Who Did This?

I admit it, I look out over my garden sometimes and think, “Who did this?” The peonies were just in glorious bloom, milky globes tinged with crimson, followed quickly by the lilies.

New, head-turning white bulbs called Hymenocallis just started popping up, all nine of the bulbs I planted, way before I expected them.

Next came the Stargazer lilies, which I planted years ago. Every year, they are more exotic, fragrant and bountiful.

Then, another surprise, a new exquisite orchid-like lily emerged in mottled purple two months before the mid-summer bloom date.

And now, from one of five pots and several in-ground stalks, the long thin pod of an Angel’s Trumpet has split and a flower is about to open.

For so long, I was someone who kept indoor plants only. I thought that was all I could manage. It was true I had special plants I cared for over the years. I took them outside at the first hint of spring so they could leaf up and grow strong, then brought them back in when it turned cold.

But when I divorced after 11 years, I left them all behind. Later, a friend visited that house. She told me it was strange and difficult seeing my plants there without me.

Later, I moved to a townhouse with my new husband and space to garden outside. The plants that were already in place were nice, but pedestrian, I thought — azaleas, roses, a dogwood tree, holly, and way too much monkey grass.

As soon as my hands began working in the soil, the genes embedded in me took over. I had not expected it to happen. But soon I was obsessed, which should not have come as a surprise. I was, after all, someone with the DNA of generations of people who had depended on and deeply loved the land.

My siblings and I are the first generation not to grow up on farms. Still, we were raised in the country and my father had a long commute to work. Those genes don’t give up easily. A few years after marrying, my sister and her husband bought a beautiful farm.

I had moved hundreds of miles away to the big city, but home and my sister’s farm are always calling me. In between, I garden, a tangible link to the people and place that always were so important to me, even when I did not understand how very much.

I am thinking of those people often when I’m in the garden, especially at twilight. As the shadows deepen, I brush the soil and pinch back top leaves so the plants will thicken. I think about Daddy’s garden, how so many things seemed to grow like magic.

That DNA is in my blood. It pulses through my arms and hands, through my fingers and into the soil and the plants and the blooms.

The flowers that grow now with so little prompting feel it and respond. Their message to me is clear: You did this. We have always known you.

Published in: on May 27, 2010 at 4:41 am  Comments (2)  

Watching My Terrain, Too

I kept snapping away at the star-like lily with my camera. This is the first year for these spectacular bulbs. And they have such an unusual appearance that of course they are right at home in my wild garden.

The sweet new neighbors, who fly helicopters for a living, eyed them suspiciously. I suppose if you have such a precarious career, you might need a more tame bloom to provide calm in your off hours. The Hymenocallis, Greek for “beautiful membrane,” is definitely not tame.

So, I clicked away on my knees, then practically lying down on the sidewalk at one point, trying to get the pinwheel blossom centered in exactly the right background. The blossoms, radiant white trumpets pushing from a base of long spirals, look best in contrast against grass or bushes painted deep green by the warmth of spring.

And what about us, I wondered? What setting looks best on us?

I remembered how I looked when I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t talking about it, but the state of my mind and heart were in plain view.

I lost so much weight people were calling me “emaciated.” And I cut off my long curly hair, not in a flattering short cut, but in a pixie or nearly a buzz cut. I wore much beige, khaki clothing, nondescript. I wasn’t sure my gender was particularly obvious, in fact. I wasn’t engineering my silent scream on purpose. I wasn’t even aware my state of mind was so obvious until I saw pictures much later.

This happened several times over the course of about a decade, during my first marriage. Then finally I left that life. My hair grew out, for good, and my clothes regained their color and flair. I often have on shawls now, light in texture but vivid in color.

I carefully watch my terrain now. The flowers I grow taught me this.

Published in: on May 17, 2010 at 11:19 pm  Comments (3)  
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A Clean Slate

I had dinner with friends I’ve known for years and stunned them with word we were moving to a new house a few miles away. And right away one of them asked, “What about your garden? What will you bring with you?”

