The Reluctant Gardener  

When we moved almost two years ago, I had no intention of working outside.  I’d been married for 50 years and never had to tend a garden.  The problem was, we ate most of our meals on the screened porch overlooking the previous owner’s flower garden.  It wasn’t too bad the first summer, but the next season it was a mess.  I had to look at it, sometimes three times a day.  I was told all I had to do was to keep the weeds down, but how would I know what was weed and what wasn’t?  They don’t come out of the ground with tags saying, “Pull me.”

I began going out there, discarding what I thought looked ragged.  I had the loyal support of three master gardeners, two of them right next door.  If they had a mission of making me into a gardener, they had an uphill fight.  I doubt I’ll ever consider myself a real garden woman, but I’m beginning to wonder.  We had been away from home for six days.  Within one hour of unpacking the car, I found myself in the garden dead-heading the roses and looking hopefully to see if any of the seeds I’d planted had sprouted.  Sounds like the gardening disease had gotten me.  Further, I was inordinately pleased to see leaves identifiable as four-o’clocks and nasturtiums.  It’s too late to return to my former state, isn’t it?

Pleasure Followed by Gardening   

Our favorite neighborhood foster child came back for a brief visit.  Dennis would have stayed with his former foster parents Shawn and Bob, but they had a full house.  He slept at our house.  That meant we had a chance to visit with him when he wasn’t busy with them, other neighbors, and friends.

I don’t know Dennis’ whole story, but he overcame many obstacles in his young life.  One of the worst was the disservice from social service agencies.  He was put in six different homes in about eight years.  Shawn and Bob took him in when he was already a teenager, and he has another year to go before he can get out of the system.

Shawn and Bob can be so proud of him.  He still has the good manners they taught him and was a pleasure to be with.  After meals, he cleared the table, not only his own dishes, but ours as well.  Dennis also made his bed voluntarily!!  He spent time chatting with us and thanked us for everything we did for him.

The most pleasure I got from gardening was knowing it was over for the day.  I realized it was time to plant the seeds we bought weeks ago.  I strode outside carrying the shovel, a trowel, gloves, and the seed packets.  Four o’clock seeds went near the fence.  I liked their description, that the plants can be temporary hedges.  Nasturtiums (which my dad called nasty turtiums) were planted in the middle of the garden.  They like full sun and poor soil — should be perfect.  The delphiniums were planted near the porch in partial shade.  By the time I finished, I could hardly stand upright.  What a difference there was in the way I went out to garden and the way I returned!  I don’t think I would have been able to make it back to the house without using the shovel as a walking stick.  Neighbor Amy thought I was joking about becoming an instant cripple because of gardening, but if anything, it was worse than I let on.  Prudence would dictate I have a caregiver in the house before venturing out to battle the garden.  I’m telling you, gardening could be lethal!  The poor seeds would agree.  They had to wait until afternoon for their first watering.

Didn’t You Learn Your Lesson Last Time?

It was a sure thing. The weather map at 11 p.m. showed a huge blob of rain moving into the area, with projections of heavy rain just at the time I would walk. I made sure it was still on the way when I woke at 3:13. With that double underscore of assurance, I turned off the alarm. I woke around 6 with time enough to walk before the sun got hot. There was no rain whatsoever nearby. Did I get up and go? No! I told myself I’d do some gardening to make up for it, because I loved my bed too much to leave it. Big mistake! That’s exactly the situation I had a week or so ago, and I lived to regret it. For a born gardener, there would have been no problem. I’ll bet a real gardener could talk herself out of walking most days just to get out and commune with plants eager to do her bidding.

