When I See Cleome, I Think of You

The cleome reminds me of Alabama, of long stretches of green hill and field and wood. But it also brings to mind a tall, skinny boy and a stunning, unexpected romantic gesture.

The spiky flower that comes back year after year looks like the Wild Honeysuckle that grew in the woods behind my childhood home in north Alabama. My father tried to transplant a bush or two into the yard, but they never grew outside those woods.

I loved the flowers that cascaded from the Rhododendron canescens. The blush blooms and spiky stamens set the woods on fire. I’ve never tried to grow them here in northern Virginia because I can’t imagine they would survive. So instead I scattered seeds one year from some cleome I’d brought up from Alabama. They’re not the same, but they’re close.

And every year, when I see that first spiky pink bloom, it takes me back.

I remember the knock on the front door. My father opened it. He looked outside and no one was there. He went out on the porch. I followed. Then he said, “Well, there goes that boy, running off into the woods. He left you something.”

My father pointed to the porch step and a huge stack of Wild Honeysuckle, my favorite flower. Which that boy knew. That boy and I had exchanged taunts for ages, never saying a nice word to each other that I had recalled.

I was a young teenager holding onto my tomboyish ways. I was mad about the flowers. At first. I think I charged into the house, slammed the door. Then I went back and got the blooms, put them in water. I remember being puzzled. Why did he do that?

I never asked him about the flowers. He never mentioned them. We stopped taunting each other. Then, he moved away.

I forgot about the flowers, about the boy, for a while. But obviously they were a gesture that said so much more than the boy was capable of saying.

Something along the lines of: I care. I always have, that’s why I bug you. I have to leave now. I’m sad about that. I know you love these flowers. I hope you will remember me.

And I do. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, know this: Every single summer when I see the cleome, I think of you.

Published in: on July 13, 2010 at 3:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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My Dream Garden

My earliest memory is of giant pink petunias waving in the breeze near my face. Then I remember a hand, someone giving me a slice of apple. Sunshine. Smiles and laughter. A good memory.

I had the idea for years that this was a dream, because the petunias were so huge. But then I saw a photo from our early days in Texas, where I was born. I was a baby sitting in a little seat in the yard beside a bed of petunias. An arm was in the picture, at the edge, handing me a slice of apple. I was smiling.

A few years after that picture was made, we moved to Alabama, to a house in the middle of a cotton field. The field was awash in blooms, of all things. I didn’t know cotton started out as beautiful pink and white flowers that turned into hard green bolls, which later burst with soft, white, seed-filled cotton. Cotton that smelled like earth and sun and the sky and rain all wrapped up in a radiant white package.

If you ever see a cotton field glowing with white foliage, with cotton, stop, get out and pull off a branch. Risk it, just do it. You won’t be sorry. Smell deeply. Because then you will experience a small bit of why people who are brought up in the deep south can’t quit it.

It’s the giant petunias experienced as a baby, then seen again and again at the green thumb neighbor’s house in summer. It’s the way the cotton field smells after a hard rain breaks a brutal heat spell.

It’s the riot of color most of the year, even in winter, when the camellias bloom deep red against the houses.

The bounty never ends. The memories last a lifetime and beyond. You never get over it. No matter where you go, you fill your garden with those early flowers/memories, or you try, you approximate, you get as close as you can. Year after year after year you work on it. You feel like you are in a dream sometimes. And then your child bends down, his eyes closed, he is smelling a flower. And he is smiling.

Published in: on July 8, 2010 at 2:07 am  Comments (6)  
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The Better Gardening Road

When I realized, finally, that I would never be an orchid grower, I shifted to plan B. I would grow flowers that looked like orchids.

After all, isn’t that what we do, or should do, when we run into life’s inevitable disappointments? We move on. We focus on other things. We lose that “great love” and find out later he/she wasn’t actually good for us after all.

Regardless, in the best of all worlds we find out that life is in the journey.

So, I found some bulbs that looked to me like orchids. And they shook up my garden in that lull time between the blooming of the lilies and the unusual-for-here Angel’s Trumpets and the masses of zinnias, some of which eventually reach my height.

I picked up some bulbs called Pink Tigridia, from Costa Rica, the flower pictured on top of this post. Actually, I planted them and promptly lost the label. I went on Facebook and a woman I grew up with, my new botanical guru, figured out the name for me from her reference books.

Doesn’t it look like an orchid?

I bought some other bulbs that looked like the white orchid I lost, but even wilder. This one is the Hymenocallis.

People are walking by the flower patch out front and stopping, looking at these odd blooms in wonder, asking me what they are. They aren’t orchids, certainly. And that’s fine.

