A Gardener Salute

At first, the strange thought crossed my mind that they were saying goodbye, the hummingbird hovering just over my shoulder, followed by one dragonfly, then another and another, then at least a dozen spiraling through the air as though by design.

I had been talking about hummingbirds and dragonflies to my friend Dana. I’d wanted to see them in my garden out front. I’d glimpsed a hummingbird dash by twice in seventeen years out back, in the secluded patio, but only for a second. I had never seen hummingbirds in the front or dragonflies in either place.

I moved recently, a few miles away, to a different house. But I’m still going back to garden some at the old place. We haven’t cleared out yet. I wasn’t even thinking of the hummingbirds and dragonflies when I sensed something just over my shoulder.

And there it was, a hummingbird so close I could almost touch it, just over my head, near my shoulder. It was not in the flowers, but hovering in mid-air so close to me. Then it was off, replaced by a dragonfly. Then another and a third and a fourth, then at least a dozen circled the space above me.

And at first the strange question popped into my head “are they saying goodbye?” Then the frankly magical thinking that maybe they were reeling through space that day in a unique salute. After all, years before I had looked over the plain green spaces there and seen a vision no one else had thought of and brought it to life.

I coaxed bright colors from the earth, odd lilies and different jeweled mixes popping from the neighbors’ stands of hostas, pansies and azaelas. Others had hydrangeas, I had the delicate Starburst variety.

In the summer, carpets of giant zinnias grew huge, flanked by exotic Angel’s Trumpets that few had seen or heard of, huge bell shaped flowers unfurling from long okra-like pods, flooding the night air with a citrusy vanilla perfume.

The spectacle brought new people to the courtyard. Neighbors who never stopped to talk began to look forward to the sight. And as I gardened, day after day, for months each year, breaking out bright colors in a city often known for its grays, I became part of the landscape, as gardeners often do. My movements were a meditation, I was happy there, at peace.

And as my time in that space came to a close, maybe something humans cannot detect went off in nature’s radar. Maybe the hummingbirds and the dragonflies sensed a shift in a magnetic field. Something as simple as the fact that I am not out in the garden at night anymore.

So maybe their strange, unprecedented dance was a flyover in my honor as I moved on, a few miles up the road. I’m going to think of it that way.

It definitely wasn’t goodbye. Because I see them now, everywhere, the dragonflies. They are just there, often when I look up, their silent wings swirling in the air just ahead and above me. Keeping vigil. Keeping company. Showing me the way.

Published in: on August 11, 2010 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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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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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Friendships as Perennials

New Year’s Eve found us, uncharacteristically, plunging into the cold, icy night for a party in the urban wilds. I couldn’t believe he wanted to do this. And that I agreed. But the boy was out for the evening and maybe J. was feeling the chill of an empty nest a bit early. That’s just like him. Pre-emptive suffering via hyperactive behaviors.

But it’s good to get out, change long-established habits involving hibernating all winter, especially when the cold just keeps getting colder.

So, we found parking, got out of the car and braved the hoodlums making suggestive comments in front of the 7-11 (“How y’all doing,” I drawled, smiling, looking one right in the eye in a pathetic attempt at surprise tactics). We made it in through the gates and the security door, up the elevator and many other doors and into the hostess’s apartment.

Finally settled in, I looked around and realized that most of the women at the party were the soccer teammates of the hostess. Not work colleagues or other friends. Which represents a sea change from my generation in D.C., which is largely a transient city.

How does this relate to gardening? I’ll get to that.

I am 20 years older than the women who were at this party. But we operate in a parallel universe. The hostess and I are/were both journalists in the nation’s capital. And back when I used to pick up my son at the soccer practice fields, I would notice young men and women gathering on the sidelines in uniform, with coolers, tying cleats, stretching, getting ready to play a game under the lights.

They were very patient and polite. Waiting to start a soccer game when the little boys left their practices, sometimes at 9 p.m. On a weeknight. With work looming the next day. Because they loved it so.

