Like many people living through the pandemic, I reached deep into my analog core and bought a jigsaw puzzle.
The last puzzle I had tackled, as I recall, was a scene from the old American West of a locomotive puffing across a ravine on a wooden trestle bridge. I can’t remember whether I ever completed it; this was a long time ago, when the Beatles were still together and the moon was free of footprints.
I am now marginally more patient and a lot more methodical, so my new puzzle has come together slowly but surely, and as the picture has emerged, so, too, has its lessons. One is that there are strong parallels between putting together a jigsaw puzzle and building a garden.
Both require having a long view and assembling pieces in a logical order. For anyone daunted by the prospect of creating a landscaped garden, who doesn’t know how or where to start and isn’t familiar with all the plants out there, the puzzle offers some unexpected enlightenment.
First, you need a framework for the entire composition. In a puzzle, that’s made up of the edge pieces. For a garden, it consists of the hardscape structures (or hedges) that give the landscape its spatial qualities.
The gardener puts in beds and borders, then begins to plant. In puzzle and garden alike, it is too overwhelming and chaotic to tackle everything at once. To stay focused, you pick an area and build on it.
My new puzzle has another kinship with the garden, in its subject matter and emotional response. Gone is the chuffing train, replaced by a fanciful illustration of birds in a citrus grove, created by the artist Geninne D. Zlatkis. The birds are of an invented species, robin-like but exotic in their azure, flecked plumage and the black filigree of their wing feathers. They are perched amid seven plump oranges, more than a dozen orange blossoms in flower or bud, four honeybees and a tracery of stems and leaves. Titled “Naranjas,” which means “oranges” in Spanish, it has a Latin vibe; Zlatkis studied architecture in Chile and graphic arts in Mexico.
Zlatkis, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, told me that the birds are based on the mountain bluebirds she sees in the state, the oranges are a reminder of her trips to Florida, and the puzzle’s vivid hues flow from the color sense she developed while living in Mexico. The puzzle illustration was based on an original version featuring a single bird, but it was made more elaborate for the puzzle maker.
She and her 23-year-old son, Daniel, tackled the 1,054-piece puzzle. “I thought it was incredibly hard,” she said, adding, however, that they finished it in 24 hours. “My son is really good,” she said. I wonder whether he’d like to learn how to weed.
What I’ve discovered over the past eight months (I’m a bit slower than Zlatkis and her son) is that there is no point in picking up a random puzzle piece and hoping to find its home. Instead, you look at the pieces already assembled and imagine the one you need next. You must find, say, a horizontal one that is orange on the left, sky blue in the middle and has the black streak of a leaf stalk in the lower right. You picture what you need in your mind’s eye before you look for it.
In the garden, this is akin to looking at a gap in a flower border and deciding you need a perennial that will provide harmony or contrast with its neighbors, grow 2 feet high and 18 inches across, and bloom at a given moment in the growing season. Or you need a fine-textured shrub, compact in habit and 5 feet tall, and suited to the prevailing light conditions.
You pick the plant based on the space, rather than buying one on impulse and then trying to figure out where it might be happy. The latter is an ill-advised approach, the horticultural equivalent of attempting to make puzzle pieces fit with the help of a mallet.
If you want to switch one plant with another, the way you might turn a puzzle piece right side up, well, you can do that, too. It’s better to rearrange plants while they are still in their nursery containers, but those that are newly in the ground can be dug up and moved quite easily as well.
Here’s a morsel of newly acquired wisdom: The more puzzle pieces you find, the easier the puzzle becomes. It is more likely that you will find the piece you need among the 400 scattered upon your table than among 800. There are not only fewer pieces as you progress, but also fewer pieces that look the same. This phenomenon has a cascading effect; by the time you have just a couple hundred pieces left, you are almost home. The dread of never finding the right piece is replaced by the doom of completing the puzzle. Yes, it’s more about the process than the result, which is also the essential truth of why we garden.
The parallels extend not just to creating a garden but also to something deeper: creating the gardener. Filling spaces in the garden is about broadening your plant repertoire. This takes many growing seasons, but the more plants you know and the more spaces you have filled, the easier it is to fill the remaining voids.
There is one flaw in the puzzle-as-garden metaphor. “Naranjas” should be completed by the time you read this. But the garden is never done; even the most static landscape shape-shifts throughout the seasons and the years. You can redo areas that have grown too large or lackluster. The garden is the never-ending puzzle. Before the pandemic, during the pandemic and after the pandemic, whenever that will be.
Gardening tip: Coneflowers should be deadheaded to promote reflowering, but leave some of the blooms to go to seed to provide food for finches this fall.