I have my own path. And this one is strewn with wild, unusual colors and shapes taking up residence among the staid hostas and evergreens. Blooms that have never been in my prim neighborhood before in these shapes and configurations.

This was another reminder to be true to myself, both personally and in a botanical sense. It is the much easier road. And in the garden, the beautiful one.

Published in: on June 15, 2010 at 4:41 pm  Comments (4)  
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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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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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The Cloak Falls

I am a tight fist against the cold. Wrapped head to toe, resentfully, I pull inward, angry at the winter months.

Then today I saw it.

Driving down a street, tucked among scores of other sullens, I looked up. I was struck to aching stillness by the beauty. The trees. Trees soaring black and charcoal against a light blue wash of sky. The moment a painter tries to capture through a lifetime of canvas.

This was that moment, seen through eyes that had refused this silent gift for so long.

“My God,” I said, aloud, through the windshield. I had pulled over, to the side of the road. Such soaring, angular, giant beauty, reaching higher than any building. None of this in sight during my favorite time, summer, when leaves and color flesh out the stark branches, hiding the bones, the foundations of these mammoths of nature.

The winter gives us this. Time to really see what is underneath. It challenges us to bring forth our own strengths too, to think and be creative. To see.

Trees, shorn of their leaves, soaring toward the heavens. Holding unseen life trembling beneath cloaks of bark and soil, ready to burst forth again in only a short time.

Like us, their counterparts, in layer, after layer after layer. The mechanism unseen. But trembling, too, just beyond the membrane dividing us from what we can’t or simply refuse to see.

Published in: on January 4, 2010 at 8:18 pm  Comments (8)  
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Reap What You Sow

Remember the white Angel’s Trumpet stolen from my front yard? My favorite plant?

No, I did not find it. But something happened that makes me almost as happy.

This summer I made a very quick trip home to Alabama. A relative was ailing and the trip was so fast I barely remember being there. I’m there now, another dash home, this time for the holidays.

As I walked into my mother’s garage, I saw a very small plant in her garage. Green, little, not her usual lavish display. Readers of this blog will remember my mother ignores her gardening into fantastic health. Most of the time.

So I did not pay attention to this tiny plant. Then she said, “Remember the trumpets you left me? One of them died, but one of them is still going. It’s out there.”

I thought a minute. Could it be?

It could be. It is.

I had cut back the white Angel’s Trumpet on the advice of my farm market guru in Alabama. She is as crazy about these plants as I am. She grows them from “scratch.” She takes seed pods and cuttings and grows them in a greenhouse.

She sold a white to me for $7. I was taking an airplane back to Virginia. So she told me to cut it back hard and wrap it up in a plastic bag, then pack it in my suitcase. “Don’t worry, it won’t mind,” she said. I was skeptical. But she’s never steered me wrong.

I gave my mother the two biggest cuttings from the plant. I put them both in potting soil. And the survivor was growing in her garage.

I am writing on my sister’s computer. I can’t post a picture of the tiny little sprig I cut, with Mother’s permission of course. But I have one. A piece of white Angel’s Trumpet. It is carefully stowed away in a canning jar for the ride home to Northern Virginia.

It is not from the trumpet I lost a few months ago at the hands of some heartless thief. But still, it is a new old plant.

It replaces one I lost. It makes me feel better.

I have many faults. But I am quick to forgive, even when people don’t even want to be forgiven. And I am generous. And the fact that I so wanted Mother to experience these lavish tropical plants has repaid me in the best possible way. She wouldn’t have accepted the plants if I had bought them. “Too much responsibility,” she would have said. She doesn’t like to have to look after them, after all.

Not like me, not like me at all.

So now my lost white angel has been replaced. In my mind. And in my hands. And that’s all that counts.

Welcome back, my sweet angel.

Published in: on December 29, 2009 at 3:11 am  Comments (3)  
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Hothouse Flowers, Waiting

I’m waiting for seeds to come in for the winter sowing I was just told about by some very helpful gardeners who have taken on my needy hothouse spirit as a salvage project.

But in the meantime, I found orchids. Orchids! Inexpensive ones languishing on a sale rack at Lowes.

These potted plants did not look good. But they were cheap, $8 and $7. I didn’t have time to be rummaging through this rack due to the long list of errands bedeviling me now that the holidays are bearing down. But the orchids were calling to me. They might as well have been cute little kittens or puppies meowing or yipping behind wire pens, their certain death looming without my intervention.

I reasoned that if I picked up a flower that flourishes in the hot air of the tropics, then I might do more than just make it through the winter too.