And this is how those young women at the New Year’s Eve party bonded, some of them on teams that played in D.C. for 10 years or so together. And they all ventured out into the deep, cold, icy night to attend a party given by one of their number. An adorable young woman who is moving in about two months, back to New York. Only a few of her work colleagues came. But her teammates showed up, in force.

I was so impressed.

These women nurtured their relationships through the love of their sports, the way I nurture my plants. They started playing sports early, as little girls. I actually came from a state where schools could not by law field teams for girls back then. They told us a girl playing basketball had died on the court (not that I believed that). “Don’t tell that,” J. said. “You’re dating us.” Like I care. I told it anyway.

So I relied on work friends when I moved to D.C., away from my family, from my oldest friend, J., who I met at five., away from K., who I met on my first day of college, at the University of Alabama. From the many friends I met just going about my life. I worked so much anyway, I had few opportunities to meet anyone else.

And I found out those friendships, although splashy and intense at the time, like annuals, are ephemeral for the most part. They go away. As do most of the friendships made through the children, through the kids’ schools.

That’s why I loved seeing these women at the party. Because people move here, work long hours, spend ridiculous amounts of time commuting, then flee back home. I’ve been here so long I’ve become loathe to introduce myself to newcomers, something that goes against my every southern fiber. But, I tell myself, they’ll be leaving soon. Don’t get involved, you’ll grow to love them and they’ll leave.

But the women at the party defied that. They bonded early and intensely on their soccer teams, their friendships like perennials in a garden. They nurture them and stay, growing and evolving, over the years.

Which teaches me a lesson: To treat people more like my garden. Kindness for all. More lasting attention for the perennials, of course. But warmth and care for the annuals, too. Because the human garden is worth my time and cultivation, again, too.

Published in: on January 2, 2010 at 3:18 am  Comments (2)  
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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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The Tree Said Hello


I am drawn to a certain crepe myrtle just outside my back gate. I have always loved them and this one is particularly beautiful. My son recognized this at a very early age, too. He would run to this tree and stand in it, just stay there, quietly.


I would sit on the bench nearby and wait for him until he was done communing. Even though this was not like him to do this. He was the kind of active boy who usually ran to the big pines out front and climbed, fast, before anyone could yell him into a stop.

I remember, because I had lots of trouble getting the pitch out of his clothes. Sometimes, of course, this was not possible and I had to “pitch” plenty of them.


So I wasn’t really surprised the other day when I walked by my myrtle and saw an accessory waving in the wind. It looked like something I would wear as a necklace. Or as an earring. It was a dried plant cap, attached to a gossamer thread from a spider web.


It was really cute. I went outside at night with a flashlight to see if it was still there. It was. I knew it would photograph well in the night.


Look at the markings on this tree, behind my accessory.


However, the bark on my myrtle not as dramatic as one out front, which is beloved by my friend and neighbor C. Which makes sense. You wouldn’t know it right away, but C. has more flair. She is a government bureaucrat, conservative dresser, initially very quiet.

But if you are out early on a weekend morning, you might see her coming out dressed in a formal riding habit. C. has a horse she keeps stabled in the country and goes riding with a friend. She is a lawyer married to an Irish chef she met overseas as a young woman. He fell madly in love with her and pursued her from afar, persuading her, finally, to marry him.

She loves my gardening and has very strong opinions about the plants. She says they remind her of earlier times when people decorated with large blocks of color via the flowers. She thinks the hostas and nursery flats of impatiens and pansies are boring. So there.

It makes sense that the crepe myrtle she has claimed as hers is one of quiet drama. Routinely, she dons gloves and collects her tools and carefully trims the suckers that try to grow from the base of the tree, which stands guard just outside her bedroom window. Her cats sit on the sill and watch the tree, too, which has vivid coloring.


There’s a new crepe myrtle out front now, to the side. I think the young tree is watching people, trying to see who resonates with this new plant life. I look forward to seeing who it chooses. I bet we’ll know by next summer.

new tree

It’s funny how nature leaves little gifts sometimes. Walk slowly. Open your eyes. See. Really see.


Published in: on November 16, 2009 at 6:15 pm  Comments (7)  
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