Splendor In The Garden

The long days of winter are slowly receding as the sun increases its time of illuminating and warming us.

As winter still firmly holds us in its icy grasp, I sit here, staring out my window into the back yard, longing for spring to be here. The long days of winter are slowly receding as the sun increases its time of illuminating and warming us. New growth awaits below the snowy blanket of winter and I am ready for it to begin. Spring sparks hope and also fills my mind with thoughts of gardening. To sink my hands into the cool earth of Spring, getting bed ready for plants has always been a source of calmness and serenity. It was a gift passed to me from my mother and one I still dabble in to this very day.

Gardens of years past

I spent my youth growing up in the south, surrounded by women who had a love for gardening. You are probably saying that your family had gardens as well, but there is something completely unique about a Southerner’s garden. It is as much for your guests as it is for yourself. More than that, it is an experience. A lot of it is due to the fact that the south has warmer weather, sooner and longer, than most other places in the United States. But that’s getting off topic.

We would pack up the car, when my mother took vacation, and head to see relatives around the area. I remember getting out of our car and after the long embrace of hellos, we would be treated to a tour around their house to see their gardens. As a southerner, having a garden is as essential as your accent. But not everyone was known for every type of garden. For example, some of them were better at the food producing gardens while others’ green thumb was better suited for ornamental (flower) gardens.

Out of all of those women, one held a top place for me, that was my Grandma Lizzie. Her and Grandaddy Roscoe were the gardening couple. He had the knack for growing produce and she had the softer touch that blossomed any flower, no matter how she started it. They used as much of their property, as they could, to fill up with bits of both.

Lizzie’s Gardens

January and February was the time of year with seed catalogs would start shipping out in earnest. And I would remember colder mornings of late winter huddled in her kitchen around the wood burning cook stove. Granddaddy Roscoe would be flipping through the pages looking at things he may want to grow differently and calling attention to them. Grandma Lizzie would look at the flowers. This was the beginning of the planning stages. From there they would take trips into town, and close by Thorton’s greenhouse, to look for seeds and plant starts. This, of course, came after he has spent many weeks tilling the acres of garden in preparation for planting.

Grandma Lizzie would empty pots from the previous year, to get them ready for fresh soil. Or, if the plants did not survive, new plants to take them. She would be out weeding the area, cleaning up debris, and righting any fallen over pots. It was a bustle of frenetic work. Us kids were put to work playing at the stump we always wanted to dig up, to stay out of the way of the adults and so that we could easily be found.

As I said, Lizzie was known for her flowers and she used them well. If there were unsightly places in the siding of her house, she would have tables setup for plants to disguise it. If she needed separation from the vegetable gardens and the yards, she used snowball bushes to create the partition. Every piece was about bringing beauty and joy to her and her guests, even for the briefest of moments. This flowed into the house as much as the outside. Every corner was filled with a plant that exuded the most beautiful smells and dazzled you with color. This is where she was most comfortable, decorating with plants.

As kids, we would often follow her around in the later part of the days, her showing us the flowers and we often asking what they were. This is where I think my love for them began.

My Mother’s Garden

My mother wasn’t a slacker when it came to gardening, the only big difference was she worked a lot of hours, so her gardening was a bit more limited, but still impressive. There are many things that stick out in my mind about her, but the biggest was that she seemed to be able to start any kind of plant she wanted. It didn’t matter what it was or if it should grow from a start, she could do it. When we would visit family, she would always see something she didn’t have and they would start talking and by the end of the visit, we had a new plant start. She would, delicately, take it home and do her magic. By the next day, it would be in the window in a mason pint jar of water with roots. Okay, it wasn’t quite that quick but you get the idea. The woman could grow just about anything.

Our windows were filled with potted violets, spider plants, and ferns, on it inside. Outside there were hanging baskets of begonias, pansies, and more. The yard was filled with lilac bushes and concrete planters of petunias. Around the house you could find small patches of gladiolas, irises, and tulips. And of course, we had our garden down in the hollow. 

In 1986, our house burned down and we moved to a new town, in the same county we went to school. There, she worked on rebuilding her garden. Taking starts from family, where she could get them. Flowers that were gifted to her, often were planted to see if they would grow. And from there, we toured every garden shop we could to rebuild the beauty she had.