So I combed through the inventory. I picked two that looked the healthiest. I checked them thoroughly, not just the blooms, but along the entire stems. The two I selected had strong, healthy stems and leaves. Good roots snaking up out of the pots. That’s because most orchids grown indoors are really air plants, I read, and grow up high in the crevice of trees.

I picked up some Special Orchid Mix for potting by Better-Gro. And some Orchid Plus food. I got the plants home and repotted them in the new mix, which seemed to be bits of bark, really. The instructions cautioned that orchids like to sit up high, with roots peeking up out of the mix. I also repotted another orchid I had gotten on sale at the start of the cold weather. Then I fertilized all three.

The lot of them perked up immediately.

This is the little one. I almost didn’t see it hidden back behind the bigger orchids. I love this one!

And the bigger purple and white spotted orchid. I love this one too!

This one I got some weeks ago at Whole Foods. It had gotten cold, early in the fall, and I was not happy. The white has a special place in my heart now.

The orchids are especially important to me because we had our first big snow of the winter starting last night. This is next to bed where my flowers were just two months ago:

So the orchids are holding me steady. They are placeholders for other blooms that aren’t here right now. Those flowers are alive, though, in my mind’s eye, in my heart, waiting to be brought to life again. With seeds my new friends told me I can start through winter sowing soon. Then there will be vibrant color billowing in the warm wind and luminous sun again in a few short months. Just a few months to bring me back to this again:

Published in: on December 19, 2009 at 10:13 pm  Comments (2)  
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Feeling Lost Without the Garden

I’m feeling lost without my garden and zinnia and rose bouquets that filled my house for months. I’m dabbling in the kitchen to try to fill the void.

We are strictly in survival mode here. That means I am just doing my best to keep the plants in pots alive until April when I can start taking them back outdoors for a bit during the day. Maybe I can plant some cuttings in May. June is for the zinnia seeds.

Meanwhile, everything has been cut way back for the long, cold winter in Northern Virginia. My husband, the Iowan, thinks I am not normal for saying that. But for someone born in Texas and raised in Alabama, the winters are long and cold here. And they always will be (meaning I’ve been here for 30 years and I’m not going to change my mind).

My plants are squeezed into small spaces and corners with trays of gravel and water around hopefully to provide some humidity against the onslaught of the electric furnace heat. It’s cold here, in the 30s at night.

I’m blue about it. I’ve never done much indoor gardening in winter other than buy the occasional houseplant, which I don’t do much with. I promised myself to do something about that this year. But so far I’m resorting to my old tricks. I’m baking again and catching up with old friends. I have three book club sessions this weekend, one of them at my house.

Recently, I said sure when my husband asked me to bake cupcakes for someone who works with him. It was his birthday and my husband assumed I would use a mix and buy some frosting. He should know me better than that by now.

I decorated some with chocolate grated from a semi-sweet chocolate bar with a carrot scraper. I sprinkled others with French Dragees. That’s a smart way to market sprinkles to grownups. I also have some glowy powder, fairy dust I guess, in the small bottle.

I used a recipe from a restaurant called Eve’s in Old Town Alexandria, VA. The cake is light and airy, angel’s food-like, but the taste is buttery, like pound cake. Absolutely delicious. It wasn’t easy to make cupcakes out of this confection, but I managed. The frosting is made with cream and powdered sugar. Heavenly. Eve’s is famous for its birthday cakes.

The chefs make a tiny one and tints it pink. They say even straight-laced businessmen are seen in the dining room at night, digging into the small, pink birthday cakes. The cupcakes I made weren’t pink, but everyone loved them.

I think all of us should be fussed over on our birthdays.

But my fussing is because I don’t have the garden. The baking is old news. I’m not really happy with this substitution. After all, I’ve been baking since I was a very little girl and would pull a chair up to the counter to stand on. I would pull down ingredients and make cookies and cakes and everything my siblings and I liked from Mother’s cookbooks.

We thought we were scamming her. She gave us free run of her kitchen and everything in it. If we needed ingredients, we got on bikes and rode down the country lanes to the general store and charged things to her account. That way we indulged our sweets habit with my baking using Mother’s ingredients and my labor. And we saved our allowances for other things. Meanwhile, I taught myself to be a decent cook and baker.

But the baking is not really scratching the itch I have now.

Because it’s not really feeding me down deep inside the way the garden did this past summer. Being surrounded by all that wild beauty, working in it, touching it, bringing the flowers inside, filled me with such light that it carried over into everything I did all summer. I miss that.

How do I replace that in the cold dark winter? I just don’t have any idea.

I’ll make it, I always do. I’m just wondering what other gardening fanatics in cold climates do in the winter. While waiting for, say, the lillies to come back.

