Growing up, my dad let me pick out the flowers for the flower bed in front of our screened back porch. Top of the list was always snapdragons with their elaborate blooms that, if you pinch gently in the right place, animate the dragon’s velvet petal jaws. I wanted zinnias with their blasts of fat color. I liked marigolds with their happy yellow pucks. I didn’t know the different between an annual and a perennial; I just picked what I liked. My grandmother had beautiful tiger lilies, the last of her tended garden. My aunt and uncle have years of green thumb experience, from their houses in Louisville and Durham, and elsewhere.
Dad grew vegetables, too, in a big rectangle in the corner of the yard – tomatoes, lettuces, squash, green pole beans, zucchini, yellow wax beans, green peppers. I loved flowers, but I wasn’t a big vegetable eater as a kid and I am sorry I missed the bounty of the harvest then – what I wouldn’t give now to have my own vegetable garden! Dad mostly just does flowers and shrubs now, rescuing plants from sale bins to bring back to life in his suburban jungle.
Husband and I live in a condo with modest flowerbeds in the front and side yards. The patio and side yard are bordered by a rock wall which is mostly covered with thick glossy ivy, a remaining gift from a previous tenant. The first year we lived there I turned over all the dirt, hacked the ivy back to a reasonable size, and arranged the rocks I found buried in the yard around the beds. Clearly someone once tended the beds diligently – there was a heavy layer of rich dark topsoil and the rocks, though buried from years of neglect, had once formed the border of a well-maintained garden. We have a ton of mint, another remnant from the ivy-planters that rivals the ivy in its tenacity bathing us in its fresh scent every time we come or go through the front door.
The second year we lived there, the garden grew, taking on more from my father’s, mother-in-law’s and aunt’s gardens. From my father, spiderwort with tall bamboo-like stalks and petite purple blossoms, and strawberry begonia, a fast-growing hearty ground cover that reminds me of wee green and white lily pads. From my mother-in-law, day lilies and bee balm, purple iris and ferns, nestled among hosta and cone flower. We filled the back of the SUV twice to bring it all over, some of it I still don’t know the name of.
My aunt, having been instructed to cut back on her gardening due to severe arthritis and other ailments, guided me around her yard, sharing her wisdom – plant this in full sun, that in part shade. She told me to dig up a young hydrangea and as I did, she told me it had been part of one of her beloved step-mother’s plants from her home in Indiana. My aunt, after years of enjoyment from her beautiful gardens, was being told to stop doing this thing she loved so dearly, and when I turned to ask if I had done the job properly, I saw the tears welling up in her eyes. She gave me stokesia, or purple parasols, that opened their periwinkle umbrellas that summer, just after the hydrangea offered a single vibrant pink blossom. She gave me a helleborus, or Lenten rose, that blooms at the end of winter. That year, mine gave a single white bloom, its head hanging down as if in honor of the solemn season of Lent.
There have been gifts and donations, too. My friend gave me grocery bags of liriope, a border plant of long delicate dark green fingers. My friend confessed she hadn’t had time to do anything with them, and it was obvious – little green was left in the leaves and the root balls and dirt had practically petrified. But to my delight, the liriope thrived and came back to full health, even sending up stalks of dark purple berries in the late summer. Another friend donated a dwarf fir tree and forsythia. My husband’s aunt has gifted me coral bells which look like dark red lettuce, and a pretty lavender geranium. My mother-in-law gave me a Boston fern the size of a golden retriever, and striped purple and white verbena, and a lavender plant. My mother brought me a pink knockout rose, its many bright pink blossoms already a sign of its health and zeal.
This year, I raided my mother-in-law’s garden again – more bee balm and irises, a couple rose of Sharon starts, and something else I can’t identify. She also gave me two butterfly bushes that once they were half an hour out of the ground promptly wilted to a crisp and haven’t quite come back yet. She tells me this is normal and just wait it out.
I love walking out on the patio and catching a whiff of my geraniums in their terra cotta pots, waiting to be warmed by the sun. I love our patio sanctuary, cradled in the arms of the ivy. I love filling up my water pitchers and pouring a drink in the hanging impatiens and begonia. I adore getting filthy-dirty on a Saturday afternoon: weeding, transplanting, playing in the dirt. Until we moved into this house, I was a passive gardener, accepting roses from a friend’s garden or some herbs, participating in a CSA. Something has unfurled in me.