I put it off as long as I could, baking blueberry muffins for breakfast. It was too cool to eat on the porch, but I could see the wicked wisteria winking at me, taunting me with innocent looking tendrils just waiting to grab air space. Shears and clippers refused the job. You see, even the tools were in revolt! Maybe it wasn’t an uprising, just old age. I thought the shears were locked shut, but John was able to open them with a mighty heave. The clippers moved, but grudgingly. Instead of cutting, both strangled the vines. Thank heavens sister-in-law Beth suggested loppers and helped us pick them out! I l060915 Mystery plantopped the wisteria, cut off dead roses, and whacked at weedy mint plants under the mystery vine. I’ve held off trimming the vine that is climbing a trellis on the side of the house. It was obviously a loved plant, but neither master gardeners Amy nor Beth know what it is. It could yet redeem itself if it bloomed. A few of its exploratory arms fell with the mint. I should have shut my eyes while walking to the door, but I was waylaid by an evergreen ground cover with brown, rotten bits scattered throughout. Lots of that is now on the burn pile.


One should have a sense of victory, or at least satisfaction, after slaving in the garden. I was just hot.

You know you’re hot if your jeans stick to you and have to be peeled off,

if you can’t see through your glasses because sweat is streaming down the inside,

if the water in the shower is too warm when set on cold, and

if your face is still red after a cool shower.

I suppose I do ha060915 Hollyhockve some satisfaction, after all. I thoroughly enjoy complaining about gardening! Secretly I was very pleased to find hollyhocks beginning to bloom. My grandparents had hollyhocks and snapdragons near their mailbox, and I’ve always had a soft spot for them.

Penance for Failure to Walk

The computer screen clearly showed a big blob of rain just at the edge of our property, about to move over us with drenching rain. I fell for it. Knowing it was a sure thing, I went right back to bed instead of going for a walk. As it turned out, it never did rain here, although son $ said it was raining on his porch when he called me. I reasoned that people are always saying you can count gardening as exercise, so I put on my new hat and ventured into the garden. I was so confident of success that I took a “before” picture, not thinking how dreadful I might look later.

060215 Going into battle

I was pleased with the hat. It was not only green, it was the least expensive one I’d seen while idly looking in every store recently. Anything would seem reasonable after looking at the price of hats in the Biltmore garden shop. In other stores, pretty and reasonable were not adjectives you’d link together. The label said it was crushable, so I assumed washable as well. I donned the hat and sallied forth. Ready or not, garden, here I come! Amy and Beth, prepare to be impressed!

Yesterday I gave the wisteria a haircut around three edges of the pergola. For the last few years, I always watched for wisteria blooms in New York, enjoying the pretty flowers and sweet scent near the millpond. I even went so far as to declare it one of my favorite plants. While trimming the forth edge today, I realized the previous owner Pat had ruthlessly cut down the shoots around the bottom. That wicked wisteria knew I didn’t know what I was doing last fall and made the most of its freedom, grabbing for land in every direction. Each time I straightened up, I saw more tendrils with takeover tendencies. Whack! Whack! Take that! And that! Stealthy vines and leaves were everywhere. Having learned last time that walking on uneven ground was asking for trouble, I piled everything on the stones under the invasive plant. Let it give shelter to its own dead army until I could ask John to move the mess.

060215 Wisteria grave
Wisteria branches looking like a fresh grave under the pergola

The hat was even more trouble than the vine! I bought it to shelter my face from the sun and keep the hair out of my eyes. It actually did both, but was it worth it? I bent down to cut vines slithering near the base of the pergola, then straightened up. The hat brim hit my back, knocking it forward over my face. I pushed it back with my arm. The action was repeated over and over — knocking forward, pushing back, forward, back, forward, back. I looked like a broken action toy that had only one set of moves left. I tried keeping my head down for longer periods. Because of the effect of pollen on my nose, the front brim was in danger of becoming a nose drip collector. A real gardener might have ditched the hat and used clippers to teach the hair a lesson. Not me. I unleashed my frustrations on the vine. If I’d had a saw, that horrid thing would now be history.

I slung the loppers over my shoulder for a victory lap through the unruly garden. The plants were supposed to cower in fear, but I’m sure the daisies were snickering. They know they are going to win in the end.

