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  • Kristan Higgins

The Zen arts

Updated: May 6, 2022

beautiful tree

This should only take a hundred years or so…

My friend Joss bought a house last year in the middle of the pandemic. It’s tiny, in an adorable neighborhood, perfect for one woman and her dog. Since Joss was in my pandemic bubble, I got to help her unpack and install some shelves. She let me do a makeover of her study a month later…you know, where I forbid her to come in while I drag the furniture around and arrange things attractively on the shelves, then allow her in to express her delight. So much fun! I used to do the same with my kids when they were little.

And now, Joss has given me another gift—design her backyard garden. Unlike me, Joss is not the gardening type. And unlike my husband, Joss has complete faith in all my choices. “It’s yours,” she says. “Do what you want.”

the buddha

Wouldn’t be complete with the Buddha!

McIrish, despite his near-perfection as a husband, is the son of an Irish master gardener. He has opinions. He has lots and lots of opinions about which bushes go where, which trees to buy, which color flowers to plant. Once upon a time, the garden was my domain, but as my writing career heated up, he took over. We have exchanged some cruel words at various nurseries throughout New England. “Enough with the orange flowers!” I’ll snap. “How many hydrangeas do we need?” he’ll snap back. Dark times, readers. Dark times.

But Joss…she has no opinion other than her garden requires very little involvement from her. She has a black thumb. She killed an air plant. Let’s not talk about El Jeffe, her late betta fish. This spring, she excitedly told me that tiny purple and white flowers were bursting from her lawn. “Those are crocuses,” I said.

“They are?” she exclaimed. “They’re so cute! I didn’t know I had flowers!”

“That’s why they’re still alive,” said I.


Could I make this? I probably could, right?

And so Joss has given me carte blanche over her small, square backyard. I do not have to debate hosta choices with a spouse, and she doesn’t have to do anything other than smile and wave from the deck, perhaps give me some water from time to time. I love getting my hands dirty. I love digging holes and picking out carefree plants, especially without my evil overlord making disapproving noises in the background.

Screen Shot 2021-04-11 at 10.05.05 AM

I found a free design program online. Watch out, world!

I—I mean, we—are going with a Japanese garden vibe. Lot of shrubs, lots of evergreens, lots of moss and ferns. In other words, lots of stuff that will just grow to the delight of the homeowner each spring and summer. There may be a water feature. Definitely some statuary…the Buddha, and maybe St. Francis. Aslan. We’ll see.


The simple beauty of a dogwood, my favorite tree!

Joss’s house is the opposite of mine—mine is a farmhouse with a big front porch, woods all around, a field, lush cottage gardens. Hers is a one-story little ranch with a nice square backyard, ripe for planting. “Let’s keep this groundcover,” I say. “Plant some more bulbs out here. I’m thinking a slate path with moss.” Joss nods and murmurs, glancing at her watch. “You get back to work,” I say, and she happily goes back inside, amused that her friend is traipsing through her yard with a tape measure and a rake. It’s therapy for me. The road not taken, being single and solo, free to buy whatever the heck I want. In the end, I’ll have been happily indulged, and my dear friend will have something lovely to look out upon. Thanks, Joss! You’re the best!


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