I Will Garden (Part One)

It’s been a feverish week. My fever has stayed around 104 without medicine. 101 with it. I’m alternating Tylenol and Ibuprofen every two hours like I did with the kids when they were little and ran high temps. It’s the flu. 7-10 days I’m told. This is day 6. I don’t hold out much hope for day 10 if I continue like this. But, we’ll see.

Amazing how resilient the body is and yet, how not.

I will recover from this flu, though I suspect it will lag on into spring with a miserable cough, but the day will come when I tell my flu story during the February that all the doctors shut their doors due to “inclement weather.” There is several inches of ice in my backyard. The roads are fine (I know, I drove myself to the store out of necessity), but I suppose even doctors need breaks, and seized the excuse of black ice to have one.

Here’s the skinny: my mom died, and I’m going to garden again.

I know. Wow. Random, right? Nah. Because when you’ve lost both parents, as my absentee doctor says, it changes your position in the family. In other words, my granddaughters had three barriers between themselves and death. Their Maurme (my mom, their great-grandmother, so minus one barrier now), their YaYa, me, the grandmother, and their parents. While they could die early, it is more likely that they will pass the years as I have, and one day be the generation whose turn is death. Admittedly, I probably still have another 20-30 years, but just as likely, I may not. A dear friend, for whom I’d move heaven and earth to let no harm come to her,  is facing the unknown of her health right now, and we’ve texted late nights about the “what-ifs.” This is the hard stuff. Flat out. It just doesn’t get any harder than this.

I’ve arrived at the age where friends, siblings, and myself must look death straight on, and ask ourselves this question, what will be my response to death?

I will garden.

Because truth is, I don’t know yet. Death is a different subject than life, and I’m still dealing with the hassles and yes, joys, of life, no matter where my biological age has landed me. Life doesn’t say to you, oh, you need a moment to sort? Catch your breath?  Okay. Go ahead. Take a moment. I’m not sure how to navigate what seems like the very precarious space between life and death right now. I have to work. Pay bills. Eat. Do the normal things of everyday life while feeling like someone opened a door and shoved my mother through it, and I’m waiting on them to open it back up, and push her back into my life again.

I will garden.

Until my mind calms and creativity and death have formed some sort of pact.  I will go to the garden. I always have. It’s one place where peace reigns, time stands still, and death must linger beyond my garden gate, even when I am killing plants I’d rather keep alive.

I haven’t gardened in awhile. Not since I left South Turkey Creek. I didn’t see much point in actively gardening in a rental property, so mostly, I got the yard cleaned up, uncovered some pretty perennials, got rid of a billion firepower nandina (there is no plant I loathe more), and a few scraggly abelia that were in too much shade. It was rather like taking a good set of pruners outside and shaping things up a bit. But not much more. That’s what I did the first summer I was here.

The second summer, the unfinished path by the white picket fence was finally too much for me, so I finished it. I used cedar mulch for the path and planted David Austin roses to climb the fence. I splurged on an Agapanthus for Aggie. The fence faces South, and forms a barrier between the sidewalk, the roses, the path and the house. A great place for sun-loving plants, and since Brevard is located next to Pisgah National Forest (a rain forest), water and drying out in a Western exposure wasn’t an issue for the roses. It turned out to be the least mildew-inspiring spot. I jazzed up the the sidewalk side of the fence for walker-bys. It seemed a gracious thing to do. I chose fun plants for the kids: Echeveria, paddle plant (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora) and Euphorbia Myrsinites (Myrtle spurge or Donkey Tail), and colorful plants for the moms and those driving by: Salvia greggii ‘Hot lips’ lots of echinacea, penstemon, even day lilies (not a fan), but I wasn’t going for what I liked. I bought off the sale table at work. The succulents wouldn’t live through our presently 6 degree winter, but they were cheap, and lively, and added texture among the lilies and fancy penstemon. It worked. Folks stopped during their morning and evening walks to admire and ask what this or that was.

But, that was it really. Renter’s curb appeal. Being a good neighbor and keeping my yard ship-shape. The only true gardening I did was a test garden. As a horticulturist, the only way to know how it grows is to grow it.

But now, here I am. At this awkward and yes, scary place in life. I find myself wondering which friend, which sister is possibly next? Such morbid thoughts but death has that quality to it. So, this morning with dawn’s light creeping into my backyard, and prayers whispered for my dear friend who’ll spend her day chasing down doctors, I got dressed in boots and coat (leaving pjs on), and surveyed the back yard. Two cherry trees are the crowning glory, stretching their flower-laden branches between my yard and my neighbors. They need pruning desperately. 35-40′ feet tall and 25′ wide, that is a big job. Mental note to call Aaron, my handyman-soon-to-be-forester student. He’ll need to climb up in them for a proper job, but those lovely double blossoms will be blessed by it.

Second mental note: Weeping Snow Fountain Cherry must go. Horrible tree. Grafted and the trunk is completely out of proportion with the top. The blooms are slightly pretty, but not pretty enough, and besides it stands crowding a Hicksii yew. Who wants that? If I chose, I chose the Hicksii. It reminds me of my friend, Carol, who worked at the famous Hick’s Nursery on Long Island where it was developed. Plants that remind me of lovely friends are keepers.

And, out with a blooming crab tree in a corner by the picket fence. It looks like a jungle in that corner. Replace it Arborvitae ‘Emerald Green’ because the power line cuts right through there and with their max 12′ tall they’ll give privacy but not touch the power lines.

The cold felt good on my hot skin. I could breathe again momentarily. And my thoughts were my own, not crowded with loss, but planning a garden. I would have stayed a bit longer but my neighbor stuck her head over the fence and yelled, feeling better are we?

