals from her garden when Susan returned from her morning jog, her face bedewed with sweat. She smelled warm and earthy. "I have pancreatic cancer," she said. "They tell me I have six months to live." I found this hard to understand, since she smelled so good I wanted to ask her out.
     A few months later I was in my poorly lit basement surrounded by thousands of bulbs of tulip, narcissus, hyacinth, allium, crocus, and more. The strong close smell of the bulbs, like the odor of the inner thigh of a tree, permeated the basement. After a while of sorting bulbs in the semi-dark I felt like a tulip myself, yearning for packed earth all around me. I started mulling about Susan's cancer, its suddenness and inexorability. I lost thought. When I came back to awareness I had selected several hundred bulbs and loaded them into large cardboard boxes. I couldn't remember which ones I'd chosen.
     I loaded up my little red truck and drove over to her place. I walked around her yard, carefully placing small brown paper bags of bulbs. I wasn't thinking of color, bloom time, or height-the usual way of designing a bulb garden-because it was all I could do to cope with the anger of the tulips. They were on the verge of fury if I even thought of putting them in the wrong place. This was new. I've been gardening for a long time, and I hadn't experienced the ire of a tulip bulb before. I could feel them inside the bags, like little elves' heads with pointy caps. They were glaring at me, even though they had no eyes. I was glad they had no teeth.
     I obediently placed all the bags where they wanted to go then opened one of them and laid out the individual bulbs in a pattern on top of the ground. I jumped on the footrest of the bulb-planting tool that looked like a pogo stick, made an eight-inch-deep fist-sized hole, placed the first bulb inside, and covered it up. Both bulb and I felt satisfied for it to be surrounded by the dark of the dirt. As I popped little heads in holes I could see colors coming up in the spring. My movements slowed as I realized what I was doing. I'd never made a pattern like this before. The combinations of colors were worse than clashing. This was tulips to tear open heaven. I had no right to do this to anybody, particularly to anybody paying me to garden for them.
     I kept on working, spurred by angry tulips. Next spring, after the fragrant daffodils, the trouble begins. In front of the garden swing, Susan's favorite spot, large groups of short early tulips packed tightly together will flare with red like a fist, ivory like a chalice, and a white as bright as God. This will be only a prophecy of what's to come in May, when a front-and-center swath of Black Hero will rise like death triumphant next to the crumpled, dying petals of a group of single early white tulips blushed with soft rose like the mother of Jesus. The flowers of Black Hero are doubled like roses, so each tulip is like a basket of night with no stars. On their other side will be a grand sweep of long elegant tulips that open creamy yellow then ripen to ivory as they arch upward to heaven like St. Theresa dying of tuberculosis, giving in to death like an empress, one slow, gorgeous ivory petal at a time. Black Hero demanded the dying Mother of Jesus on one side and St. Theresa on the other the same way uranium-234 demands a lead casing.
     My alarm grew as I filled in the main garden--the huge, roughly oval bed extending from the garden swing to the front door-with alternating stripes of color. I don't like stipes in a garden, yet next to a forgiveness so white it could sink ships I planted a red that couldn't stop hemorrhaging; then a double-petaled white as soft as babies; a lethal scarlet; an ivory like a dying saint; and finally, a deep, clear, painful plum called Negrita that could make a man weep whether he had anything to cry about or not.
     I was suddenly too angry to work. Alternating red and white stripes is just plain rude. My mood affected the sparrows, who were suddenly chirping all around me, strutting through the mulch peck-pecking at it like beady-eyed maniacs. It was a dim, clouded afternoon in late November, and my last chance to plant bulbs in this garden. I sat on the hood of my truck and watched the sparrows...and remembered a few years ago Susan had hired a professional photographer to come to the garden. She had the best shot blown up to poster size, then framed and hung in her kitchen so she could look at the garden all winter long...and when she first found out she had cancer she was standing in this garden surrounded by tulips. Her very first thought was, I wonder if there are tulips in heaven. I decided to plant the tulips' design, not mine. They knew something about death I did not.
     I was fine for a while. But as the hours passed I found myself disagreeing more and more with the pattern I was planting. Nervous fatigue joined physical strain. Next May Susan will walk from her front door to her car and be confronted by a harebrained clutch of Weber's Parrot. They have petals that writhe as if trying to get free of the stem, shredding their edges like a feather, and are colored mental-hospital white with one manic purple streak. Wondering why I had just put chattering insanity on the path to her car, I reached for the next bag--it was Black Hero. I was sure I'd finished all the death tulips, but this one hadn't been opened yet. I laid them out and popped them in. This pattern was as amenable to alteration as the arrangement of bombs falling from an airplane. I planted as fast as I could, afraid Susan would show up and ask me what I was doing.
     Sweat dripped down my cheeks even though it was less than 50 degrees out. When I was done with the little death bombs I reached for the next bag of bulbs--Negrita. I'd brought a second bag of plum-colored grief by mistake. I would not only never repeat colors so closely in a garden, I would never make anyone walk a gauntlet of chattering insanity, death, and compulsive weeping on her way to her car. If Susan turns her head to avoid that macabre display she'll find herself looking at Orange Lion, an outlaw bunch of flaming shrieks directly in front of a platoon of bigmouth yellow called Mrs. J. T. Scheepers. Mrs. Scheepers is filled so densely with joy her yellow could kill, and she knows it.
      I realized I was planting the tulips so closely that when they bloom the petals of one will touch the next as if they're holding hands, assaulting the eyes with a river of color so dense and bright after the gray of winter that an innocent bystander could lose his grip on his ego. I didn't want to do that to anybody. My resolve to carry out the design weakened-the bulbs stepped in like little warriors, so fiercely protective of where they wanted to go that to move them was tantamount to child abuse. I gave in. Like being led blindly through the woods, I planted bulbs exactly where they wanted to be planted until it was too dark to see what I was doing.
     The next morning at dawn I slid the truck in front of the house. I finished the tulips in a few hours, watered in the bulbs, and then as a final touch scattered a few autumn leaves on top of the beds. I felt like a minister strewing ashes, only in reverse. This was a benediction. The little buried heads were full of life, not death. That night I dreamed I was the dark earth making love to Susan the tulips. Next spring they will break through the ground like a thousand brand-new babies aching with life.



Everything in this story is true. I installed Susan's garden five years ago, and have put bulbs in every fall since. I was compelled to write out the story of the Battle of the Bulbs because I could not resolve an event so vigorous and unusual any other way.

A couple called me last week and said they always took a walk to Susan's garden whenever they had a fight, because it made them feel extraordinarily calm and refreshed. They said I should charge for marriage counseling.

Their response made sense because the garden has a blank space that can only be filled by a person. Only when you're inside it is the garden complete. Most elaborately planned landscapes or museum gardens wouldn't notice or care if you were not there to see them. Susan's garden misses you personally.

Susan has outlived her doctor's prognosis by one year as of this date.

I make decisions with my shovel and by the way my body responds to the land, the plants, and the client. I can never tell what I'm going to do until after I've done it. In effect I go blind and stupid. Then I begin.