Mom always seemed to get lilies from people, it sort of became her default flower. She would plant them around the house and they always came back, every year she was alive. Her favorite was the Star Gazer lily. If you have never seen one, it displays six petals that are a mixture of white and varying depths of pink. A center line bifurcates it with the most intense dark pink ever seen. From the center rises its white and yellow stamens crowned with dark pink anther surrounding the delicate stigma atop its pistil. The petals are covered in pink spits and color giving it an almost starry night effect. Oddly, its gets its name from the fact that it is one of the few lilies who’s flowers point upwards towards the sky instead of drooping downward.

Gardening Becomes Mine

It is odd to reflect on my love of gardening. When I was born, I spent time in an incubator due to breathing difficulties. From there, I was quickly diagnosed as having allergies to bees, pollen, bark, and dirt. As a kid, this meant playing outside could be very miserable, since all of those things are found there. But, it didn’t stop me.

I don’t really know how I fell into gardening. Maybe it was because I thought it was a normal thing to do since all of the women in my family line seemed to do it. Even being a male, I didn’t question it. I honestly loved helping plant our vegetable gardens and planting flowers with my mother. What I disliked was weeding and harvesting. Harvest always meant we had bushels of beans to hull, corn to husk, and peas to shell. It seemed never ending and took away from my time of make believe.

But it was a part of my family, even my father had the ability to grow an amazing garden. He grew up on a farm and took care of it for his family. 

As my love of gardening grew, I decided to follow in the footsteps of my father, briefly, and become a part of FFA (Future Farmers of America). If you aren’t familiar,this is an organization in schools, especially the southern and socio-economic depressed areas, that teaches kids how to work and run a farm. By the time I joined, it was more of how to keep up the family farm and become more independent of the system. Our FFA group had its own greenhouse at school and did plant sales every spring. This only pushed my love further. 

We helped my mother with her gardens, hauling water and dirt  to the various gardens to keep them growing. Deadheading plants, where needed and weeding others. As mom started getting sick in her later life. I continued to help with her garden for her own piece of mind. Some of her favorites we grew were peonies and columbine. But her piece de resistance was her Bubby Rose. I will stop there, many of you probably have never heard of this plant before and it’s not surprising. It is a wild plant that is indigenous to North Carolina that became an ornamental favorite due to its flowers, color, ease of growth, and amazing spice smell. Each flower looks more like a child’s drawing of the sun but in almost a sanguine color. It is called a Common Sweetshrub or Spicebush (Calycanthus floridus). The smell is usually delicate in nature and intensifies as the temperature rises. But to take advantage of it fully, you need to pluck a single bloom from the plant and gently roll it between your fingers. The spicy scent will intoxicate you. Some describe it as a combination of pineapple, strawberry, and banana. However, the mixture varies greatly from plant to plant.

As her health got worse, I took it upon myself to make sure she was still able to have the garden she wanted. When I visited friends, I, too, would often collect starts of plants. My friend here in Cleveland gave me some white irises to go along with the purple ones we had. She had always wanted a rhododendron and azaleas, so I made sure to include that in the garden just outside the back door. Actually two, and I used a trick from Grandma Lizzie with them. Flowering plants can often change color due to the type of soil it grows in. If it is more acidic or basic, the color of the bloom, in some plants, wil change. I planted rusty nails in the ground next to one azalea. As it started to bloom for the year, its flowers became white. The sister bush of it still sported the vibrant pink flowers its known for. This also works with hydrangeas, using nails of coffee grounds has different effects on them. I made one bush white and another purple using this method.

Mom passed in 2011 and in memoriam, I planted butterfly bushes for her. She had always wanted them but didn’t know where to put them. I opted to plant them outside the window next to the dining room table she sat at every morning for coffee. The odd thing was, her spice bush never grew very much and had only a few blooms on it the entire time she had while she was alive. The first spring/summer after her death that bush grew and was filled with blossoms. I can still see them in my mind.

What is to come

Now, I have started a life with my partner and that part of me is wanting to create a garden much like I was familiar with growing up. I am left waiting for winter to release its grasp so I can get to work with creating that garden. I want us to have something beautiful we can use for entertaining and showing off. A piece of my history and pride. A garden my mother would be proud of.

All of that beauty comes with the price of hard work in the spring and as I sit here, that is what I am truly longing for.

What about you? Did your family have gardens growing up? What were the goto flowers? Have you always wanted a garden that you didn’t have, as a kid? What would you like to grow? Heck, what are some of your favorite flowers? Let me know in the comments below. I am looking for suggestions, also. This will be my first garden in Ohio, so help is appreciated.

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