It started with a handful of small red and white carnations in a glass Coke bottle, propped charmingly and invitingly in the cup holder of a fifteen year old navy blue Ford pickup truck. It was February, and the dead of winter, and the slush at the curb was up to my ankles when I stepped out to the pavement on the way to an evening of Irish dancing. Flower gardening, never a successful hobby, was the furthest thing on my mind. Staying warm and dry was more like it.
A proper bouquet followed a few days later, and then the next week, a gift of a miniature rosebush with perfect white blooms and sturdy green foliage. It sat on the kitchen counter until the blooms shriveled, and the leaves dropped, and I finally put it out on the back porch to get some actual sunlight and toughen up. If it was going to live here, it was going to have to fend for itself.
When it comes to gardening, I freely admit to having a “black thumb.” Not black as in fecund, fertile, life-giving soil, Earth Mother, goddess of fertility and all things abundant. Black like the kiss of death. My ability to kill indestructible plants is legendary. Philodendrons. Cactuses. Even Venus Fly Traps…and for heaven’s sake, those things are like wild animals, they catch their own prey and feed themselves.
But the man who has laid siege to my heart for the past several months with a tidal wave of thoughtfulness, likes to garden. No, that doesn’t do it justice. He’s full-tilt nuts about it. Happy, happy, happy when he’s digging in some more English daisies or a new variety of columbine. Lots of things in his yard are watered regularly, and mulched, and tended, and flourishing. And it is forever a work in progress. "Done" is not a word in his vocabulary.
The stretch of ground around my house, on the other hand, looked like Death Valley this spring. I’d had some improvements done to the lower level of the house last fall, and all that remained of the few straggly rose bushes that used to snatch at my ankles around August, begging for water, and three huge bushes that had to come down for the workmen to maneuver were a handful of ugly stumps and some peony shoots. We sat on his back porch one warm spring day, surveying his flower beds, and he explained that he was really, really getting the urge to garden for about the next month. And it was going to either be his garden or mine. “How about mine?” I said. And so the fuse was lit.
My soul began to stir, but in small increments at first. I went out to a couple of garden centers and bought rose bushes. A couple of big expensive ones, in a spirit of cautious optimism, but mostly bushes that ran no more than five bucks. If I was going to kill them, if they were really dead plants walking, I didn’t want to spend a lot. I bought a new set of gardening gloves for three ninety-nine. They were sky blue with little pink tulips on the backs. I felt as ready as I’d ever be.
He showed up the next Sunday with the truck loaded with gardening tools, a boom box, a bunch of rock and roll CDs, his teenage daughter, a chain saw and some beer. I weeded and yanked out rotted gardening cloth from beneath mouldering wood chips, served lunch and pondered where to put the new roses. He chain sawed the stumps to practically nothing, dug out and reset the timbers framing the rose beds to ground level, raked stones out of the dirt and dug the holes for the rose bushes. When the first of the two rose beds were done, we took a break and stood off to the side, admiring the promise of the half dozen leafless plants we had planted and drenched with water. The dirt was flat and bare, just waiting demurely for a coverlet to look decent.
“So where does a girl go for mulch?” I asked. Was I supposed to buy it at the garden store by the bag? Order it from a landscape supply place in bulk? Get it delivered by the bushel?
“Oh, I’ve got that in the back of the truck,” he said. Zing went the strings of my heart, and I felt my knees go weak. When he left, hours later, my universe had been transformed. Stepping out of my front door, I could see a straight line of rose bushes to the left and right, neatly edged, weed-free, prettily mulched with shredded cedar. “Oh man, this is like a canvas just waiting to come to life!” he said proudly before he drove off. His enthusiasm was a catchy as a wildfire in a drought.
The next project was far more ambitious. A two hundred square foot area next to the house covered by about two and a half tons of gravel with plastic sheeting underneath. I had looked at it like Sisyphus must have looked up that mountain after the first few fruitless tries at pushing that boulder uphill. I knew that with a veritable crew of gardeners and a baron’s budget, something could be accomplished, but this was too big a job for one or two people. My muse was not dissuaded. “Man, you could really put a garden in here!” he grinned.