Is it nature or nurture? I come from growing stock. I joined a family with an avid gardener. Perhaps it’s both. There is something immensely satisfying in creation and sustaining of life. It’s not about knowing what to plant where. It’s not about showing off for the neighbors (although they do compliment me on it from time to time). It’s about tuning into life beyond my own skin and bones. There are no good gardeners or bad gardeners. There are just people who aren’t quite tuned in enough to something that’s in all of us – nurturing, cultivating, living alongside other living things.
I’ve had plenty of losses in three years. Sure, it’s just plants, but there’s something mighty disheartening about carefully tending something in the garden that dies. There’s a particular plant that grows like gangbusters for my mother-in-law. It has delicate stems and leaves and white-edged lavender flowers that hang like bells on the branches. I can’t seem to persuade this thing that my garden is a happy place – I’ve planted it four times and every time it gives up the ghost. Same for lavender, sage, and some sort of white and green stalk someone keeps giving me. I’m now on my fourth try with lavender and another go with sage because they are my favorites and I feel somewhat indignant that I can’t quite tune in to them.
But then I see the heads of the volunteer impatiens. Since we’ve moved in, these things pop up every year in mid- to late-summer, a whole fleet of pinks and whites and reds – the flower shapes remind me of lucky four-leaf clovers. I didn’t plant them. Frankly, I forget about them and I churn up the soil in the spring when I should really leave it alone, but those impatiens come back every year. They come back even though I forget about them, cheery faces enduring the incredible heat and humidity of our Kentucky summers.
I hate not having anything to do in the garden. Last weekend I pruned and weeded and transplanted for four hours and then all week, all I could do was water the yard and the potted geraniums. This, incidentally, is probably why I’ve killed so much lavender – I smother it with water or sun or whatever. I hate not having anything to do period so when there’s nothing to do in the garden, I water, or I move the pots around. Do they look better up on the wall or down on the patio? Should this basket hang here or there?
And that’s the hardest lesson the garden has given me. Sometimes, you just have to see what comes up. There are times when you can’t do anything but enjoy it. Sometimes the impatiens come back in places they didn’t grow last year. Sometimes the butterfly bush looks dreadful for months, then it bounces back. Some things just wither and die. Now might not be a good time to water. For a long time, I called it a Darwin garden – whatever came up, well, that’s what was in the garden. There is such a thing as over-caring.
This year I bought a sprayer nozzle and a sprinkler so I could water better. The sprayer nozzle is just lazy, it barely qualifies as a sprayer. More like a dribbler. The sprinkler has….special needs. The sprinkler has settings – FULL, CENTER, LEFT, RIGHT. Theoretically, you should be able to set the thing and have it only water the left side, say, or go back and forth. Somehow, the sprinkler I have is a high tech sprinkler. The settings have no correlation to their actual physical location. For example, turning the dial to FULL does not mean the sprinkler will rotate 90 degrees to water both sides of the yard. Sometimes, setting it on FULL means the spray will simply hover a foot off the ground and thoroughly saturate a two foot wide area. My method now involves turning the water off and on, making a kink in the hose to adjust the dial then pulling the kink out when I’m a safe distance away. It takes about 15 minutes before I give up and just let it do what it wants which normally results in a moat.
People ask me all the time how I “do it.” Do what, I ask? I put the stuff in the ground. The good lord does the rest, mostly. I mulch, I water sometimes, I transplant when stuff gets too big. I don’t fertilize. I don’t freak out about the Japanese beetles that love the purple thing I can’t identify.
Speaking of things living in the garden, I don’t mind the beetles so much. I’ve always thought they were sort of pretty with their coppery shells. We don’t get much in the way of rabbits, although I have been seeing a chipmunk lately. He ran over my foot on his way to the drainspout where I think he spends much of his rodent time. Sometimes I see hummingbirds at the geraniums and my hope is that when the butterfly bushes get out of their funk the hummingbirds will come back more often.
In the late summer, I am visited by writing spiders. I’ve written about them before here, but a consideration of me as a gardener and of my garden state of the union wouldn’t be complete without homage to the arigope aurantia. The appearance of these sleek black and yellow ladies is happy and sad – it means the end of summer has arrived and the garden will soon fall into its deep sleep, life retreating to the roots. So do we all, retreat in winter, the garden until it’s time to take a breath and exhale green.