When I told my friend-gardener-handyperson, Steven, that I had joined the neighborhood gardening committee, he said that he thinks of me as a “Gardener-in-Training”. I didn’t rebut his appraisal since he does come every spring to help me with the planting and refurbishing soil and teaching me a little more. But, I decided, it’s time to take my gardening training wheels off and start thinking of myself as a genuine, knowledgeable, experienced Gardener. Why not, eh? Aren’t all gardeners always in training?
I have had some semblance of a garden since the early 1980s in DC when the upstairs neighbor moved and bequeathed all her plants, weeds and bugs in the backyard to me to tend. She figured they were more likely to survive under my hands than those of her reckless boyfriend who moved into her apartment when she left. It was a fine piece of land, except for the Virginia Creeper which sneakily tried to strangle everything in its path — I made a deal with it: it could have the fence if it promised not to bother the rosemary.
My favorite part of that garden was going out in the spring — which, by the way folks, happens sometimes in February or early March in DC unlike this May one in Toronto — to dig out all the weeds and see what survived the winter and dream about what I would plant and how it would flourish. Dreaming, I believe, is an important part of being a gardener. I was blessed there with the sweetest neighbors a girl could possibly have. They were country folks from South Carolina who had moved north to DC for work. They knew everything about gardening. They’d look over the fence at my plot, and Hmmm a lot and then gently suggest that just maybe that plant I thought was Swiss Chard was actually a weed. They’d even let their cucumbers and melons climb over our common fence so I could claim them as mine if anyone asked. I wasn’t the best gardener but I had a garden.
It’s too bad I didn’t have this interest in earth and plants when I was still living in Columbus, OH. My mother was a capital “G” gardening whiz. When I was a teenager, I remember her sitting at the kitchen table in February pouring over seed catalogues like they were Vogue or movie magazines. I never understood how anyone could be so enthralled by those pictures of tomatoes and tulips and onions? She loved it. There was also the reality that she had to feed 14 people, 365 days a year on my father’s not-very-big salary from the Great A&P. All those jars of put-up beans and zucchini and tomatoes would look mighty good come December. I didn’t care about any of that since I’d be recruited for the weeding detail. I never understood why the boys didn’t do the weeding since, according to house rules, the six of them were responsible for Outdoor Work, while the six girls were saddled with all that Indoor Work. So sexist, eh? I hated weeding. It was always hot, and humid, and sticky and there were bugs and my fingernails would get filled with dirt. And, to make it worse for me, I never much cared for most of what my mother grew to eat. At age 12, fool that I was, I much preferred the canned varieties of peas and green beans that didn’t require picking, plucking, weeding and shelling and were already well salted! But, you know, when I moved to DC at age 19, I missed that backyard and her garden — not so much those green beans but the hollyhocks and zinnias and those sweet bouquets she used to make with rose buds and sweet peas.
It’s taken a lot of years for me to get to a place where I love looking at seed catalogues and getting dirt under my fingernails when I plant green bean seeds in a pot on my porch. My garden isn’t very big — in fact every
year it gets a little smaller since my practical side started counting how many buckets of water it took to water it every night. There are limits to this gardening stuff, eh? The cats, of course, believe that every plant and pot that I have put on the porch is there exclusively for their pleasure. Every morning — after food, of course — they wait until I open the door for their escape into their garden. Nick has commandeered the space under the draping chives believing that he is well camouflaged and so he can snap one of those tempting birds on the feeder next door whenever he likes. Rose, lazier than her brother, just wants shade and a cool pot to curl up against.
For me, it’s about being able to walk out the door and clip parsley and basil and oregano that I grew myself and to sit there in the evenings with my glass of white wine and nibbles and a book and to appreciate the beauty that I had a hand in creating.