The next Sunday, we would rendezvous with shovels and his roto-tiller and start digging, and see how far we got. Hope began to stir in my heart a little more, one tiny corner at a time. I began to look through expensive gardening catalogs for things I thought were pretty, then made nearly daily trips to the upscale garden store about a mile from my house looking for them priced cheaper in four inch pots. He brought me a goldfinch feeder and ten pounds of thistle seed to fill it with. I bought a double shepherd’s hook to hang it from, and a hanging basket of geraniums to balance it out. He brought me a watering wand. I hooked a hose up to the spigot by the front door. I bought a few pansies and geraniums to put in pots around the front of the house, then went searching for some lightweight and artistic pots to put them in. I bought dirt. I bought nemesia, which I’d never heard of before, but it’s an annual that looks like a mass of tiny orchids, so cute that I had to have it, even if I’d have to think of where to put it later. I bought lavender, and coneflowers, and coreopsis, and three kinds of delphiniums, and coral bells, and evening primroses, and daylilies and phlox. I even bought a butterfly bush. Then six.
I picked my son up from school one day, bursting with accomplishment at nabbing three tall matching deep blue delphiniums with white centers at the local garden store, alleged to eventually reach heights of up to six feet. They’d make a nice counterpoint to the butterfly bush. I was SO PROUD! My son looked at me with his eyes glazing over. Remember the sound the teacher made in those old “Charlie Brown” cartoon shows? “Wah, wah wah, wah wah…” Or the “blah, blah, blah…” that Bart Simpson hears when Mrs. Krabapple is talking? Well, that was the look I got. But nothing could rain on my parade!
The gravel-moving project was just as much work as it sounded like, but somehow we got it done over the course of a couple of weekends. Plastic was removed, extra rocks raked out, dirt tilled, plants put in and watered. My son helped us replant phlox and and a pair of peonies from a long-abandoned garden attempt while I ran to buy more mulch. And somehow, during that first day of digging and sweating, the unexpected question was broached, “now where would you like a wildflower garden?” Huh what? Yes, a genuine wildflower garden could be mine…if I would only pick out the spot to be roto-tilled, and then make a run to the garden store for some wildflower seeds. Oh, and pick up some beer on the way back. What a shopping list! I drove, he roto-tilled. I found some seeds at the garden center, indulged my fancy for another half dozen perennials, and brought back a six pack of Michelob in icy cold glass bottles.
We're finally close to being done for this year...though "done" in a gardener's vocabulary is a foreign concept. Most of the perennial plants are in, I’m done putting annuals in pots, and the wildflowers have started to sprout. I can see them bursting from the soil a little more every day. We bought a half ton of Arizona sandstone, drove it home in the pickup truck, sledgehammered it into smaller pavers, and set it into a pretty, staggered footpath through the garden. I even shoveled away some more gravel on the other side of the house, ripped out the plastic, broke up the dirt with a shovel, and put in a dozen daylilies...all by myself! The fever has been catching, along with the joy. For Mother’s Day, my younger son bought me some solar powered lanterns to show off the new garden, and a pretty pink mum which I planted proudly at the forefront of things. I’m spending more time watering plants than I could have ever believed, but it’s a tranquility zone while I’m doing it. And now that they’re being watered once in a while, my rose bushes have never looked so good!
Lest I get too cocky, though, I need look no further than the last part of that Mother’s Day gift. My son is thrilled to death with the way the gardens have turned out, and how nice they make the house look when he walks up the drive. Happy, too, to see me smile as radiantly as I have been for the past couple of months since this new familiarity with growing things has taken hold, and the way I've blossomed along with the coreopsis and the phlox. But the last word, based on my track record to date, sits carved on a decorative rock in the garden, ready to be moved into position as circumstances and fate should dictate. “I Tried, But It Died.” I hope I don’t have to use it.