I hadn’t thought about that. I mean, this isn’t just the place where I brought home my infant son 16 years ago. The green thumb I inherited from both parents was born here, a fusion of Mother, who ignores plants to robust health, and my father, whose gardening alchemy seemed channeled, full of soul and spirit, a communion of sorts.

We thought for years we would rent out this house after we found something else. But now it looks like we won’t. I mean, I can’t just start digging up plants. That’s not right. After all, my flashy elements are portable, like the Angel’s Trumpets, which I grow mainly in pots. I grow the giant zinnias from seed and I have plenty of cleome collected in a glass jar.

But what about the starburst hydrangea? I love that dainty but robust plant. I’ve never seen another like it. I really don’t think I can leave it behind. It’s too special.

And what about the tea roses? They strain to bloom every spring. When I moved in, the elm outside my back gate was on the small side. But with each year it throws more shade over the roses in my yard. It is a wonder the roses bloom at all now. The blush rose bush in the row of four is dead, in fact. The yellow rarely blooms at all. The dark red, the one with the deepest spice scent I’ve ever known, occasionally blooms. Only the fuschia retains hints of its former glory

If I were a new resident, I might just decide the roses had to go. But couldn’t I take them to the new house? I have the room. I have the sun. What is the ethics of this?

After all, I’ll be leaving so much behind in these small spaces — the peony bushes, the Stargazer lilies, which grow more beautiful every year. There’s a dogwood tree and the holly and many hostas. Linda gave me the big beautiful blue green hosta before she left to move back to Alabama. The others, all colors, also were gifts. I bought the bleeding heart to have something blooming early, in the shade. I’ve put in new bulbs every year, all kinds of things. Those I’ll leave, of course.

Then, I keep remembering what happened next door, when a neighbor sold her house after her mother-in-law fixed up the back yard as a gift. It was so beautiful. There were many plants, flowers and a small tree. The neighbor asked through the agents if she could take a few hostas and the new owner said no.

Then, most of the plants died, the hostas, the roses. The new owners didn’t move in for a while and it was a very hot summer. I tried to save them. I trained the hose over the fence every chance I got, but it wasn’t enough. Then, when the new owners did move in, the back yard became in reality a bathroom for the resident large dogs and the rest of the plants died. Even the pretty little tree was killed and had to be pulled out.

Still, I know the answer to my friend’s question. It will break my heart to say goodbye to these plants I’ve nurtured over the years. — my first offspring of the earth, so to speak. But I will have to let them go. All of them (well, maybe not the starburst). And I will start all over.

A clean green slate.

Published in: on May 5, 2010 at 1:33 am  Comments (6)  
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Once Upon a Greenhouse

We moved into this house just weeks before I became a mother. It was my refuge. It sheltered us as we cried a river of tears, all of us adjusting to a new life, a new way of being. And those tears reshaped us, molding us into a family.

Later, the house spoke, telling me that the roses, the dogwoods and the holly that had been there when we moved in weren’t enough, that I needed to garden in the small spaces outside for the first time in decades. So I went to nurseries and garden centers and talked to people there about what to do and brought things home to plant.

Then I discovered the wonder of seeds. And I found, over the years, that I was a gardener. We all are, it just takes time and learning from others to find the things within to bring out into the open, to coax into bloom. When we are gardening from that inner space, we are so like our gardens.

Someone I grew up with told me recently that she has great success growing orchids. I didn’t know that, but I wasn’t surprised. She yearns to live in a tropical climates. That’s like me and my obsession with Angel’s Trumpets, another tropical native. I’m too far north to be happy, really, so I grow the angels instead, defying nature, surrounding myself with the accessories of the climate I yearn for.

I place the angels in pots outside my Virginia home, the house where I felt my late father’s presence, so palpable, on the night before my son was born. I was waiting for dawn to break so I could wake up my husband and go to the hospital where our son was born. My eyes were drawn over and over to a dark corner of the basement family room where I chose to wait, while in labor. I could not see my father, but I sensed him there, in just that spot. At times I was sure I detected his scent. He kept my terror at bay.

