I began learning about gardens even before my first day of school. We lived in a typical middle-class neighborhood crowded with houses on small lots. There was a small yard for me to play in. There was also a sunny patch of ground behind our garage. This was where my mother chose to plant her garden.
Mom spaded the entire 12’ x 12’ area by hand and was soon planting tomatoes. As a pre-school aged child, I had no love for tomatoes. I certainly wasn’t going to eat them. But growing them was a different matter. I found it fascinating to watch the tiny green starts that my mother buried in the dirt, grow by leaps and bounds each night into tall, spreading vines that Mom tied to wooden stakes with worn out nylon stockings. As the summer wore on, tiny yellow blossoms became tiny green tomatoes and by mid-July the unwieldy plants were heavy with large, red fruits.
My mother learned to garden from her mother. Beside my Grandma’s house high atop a sunny hill, Grandma’s garden was many times larger than my Mother’s tomato patch. Grandma grew tomatoes, green beans, potatoes, beets, and just about every other vegetable she could squeeze into her long, neatly hoed rows. Even more fascinating than the green tomato starts were the tiny seeds my Grandmother planted. The idea that such a tiny little seed could grow into a green, leafy and living plant – something that could be harvested and eaten –eaten by everyone but me anyway – was a process that felt like magic.
I came to know the flowers, trees, and shrubs that grew in our small yard. Purple tulips, almost black, were the first flowers to bloom each spring and were followed by purple hosta blooms that made a popping noise when the bud was squeezed. I lay in bed at night, falling to sleep with the scent of lilacs drifting through my open window. Wild peppermint grew along the house foundation next to a patch of Lily of the Valley. I shredded large white “snowball” blossoms of a viburnum into a playtime salad for my dolls. I spent days lying in our clover filled yard searching for an elusive 4 leaf clover. I never did find one. The scent of the bridal wreath spirea still lingers in my memory along with the heavy scent of the magenta colored roses that bloomed only once each year. Those are the things I remember most about my childhood home.
As I grew into an adult the gardener inside of me continued to flourish. I lived in a 2nd floor apartment but the landlord gave me permission to dig a garden. It was no more than 6’ square. I planted 6 tomatoes and 25 strawberries. In a sunny narrow strip along the sidewalk I planted marigolds and snapdragons. I borrowed books about plants and gardens from the library. I studied the concept of shade gardening before planting a single 6 ft. row of pansies, impatiens, stocks, and nicotiana next to the shady driveway. When I enrolled at our local college branch campus, I fell naturally into the study of botany.
From my apartment with its tiny garden spaces, I next moved into the home of my new husband who had an equally shady, but much larger back yard. I continued to read about shade gardens and the kind of plants that would thrive in them. I was excited to discover the world of Hosta. I planted all shapes and sizes from the tiny miniature no larger than a spool of thread when fully grown, to the giant Blue Angel with leaves that easily measured more than a foot across.
In 1998, my husband and I moved to our current home on 2 acres. For 20+ years we have dug beds, planted trees, made both impulsive plant purchases and new discoveries. Our gardens are not formal manicured spaces. They are wild and even weedy at times – a natural home for bees, birds and other wild things.
This year our plan is to do a complete overhaul of our garden spaces. For both my husband and me gardening is more than a hobby. It’s an obsession. I’m sure we will bite off more than we can chew. Our ideas are always larger and more plentiful than our ability to implement them. But we will make some accomplishments and what doesn’t get finished will still be waiting for us next year. And the year after that.
A garden is never finished. It’s a living thing that evolves over years and across decades at the hands of different gardeners. A garden of any size and in any stage, make us more aware of the natural world around us. It causes our own roots to take hold and settle deep into whatever garden life gives us.