Published in: on December 2, 2009 at 5:16 am  Comments (11)  
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Stolen Angel


My favorite Angel’s Trumpet was taken from in front of my house last week. My big white. I couldn’t believe it.

This was a cutting I had pulled from the first angel I had ever managed to grow. I planted the mother plant in the ground and got only one bloom. Still, I was thrilled. I heavily mulched it, all winter, but it died anyway. Middle Atlantic winters are brutal on plants like this. Too many freezes.

This past summer, I lost track of the slips I had kept the previous winter and rooted. I thought all the pots were pink. Then one big pot turned into a beautiful white. I even wrote a blog post about it. It was gorgeous and I was so happy to have a piece of the old white angel with me still.


Then, as the cold descended, I cut all the angels back in their pots, the two whites and the three pinks. I was letting them have some final time outdoors before bringing them in for the very long winter. They won’t be able to go out again until at least May. So three angels were in the fenced back yard, two out front.

And then there was only one out front. The pink. I kept looking and looking. Surely I was mistaken. It just couldn’t be. But it was. The white angel was gone. I’m down to only one white, the one I brought as a slip up from Alabama this summer.

I admit it, at first I was simply outraged. Quietly so, I’m not much of a surface rager. It takes some doing for me to really blow my top. Still, I was mad. How dare “they.”

Then, I decided to view the theft in a way that allowed me to come to peace with it. The trumpet had been cut way back, it was no longer blooming or even leafed out in green. It was basically a pot of sticks. This essentially is what it looked like (this is one of the pinks, but you get my drift):


So, I had to imagine the scenario this way: The thief knew what he-she was getting. The stealer had seen the blooms outside my home and couldn’t stand it any longer. Seeing two pots outside, shorn of their blooms and most leaves, just sitting there, well, it was all over but the crying (for me). Gone. Taken to another home to be nurtured and cared for and coaxed into reblooming indoors in a few months.

Even my husband said, “You’re known for your plants. I’m not the least bit surprised.”

So, I quickly brought the remaining angels inside. I’m not sure what this means for next year’s outdoor blooming season. I’ll deal with it when it comes. They need the full sun to bloom and that’s the only space I have for that.

Although, the truth is, we’ve been talking about moving. My husband has talked about it for years and I’ve resisted. He brought it up again Saturday, this is something he really wants. And what I didn’t say is that losing the angel made me really think about it this time. We wouldn’t move that far. We would stay in the area because my son likes his school and we need to be here for several more years.

And then there was the home for sale I was drawn to just the other day, the one quite near my son’s school. It is not much bigger than the one we are in now. But it is off the road and private and as I said to my husband, “Look at that, straight out of storybook.” He agreed. The notice said the home had a lovely, private backyard adjoining a wooded park area. Woods! I grew up in a house with a woods out back.

I thought when we drove past that house, “This is the perfect home.”

In some strange way was that angel a sign? Angel on the move? I’m not the angel of course, not even close. But still. We’ll see.

For the time being, I decided to focus on other things. On the fact everyone in my world is well. That the big white angel is no doubt fine and being loved by someone who needed him, knew his worth. That the teen boy was spending the weekend away playing a sport he loves, rooming with several of his many best friends (I can say without fear of being overly boastful that this boy has the very useful gift of friendship).

So, his parents went to an Octoberfest party postponed until November by rain. The husband bought beer for the host and I put together a small bit of bounty from my fall garden for the hostess.


If you look closely you will see two tiny origami swans hidden in the bouquet. These exquisite paper gems were made by my favorite sushi chef, who gives them to me by the handsful when I drop by May Island to pick up food for my family and my favorite (vegetarian) dishes. I hid them in the flowers for the little boy of the party house to find after the party.


The cool, crisp fall evening was a sigh of relief after long days and nights of rain. We ate brats from the grill, spätzle and German potato salads. We talked and laughed while children ran and shouted in the yard.


One little boy helpfully warned us shortly after arrival that “a dinosaur is outside the gate” and later told me “t-Rex is out there but he’s dead now.” There were marshmallows roasted on sticks over a fire. And fireworks. Well, sparklers.

And when a little cherub of a girl could not get her daddy to put the German music back on after popular consensus booted it from player, she did not miss a beat. She simply changed tactics. Not yet talking, the little pixie went straight to a new friend, my husband, led him to the table with the music, pointed to the CD and got her wish. Because he is a pushover for miniature charm.

And then we had pie. The universal sadness balm.


Goodbye my angel. Godspeed, wherever you are.

goodbye white

Published in: on November 15, 2009 at 6:09 am  Comments (14)  
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