And it may be for that reason I have resisted leaving here. We grew out of this house long ago. We never intended to stay long-term. My husband has wanted to move for years and then a couple of years ago my son, now 16, started lobbying for that.

So now it is time to move on. Another house is in the works. It is a a storybook house with plenty of space for my gardening, a lovely wooden deck and a covered back porch that needs a ceiling fan and wicker furniture.

It also has a greenhouse window, over the kitchen sink. I’m always so sad in the winter, because of the northern Virginia cold, because I can’t garden at all. Even indoors, in my current house, the light is wrong, the electric heat too drying.

But in the new house, there’s a greenhouse window. When I saw it, I knew. The house had spoken to me.

Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 4:02 am  Leave a Comment  
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They Left Camellias

Driving through the old neighborhood, I noticed Ellis and Vannie’s magnificent rowhouse on Capitol Hill was for sale again. I pulled over and got out of the car. I looked for traces of them. Silly, I know, they passed away years ago.

The yard was tidy. But to my eye, it was much less beautiful, a shadow of its former self. Ellis, who moved to D.C. with Vannie during the 1960s, was an artist. Their yard looked as though the art inside the red brick house had tumbled and roiled through the walls and windows and splashed into the landscape. Or the other way around.

I saw a row of Lenton Roses that might have been an Ellis signature, something for winter. Several rose bushes lined the fence. Tulips pushed up from the soil, waiting to bloom. Then I saw it.

A camellia bush, stretching high and strong against the brick, was pushing up from the ground. It was covered in red blooms. The camellia, the Alabama state flower. Of course, Ellis’s signature, a gift for Vannie.

They were the most charming couple I’ve ever known, an old-fashioned love story. They had an open house every weekend, brunch, which Ellis cooked while Vannie held court at the massive table in the antiques-filled dining room. Friends were invited, acquaintances, and they were told to bring people.

That house rang with laughter and the blonde, green-eyed Vannie’s deep south Alabama accent. No topic of conversation was off limits. Ellis worked for a U.S. senator, then began to paint after retirement, becoming an artist of note on Capitol Hill and Washington.

I had missed Alabama after moving, but going to this house was like being home. Vannie would talk about Zelda Fitzgerald, about her recovery at home in Montgomery from a “nervous breakdown.” She would come into their clothing store everyday and buy one white linen handkerchief. “Scott just ruined that girl,” Vannie would say, emphasis on “ruined,” twisting a large emerald ring around and around on her long, thin finger.

Then she would brighten, talking about Hank Williams, who as a boy had a shoeshine business on the Montgomery outskirts. He also would drop by their store, to tell Ellis not to allow his estranged wife to charge anything else to his accounts once they parted ways.

One time I was living in Baltimore and working in D.C. when a blizzard hit, stranding me. Vannie and Ellis insisted I stay with them. I was working the overnight shift in the news business, so I slept during the day, in a serene guest room up high in a turret of the house.

When I got up, they had a lavish dinner prepared. They served it on fine china with silver and crystal goblets. I remember a chicken dish served with a sauce of cherries jubilee. They treated me like a princess.

They grew up and Ellis got sick. Vannie went first, though, dying unexpectedly. Then, Ellis passed away within weeks.

I have a row of his paintings above my sofa. It is fitting that they are of flowers and trees. I wasn’t gardening when Ellis was alive, but he knew, he told me I would. The paintings comfort me.

And now I know about the camellia, a living legacy. The flowers tremble there after the snowiest winter I can remember. Radiant, still, from the years of laughter and the limitless kindness that flowed from a sweet, inimitable home.

Published in: on April 3, 2010 at 2:22 am  Comments (4)  
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The Sharing Space

I had lived here only a short time when a neighbor asked me to share in the rental of a community garden plot. At first, I was not particularly inclined. The space, a new one just opening up, was not close and the beds would need lots of work to resuscitate.

