Gardens, House and Home

The Surprise Gardener

The garden has always been my domain.

When I met my husband, his definition of gardening was to mow the lawn on Saturday. A foundation planting consisted of a few shrubs surrounded by a bed of mulch covered black plastic. Anything that grew between the shrubs, or in his lawn, was a weed to be eradicated. A tree’s purpose was to make shade. A flower was something found in a vase. John took little notice of individual plants. This man who had grown up working the family potato farm and camping in the beautiful Sawtooth Mountains, appreciated the beauty of nature without recognizing the elements of nature’s design. He didn’t understand my interest in plants, but he was impressed with my knowledge of a subject that he considered an obscure field of study.

In the summer of 1991, John and I and my 11-year-old daughter, Amy, took our first cross country vacation. It was mid-June and we had planned a three-week tour from Ohio to John’s family home in Idaho, stopping to sightsee along the way.

The morning we reached the foot of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, golden rays stretched across a clear sky. No haze obscured the view as we drove the switchbacks up the eastern side of the mountain. The drive was breathtaking. Sheer cliffs and hairpin turns led from one magnificent viewpoint to the next. As we approached the summit, we thought that the best mountain views were behind us. We settled in, intending to hurry on or way and put some miles behind us.

Spring may have turned to summer back at home but at more than 10,000 feet, spring had only just arrived to the Bighorn range. Rounding a corner, we were greeted with a landscape blanketed with masses of purple lupines. I had never before seen such a grand display.

John was struck with as much awe as I was. Without being asked, he pulled to the side of the road and turned off the engine. We sat in silence for several moments, staring across the expansive field.

The three of us walked among the blooms, snapping dozens of photos — long range landscape pictures and detailed close-ups. These were the days before digital cameras. Every shot was made on pricey film that required professional processing. Nevertheless, we used up every roll of film that we had. We must have stayed an hour, reluctant to leave. I wondered if I would ever again see any place so peaceful and lovely. To this day, I never have.

When we finally came down off the mountain and reached a town, John bought more film and I purchased a wildflower field guide. Identifying the purple lupine, I read its description aloud as we motored across Wyoming. Anytime we saw a new wildflower growing along the highway, John stopped the car. He wanted to see every flower close-up. He wanted to know their names and hear me read descriptions. I began to think we might never get to Idaho! By the time we finally did arrive in the potato state, we had identified more than two dozen flowers.

Back at home, John’s interest in plants and gardens did not wane. He became my eager gardening partner. When I proposed ideas for a privacy fence and a stone patio, he bought materials, dug post holes, and laid stone. He created hardscapes that transformed our back yard into a shady garden. When we moved to a new home that would give us more outdoor space, he did it all over again. He hauled rocks, built a patio and stone paths, laid brick, erected fences and arbors, built a pergola and rebuilt a stone wall that he discovered in our overgrown 19th century garden. The garden center became his favorite destination.

There remained huge differences in the way we viewed the garden. He didn’t understand my frustration when I returned home from work one day to find he had scrubbed every bit of moss off of a brick border. Where I saw function and beauty in a broken pot turned on its side to serve as a shady rest spot for our population of toads, he saw the pot as trash to be picked up and disposed of. He was appalled when I planted thyme between the stones in our walkway and he opposed the idea of planting succulents in the gaps of a stone wall.

Despite our differing approaches, it was marvelous to have a common interest. Our vacations began to include visits to some of the country’s most outstanding gardens and conservatories. We visited gardens in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco, Puerto Rico, and Kauai, to name just a few. In 2021 we spent six days touring eight of Pennsylvania’s best public gardens and we have another plan sketched out for a similar tour in Massachusetts. Each garden visit gives us new ideas for adapting and recreating things that we see into our own garden.

For many years, the bulk of John’s time has been taken up with historical research and writing and gardening chores and projects were either left to me or squeezed into the few hours or days he had to spare. Now, as he finally concludes his longtime project, gardening has moved to the front of his mind. He has ideas for designing, building, and expanding our outdoor spaces. 2022 is full of promise with more ideas collected on Pinterest and more projects roughed out on graph paper than either of our aging bodies will withstand or time will allow. But possibilities are endless. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with!

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