White Tornadoes

There used to be an ad for some super product that claimed it cleaned your home like a white tornado. We had two at our house. Beth and Bob can organize and execute a maintenance plan before others could make a detailed list. They said they would bring their work clothes, but I didn’t realize how much work they would accomplish while wearing them. It all began innocently enough when Beth headed for the garden and Bob looked at our angel fountain.

052615 JC Bob with fountain

Beth is a super gardener, and she has a lovely way of accomplishing things. Instead of saying our garden was a mess, she gently asked if I thought it would be a good idea to pull plants back from the defining stones of the path. My original request was much tamer. I wanted an identification of a shrub with lavender flowers, which turned out to be spirea. She also taught me the name of plants beside the back porch, cotoneaster, pronounced ca tony aster. It’s a good thing I heard it first before she spelled it.

The rest of the day was a whirl. Bob cleaned our gutters and eaves, checked the firepla052615 Bob cleaning our gutters and eavesce to show us how to reset the controls, rehung the office closet door which keeps falling off, moved the heavy concrete birdbath to my deck, and tweaked anything else that seemed amiss. He and John looked at our new angel fountain, coming to the conclusion we’d bought a pump that was overkill. Before we quit for the day, we all went to Lowe’s to get a new pump, loppers for heavy pruning, a lightweight birdbath, and more plants.

Beth used the loppers like an artist, removing just the right things to make a pretty picture. That sentence doesn’t convey all the strenuous work involved. Only another born gardener could truly appreciate it. When we relaxed on the porch, we could admire all that she had done. We also saw another result of our labors – totally confused birds. A poor dove landed near where the old birdbath had been and looked around with a bewildered expression. He poked about on the ground, stalked around the stump where the old one had been, and eyed the new glass bath with suspicion. Golly! I never thought of privacy! Birds had begun to bathe in the concrete one after we put stones in it. They could hop below the rim for their ablutions. The glass one simply presents the water flat out with nowhere to hide. We may put a stone in it. Maybe a beach umbrella? in scale, of course.

052615 Bob Beth JC
Bob, Beth, John on Memorial Day

Gardeners Must be Born, not Made

Neighbor Amy called yesterday, asking if I still had the mint plants she remembered growing between our porch and the third bedroom. Those plants threatened to take over last year, and Amy knew I wanted to limit them severely. We removed only two big clumps, so there was plenty for her and her granddaughter to pick. Amy Elizabeth, the granddaughter, wanted to flavor something she was cooking. I was thrilled for the leaves to be used and a little embarrassed that Amy knew they were not my favorite. As we stood in the garden, she waved her hand and said most of the plants came from her house. I knew the story without being told. Amy, generous person that she is, shared her bounty with Pat, the former owner of our house. We inherited an established garden that I find difficult to maintain because of sheer ignorance.

As we walked, Amy bent down and pulled out some weeds. The way she did it was as natural as breathing. She realized I didn’t know which plants were desirable and which were despised weeds. We walked the path around the garden as she identified the good plants for me. The mess of last year’s stalks was too much for her, so she pulled out a bunch of them. Obviously, that is something I should have learned to do. I’m glad I hadn’t weeded much on my own, because there were several good plants that I would have discarded. Amy pointed out some nasty weeds, the likes of which I had dug up several weeks ago. After she left, I went right in to get the trowel to dispose of them immediately.

It wasn’t until later that I remembered sister-in-law Beth walked around our garden the first time she and Bob came to visit. She did exactly the same thing Amy did – began weeding without giving it a thought. I’m sure weeds assaulted both of these dear friends’ sensibilities. They are born gardeners, knowing almost instinctively what plants should go and which should be encouraged. I was most definitely not born with such wonderful instincts. I will learn a few of the basics, not because I want to, but because no one else will. I will become a rather lame caretaker by default, not desire. I hope my containment style of gardening will keep the area in bounds enough that I won’t be ashamed to pass it on to the next owner. Meanwhile, anyone who is a compulsive weeder is most welcome to come and stay a few weeks, free room and board provided.