But squirrels had demolished my attempts to grow vegetables in the back yard, a hazard in our neighborhood. Plus I liked this woman. My transition to a new home and motherhood at the same time had not been easy. So I agreed.

I was in for some surprises. The first one was that my new friend, who had been a successful businesswoman before changing careers after becoming a mother herself, had absolutely no idea how to garden.

We were both busy and I went to the space several times by myself, turning over the packed soil, adding top soil, amending it to add richness so plants would grow. I remember wondering when she was going to join me.

Then, kneeling in the soil, spade in hand, with several tomato plants I had just bought at a nursery, she confessed. “Now what do we do?” she asked, or something to that effect. “I meant what I said. I don’t have any idea how to start.” She was laughing then, saying something about digging holes. Or was it rows? Or what exactly does a person do?

I had gardened with my parents in rural Alabama as a child. My sister and I skipped barefoot down garden rows, dropping potato pieces into the freshly turned soil. We pulled weeds and picked the produce we ate minutes later on the supper table. My father gave me a small plot to grow gourds.

His strawberries were so delicious people begged him to grow more and he did, turning it into a small side business. He paid my sister and me, and our friends if they wanted, to pick the berries and handle sales to people who made reservations for as many quarts as possible every year, their names written in a notebook he kept in the telephone stand in the hallway.

My friend’s mother was from Alabama, so I had assumed some familiarity with gardening had been imparted at some point. But I was wrong. And I’ve come to find that my friend is not really that unusual, at least not in places like this, in northern Virginia close to D.C., where available land and time is scarce.

But gardening is regaining in popularity, even in urban areas. People talk about it frequently, this yearning to have a closer connection to their food and to beautify homes and neighborhoods with living things.

In fact, another friend and I plan to start a raised garden soon in the yard of her new home. Her 5-year-old son can’t wait. He wants to grow beans and pumpkins. And I plan to slip a gourd plant into a corner for him. For old times sake.

So I’m thinking back to my other friend and our time at the county garden plot, her surprise “confession” that she didn’t have the slightest idea how to start. And I remember that she seemed a bit embarrassed by that.

But there is no need for discomfort. Gardeners aren’t like an old co-worker who would charm favorite recipes from others, then act coy and ultimately refuse to divulge her own. Gardeners love to share. We give of ourselves. But the thing we need to remember is that sometimes we really do need to start at the beginning.

And my neighbor? We aren’t gardening together these days. I got absorbed in flower gardening around my home. Plus, the plot was too far away and people waiting at the bus stop caught on and kept filching the produce. But my neighbor and I grew a friendship. She’s my closest friend in the neighborhood, to this day.

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 9:44 pm  Comments (2)  
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Waiting For The Gilded Season

I don’t like to gild the lily as a rule. I had a bud vase that was perfectly adequate for the job. But today I decided to jewel this simple container with wire art, simulating the summer flowers that will be filling it in just a few months.

I’ve looked at seed catalogs and cleaned up my garden spaces. I’ve moved some of the winter sowing shoots out of their plastic containers into pots (yes, it worked!).
I’ve made plans with a friend to start a raised garden in the back yard of her new house. Other than that, I’m waiting. But in the Middle Atlantic area, gardeners who love hot weather best are in for a long haul, still.

So I took out the craft box. I selected colored glass and soft wire along with glue and wire cutters, the ones I use for jewelry. I went through a wire art obsession several years ago, fancying cheese and fruit plates and the handles of silver butter knives from antique stores. I jeweled glass butter domes. I repurposed oil and vinegar bottles with spouts as pretty liquid soap holders.

I didn’t think, then, about vases. After all, why gild the lily? But the winter has been so long this time. And my spirit needed some brightening. So I thought about the wire art. And I went to work.

I cleaned the glass with alcohol. Then I glued the colored pieces onto the vase. My idea was to simulate blue flower blooms with green pieces below, for stems. When the glue was dry, I started twisting the wire around the “blooms” and the “stems.” With a small vase, I had little room for flourishes. And that was fine.