“No,” I said, “just making plans for spring.” My moment of reverie was gone. My brain was getting fuzzy again, anyway.

She threw up her hand in agreement, and disappeared behind her frozen walled fence that I’ve never gotten a glimpse behind. Perhaps for the best.

Yes, I said to myself, I am making plans for spring, and a garden.

My backyard has one large eye sore, a chain link fence. On a good day, those things reek of death, but on a winter’s day, with its shape outlined in ice, even more so. Something must be done about that fence, I pondered, but that was a problem for another day. Still, I could not go inside and let it win, with its glint-y iciness, so I spoke aloud. “Spring is coming. Spring is coming, Mr. Chain Link Fence, and you cannot stop it.” The resurrection of life is as sure as death. It is coming.

And, I will garden.

 

Why I Love being a Garden Coach, Aside from My Awesome Boot Collection

I seriously love being a garden coach. For one, it gives me reason to have an awesome boot collection.

Here are my new boots from Altar’d State. I only wear them on sunny, dry days in the afternoon. Here’s my totally waterproof and stylish (yes, those boots exist) Rockport boots. (These made the trek down the Oregon/California coast with me. I looked darn good standing in the Pacific Ocean in them.) My Land’s End snow boots (in black, not brown, hate that red stripe on the brown), and my LOWA boots which I admit I did not want to drop the cash on, but will also admit that they are handy in cold, wind, rain, sleet, and snow. Plus, all the guys are completely jealous of them, so they were worth the cash for that alone.

Boots aside, I love being a garden coach because I love strolling through gardens chatting with folks. I mean, come on. What a great way to spend a day. And, my folks are every bit as diverse as the plants we discuss. I never want our hour to end.

I want time to stand still while the 37 year-old autistic man gets his courage to ask for the instructions to be repeated again. He must be brave to say, “Will you go over it again?” I want to shout with delight, “YOU did it! You asked for what you needed.” And, yes, I will. I absolutely will go over it all again. And, so we do. How we measure ‘on center’ for planting. How the roots should be broken up to look like the spokes on a wheel when placed in the ground. How we determine color according to bloom time, and what deadheading is.

It isn’t just him. It’s too much information for anyone. When to prune what, when to fertilize, how to amend the soil, what is mulch and what kind to use. How to determine sunlight hours, and how those hours determine what plants we’ll pick. It’s a lot of material to remember, and no one gets it all the first time. Besides, he’s learning about more than plants. He’s learning to look out for himself. He’s learning to get his money’s worth. He’s learning to speak up and be heard. That is so terribly important, but even more important, he’s learning to listen. If I correct him, he makes the necessary adjustment. I watch him and learn, and make the necessary adjustment myself.

My personality is quiet and calm, so I’m a good fit to walk in the garden with the young father whose 8 year-old son recently died of cancer. “Everyone wants us to plant a tree to remember him,” he says, pointing to the place in the yard it’s supposed to go. “But I don’t want a tree. I never keep anything alive. What if I kill the stupid tree?” He’s wondering if he killed his son, somehow. If, as his father, he could have done something different, something more. Taken him to the doctor sooner? Asked the right questions? Found a different doctor before it was too late? Was this his fault? What if the tree dies, and just confirms his fears that he did not save his son? He’d rather have his son than the tree, anyway. I suggest a small statue. Perhaps the one of the boy reading a book. Didn’t your son love to read?

“You mean I don’t have to plant a tree?” he asks. He’s feeling so much pressure from God knows where or who. “No. You do not,” I say as firmly as I can, while looking directly into his eyes. You did not kill your beautiful son, and we do not have to plant anything you don’t want too.

My favorite client ever is quirky, and tall, and gorgeous, and artsy, and lives in a pretty conservative neighborhood with her uber-conservative husband who was trying to get in on the garden fun, and so painted a rod-iron staircase magenta. What a complete shock for her (and myself) as party night drew near. But what a dear she was to love him more than the staircase or the party-goers. We got some super funky-fun chartreuse pots, and filled them with purple wandering jew, pink angelonia, and white bacopa (sounds hideous, but it was awesome). Then we added big pots of bright red hibiscus. If you’re going magenta on the rod-iron staircase against the brick-red house, all bets are off and the fun is on. Anyway, the whole family has a slightly, crazy bent that make them my loves for life.

I can’t leave out my boxwood client, whose yard is full of the most gorgeous boxwoods–years old, well established, pruned to perfection, and without a bare or brown spot to be seen, except on the two next to the driveway. He feared it was boxwood blight, which would mean all of them would have to go. He held his breath while I examined. “Does anyone park here that has a bad exhaust on their car?” The gardener does. Of course. The gardener is always the culprit in murder mysteries, why not in boxwood mysteries? Tell the gardener to stop parking where his exhaust is spewing on your pretty boxwoods, and, tell him to prune this out. We had a delightful chat in the perennial garden following our hour, complete with tea, and a very interesting talk about his hemlock hedge, and his last child leaving home for college. Really. Conversation about hemlocks is balm for the soul. Did you know that?

Sometimes, I think my job is so meaningless because I am not writing a brilliant novel, or using some new life-saving surgical technique on a patient, or teaching a child to read. It’s just plants and where and how to plant them, and the cultural care needed for them to thrive. But, if this were not my job, I’d have missed that moment when, the young mom who loves permaculture, showed me her first chicken eggs and her bright, red tomatoes she planned to serve her family. Pure delight. She was beside herself. Plus, she loved my new boots, and oohed and aahed as much over them as I did her fresh produce. We determined, we both love a compliment.