by: Christine Gray

Yes, the garden says it all.

One of Edgar Cahn’s favorite sayings is that the way to radical transformation is by setting in motion things you do not control. With that visionary spirit, he has either “set in motion” or, at the very least, been an active force in the following, in chronological order:

  • a federally funded national system of legal services for the poor;
  • fundamental reforms to a costly federal food program that left hunger blooming, untouched, while the coffers of well-connected farmers grew fat;
  • the push by Native American tribes to hold on to their sovereignty as nations within the nation;
  • a whole new approach to legal education by law schools nationwide;
  • timebanking
  • a magical garden.

Yes, it is true: last but not least is a magical garden that year by year has charmed members of his local neighborhood and has delighted all those who make a special point of driving by to see what’s what.

For us, it so much more than “just a garden.”  It is, every year, a story. It’s a story of investment, emergence, flowering, growth.

Here is that story.

Slow-Motion FireWorks

Darkness is where the story begins. The unknown. Darkness is where it ends, with new planting and hopefulness. In-between is color, light, a slow-motion firework display that commands attention. March to September, the evolving, crazy-quilt pattern of shape, form and color of Edgar’s garden brings forth sight-seers, just as the Carolina Silverbell blossoms draw forth the bees.

The one thing you can say with certainty about his garden is this:  You will never know quite how it is going to turn out. The only thing that’s certain is that a kind of jungly delight will emerge that demands watching.

For while it is true that throughout this leafy Washington neighborhood there is a host of  beautifully cared for and groomed gardens, all lovely in their way, it is also true that for ongoing, emergent, accidental design, it is Edgar’s garden, situated at a cross-street, that wins the prize.

Beginning, Middle, and Almost End

In March is the start.  Crocus and hyacinths pop up from the early, cold and barren-looking soil. The smell of the hyacinths wafts across the sidewalk.

Tulips, daffodils, creeping phlox and cherry blossom come next.


Then, as tulip petals droop and drop, alliums, irises, silver bell, azaleas and salvia step up.

Next up are the dianthus, peonies, and rhododendrons, their brilliant colors tucked into corners here and there. Rosebuds, deceptively small, start fattening up for the massed brilliance soon to come.

And then, as rosebuds open, come carpet lilies, petunias, and pansies.

Summer days turn hot. The massed roses fade away. Day lilies, gladiolas, crocosmyia, and hydrangea take their turn. They are followed quickly by the oriental lilies and crape myrtle.

And finally, as summer rolls into its blistering height, the colors slip away. The lilies and hydrangea lose their brilliance, give up their last petals, and leave standing their stark, bare stalks.

The End is Not the End

In past years, the height of summer with all its heat and humidity was too much. As the hum of air-conditioning cooler fans graced the hot air, and humans—and least, the sane ones – stayed tucked indoors, so the heat kept the flowers at bay.

It was, traditionally, The End of The Show. Time to go. Or, more precisely, time to go until the chrysanthemums made their entrance and announced that fall has come.

But then Edgar discovered dahlias – and now, at the blistering height of summer, just as everything else gives up with heat exhaustion, the dahlias burst forth in all their magnificence and fill new spaces with astonishing, vibrant, color.

Only when the dahlias have given up the ghost does firework show close down. The garden slides into fall and autumn.  The days grow shorter. Puffy chrysanthemums strut their stuff.  The trees, so taken for granted all summer long, then have it – their leaves burnished and glowing, are a show of their own.


Alchemy and TimeBanking

Finally, the cold comes swooping in.  The annual show ends. The garden goes dormant. The soil is once more bare. It’s time again to plant. Edgar dons his ancient, worn, denim jacket and his beaten-up garden gloves, goes out into the garden and begins the big dig. On average, he plants around 500 new bulbs.

We wait, then, for nature to do its part. Every year is a new gamble as to how it will all emerge. The planting and the weather (and sometimes, those pesky squirrels) all come into play. We never do know.

In spring, the cycle restarts. The crocus, early tulips and hyacinths emerge.  The alchemy begins anew.

And we think: Wow, what a great metaphor for Timebanking.  So often, so hard to predict.  So often, so amazingly magical and transformative. It takes leadership. It takes work. It takes vision.

But if the investment is true, the results are amazing.