Because I’m not ready, yet, to flourish. We have a break in the weather, the sun is out and it is warmer, but this thaw won’t last. I’ve been down this road, many times. The cold and gloom will return, endless chilling rain. But then it will leave, suddenly. And summer will be here. People all around me will be complaining that we didn’t have a spring at all.

And that will be fine with me. Because spring is just a means to summer. Summer, when my vase and I will be filled to the brim with the flourishes of the most gilded season of them all.

“Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue. “ Emily Dickinson

Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 5:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Desperately Sprouting

The winter has been so harsh and long that I have been driven to extreme actions on the gardening front. After typing out a (sort of) joking threat to call the suicide hot line, I was directed to the winter sowing pages by sympathetic gardeners. My plastic containers filled with soil and seed are now out back where I anxiously eye them multiple times a day.

And now, I am a sprouter.

I needed some instant gratification. I didn’t realize growing sprouts, baby plants in their prime, was so easy. I had read about this for years. But the truth is I didn’t particularly care for sprouts, so I thought why bother.

But it turned cold so early last fall in Northern Virginia, the snow followed shortly after that and just kept coming. I grew sadder. I’m not good at waiting. My hands itched. I needed to grow something. And my indoor efforts don’t work out very well. I don’t have enough sun. And where I do, I have heating vents. I can keep a few foliage plants, but that’s about it.

Next year, I am going to have to manage a greenhouse of some kind. I don’t have the space for a real one. I saw an interesting one a blogger constructed using five discarded old windows, adding hardware to keep the four standing windows together and a hinge to allow opening and closing of the top piece. I love that idea.

But until then, I’m sprouting.

I bought a sprouting jar, but you can use your own and buy some mesh and fit it on top of the container. You need the mesh for straining. I read about one woman who used lace. I got a package of sprouting mix. And another of broccoli. These both had directions for sprouting written on them.

I rinsed a couple of tablespoons of the mix, then added double the amount of water and soaked that for several hours. I poured out that water, through the strainer, and rinsed again.

Then over the next several days I rinsed the seeds in water twice a day. I used a bit of food-grade hydrogen peroxide in the rinse water several times to kill any bacteria in the seed and inhibit mold. This also increases the amount of oxygen and nitrogen available to the sprouts. I kept the jar in a dark place with a towel over it, tipped at an angle to allow it to drain well.

After several days, I had sprouts. So I took my towel cover off for the last day to induce some green. I took the hulls off by soaking them in water. Then I dried the sprouts with a dish towel (some people use a salad spinner). What I didn’t eat right away, I stored in the refrigerator and started another batch.

They were absolutely delicious! They were much better than any of the sprouts I have purchased or eaten on salads at restaurants. The consistency was much better. They were crisp, pungent (I think that was the radish in the seed mix) and were just cleaner tasting than anything else I have had previously.

And that’s not all. Studies show broccoli sprouts have 20 times the concentration of sulforaphane, an anticancer chemical, than the mature vegetable, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 8:22 pm  Comments (2)  
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Story Time in the Garden

My garden will be different this year. I want it to be like a storybook. That’s because I’m clear, finally, about the “autobiography” aspect of gardening. And that means it is time for substantial editing.

Planning hasn’t been a priority until now. My garden has been the whimsical me with a dash of sentiment laced with a big dollop of the crowd-pleaser. I’ve also cared for some plants beyond their time, maybe, because they’ve always been here. The roses in the back, for instance.

The elm outside my back gate was a youngster when we moved here almost 17 years ago. But now it soars over everything, throwing shadows over everything much of the day. The roses don’t like that. The dogwood and my holly reach into the elm branches, not a love embrace. I’m always having to call on somebody to please trim the tree back.

But it is time for another pair of eyes to look over my garden spaces. Someone who won’t be sentimental. Someone who wasn’t the new mother who saw those roses in bloom for the first time after moving in during the harsh winter just before the baby was born. Who had been hounded by such postpartum depression that she boarded a plane with her 3-month-old during a snowstorm and flew home, to the sunshine, and never wanted to come back.

But her husband kept calling, asking her to come home. And he kept telling her about those roses.

And then, finally, I was standing at the back door and there they were.

I never expected such a profusion of reds and fuschias, which were followed by creams and yellows. When I first saw those roses, I could have sworn I heard music from somewhere, under the leaves and branches. But that was just the sound of my spirit, lifting finally, after being held down by months of despair.

This year, I don’t plan to spend so much emotional capital on trying to save plants that need to be moved, or need to move on. I’ll plant other roses if I need to, for June, my birth month flower. And I’ll plant seeds for the tall, wildly colored zinnias the neighbors expect from me now. And I won’t stop growing Angel’s Trumpets, they are an addiction now.

But I intend to be even more specific with my gardening writing and editing, so to speak. Because the garden is my story, the one I show to the world. And one thing I have wanted for a long time is the Camellia. At least one shrub, maybe two.

The Camellia is the Alabama state flower. Other than magnolias and honeysuckle, nothing reminds me more of Alabama. But this is not something I can just run out and buy on a whim. I need the kind that is cold hardy.

So this is the time to consult experts, people who run quality nurseries and landscaping services. This is their lifeblood, after all. Consider them matchmakers.

William L. Ackerman, retired from the U.S. Arboretum, said colder winter started damaging and even killing the spring-blooming Camellia Japonica and the C. sasanqua in the late 1970s.

C. oleifera, a white flowered species from northern China, fared better. So the Arboretum began a breeding program to develop cold-hardy plants. A substantial group exists at nurseries today, Ackerman said. Within that group, he said, there is “a specific cultivar best suited to every special location or situation a gardener may have.”

I am in that group. Looking for something specific, a Camellia love match. Something with a glossy green leaf, a splash of flower. Which takes me, in my mind’s eye, to the place in the photo posted at the top of this article — home.


Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 9:26 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Orchid Surgeon

I dreaded it, the trip to the surgeon. This was oral surgery, routine, they said. But this was my son going under the knife and it was new to us, to him. And even though he is growing fast and towering over me, he is my baby, still. And always will be.

So I pretended to be brave and walked us in with brisk authority, into the shiny new building and nice but initially non-descript waiting room. My heart was pounding too hard. I kept dropping things.

Then I saw the orchids. Not just one or two but many of them, lining the sills of the very long bank of windows. Windows that stretched the entire length of the very long office.

What in the world? I actually thought that.

I filled out the paperwork for the “routine” procedure for an impacted permanent tooth being remedied by what I frankly considered to be a medieval sounding solution. Even then I was already being distracted by those orchids.

As we waited, I watched the door to the surgery suites. Because the truth is I was looking to see whether there were more orchids back there. And there were!

“They belong to one of the surgeons,” said the employee at the front desk. My son’s surgeon by any chance? Yes. He had kept those orchids for years. He had bought some, others were gifts.

At that point, I relaxed.

The doctor had an easy manner and the procedure went perfectly. I did not watch. But the surgeon attached chains to my son’s braces and wrapped them around his recalcitrant upper tooth after making an incision. And then those chains started doing the work of dragging the tooth down into its proper place.

Of course I had to ask about the orchids. The surgeon tried to claim he had no real secret to why they were so beautiful and kept reblooming. He gave credit to the filtered light of his office windows. He also said he made sure the plants were not watered too much. And they receive a bit of orchid fertilizer too. But other than that, he said, keeping the orchids was no big deal.

But I knew better. Because the moment I knew he was responsible for those beautiful orchids flowing down the entire side of that office I relaxed, completely. I knew my precious child would be fine. That he was in the skilled hands of a man who also had taken exquisite care of long rows of the fragile orchid. Orchids that rewarded him, and every person who walked into that room, with surprise riches — bloom after bloom after bloom.

Published in: on February 25, 2010 at 3:18 am  Comments (4)  
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