When I was 23 or so, and living in my first home – a trailer with a nice addition and deck on 2 acres of Virginia countryside – I planted a garden. In a fit of self-awareness centered on the gardening, I wrote an essay (this was the days before I knew anything about blogging; it would have been a lovely blog post) called An Unexpected Inheritance. It appears in full at the end of this post. Ideally you should read it now, but I won’t force you. The gist is that I have found myself heir to a tradition of gardening, and even now, in the midst of a city, living in a 10th floor apartment on a busy street, my husband and I are gardening on the tiny patch of outdoors we call our own. It has no soil of its own – we have to haul that up ourselves. But it has light and air, and in the magical alchemy of nature, we get food and flowers. We are sky farmers. We are hyperlocal eaters. We put tiny, hard, dry seeds into damp pots of dirt and they are becoming chard, tomatoes, peppers, basil. The Monkey does most of the work – he too has gardening in his blood. His pawpaw was an alchemist of the soil. We’re taken with our little tribute to our, well, to our roots. Roots to the past, and roots into the future.
An Unexpected Inheritance
My car is winding a curving backroad over and around the aged ridges of Appalachia. This road is my almost daily exercise in precision, my wicked thrill that makes the forty-minute commute to work each day something more than routine. Today though, instead of bracing myself for tire-screeching whips round the familiar hairpins, I’m gentle on the pavement, for two reasons. First, heavy rain earlier in the day left the roads wet, and second, there is a delicate body in my backseat, a passenger unlikely to appreciate the centrifugal force of my intrepid maneuvering. Dicentra spectabilis, the name of my charge, was filed somewhere in my brain and retrieved, unbidden, as I loaded the carefully uprooted Bleeding Heart into my car half an hour ago. Dicentra rolls through my mind again, and I’m surprised I remember the name. I know other names, scientific names used by gardeners who actually know the difference between D. spectabilis and D. formosa. Dianthus…digitalis…monarda. And I know their common names: carnation, foxglove and bee balm. I don’t know as many as my grandmother. She knows them as if they were her children: “This is my oldest, Papaver – we call her Poppy. And meet Achillea, but she goes by Yarrow.”
Similar roads win through the Ozark Mountains in southwest Missouri, and I’ve been on them, not old enough to drive, but curled in the backseat, feet crossed under me to keep them out of the flats of pansies and petunias, pots of columbine and iris and lilac. When my family visited grandparents in the spring, a day was reserved to visit the nurseries. Grammy scouted them out all year – by the time we arrived in April her garden was already alight with iris of every hue, jonquils, ferns and violets. And she knew what to buy – her gardening notebook was overflowing with clippings from seed catalogs, cultivated by scrawled notations and sketches of raised beds and trellises, mulched with hours of dreaming and now blossoming into three-dimensional reality. So we drove over the countryside, first to the rural nurseries, where the greenhouses were across from owners’ homes, and their cats and dogs wandered among the black plastic pots of hydrangeas and rhododendrons sniffing the scent of strangers’ sandals in the gravel paths. A gloved old man would load a butterfly bush in the floor of the backseat and we’d drive off to another nursery. Grammy might know the owner by name, and she would introduce her daughter and granddaughter, and Grammy would tell her that the clematis she’d purchased here last year was twice as high and climbing over the fence now. Another clematis, a different variety than last year, would rest on the floor of the backseat as we turned toward town ans scouted the neighborhood nurseries for hostas, delphiniums, phlox and ferns. I remember the arched green plastic walls of the hothouses, the warm moist scent of damp plants in rich potting soil and the crunch of gravel pathways among colorful clumps of every imaginable flower, shrub, tree and vine.
Once home, planting would commence, I suppose. I’m not sure since I headed for the comfort of a cool bedroom to read my vacation days away. I’m really not much of a gardener.
Mom and Dad are gardeners. Flowers, some; but mostly they are vegetable gardeners. Many a miserable morning was spent by my brothers and me, picking long green beans off itchy green bushes. And many a delightful day yielded sun-warmed, acidic red tomatoes to good to adulterate with anything but a little salt. We’d eat them before they cooled off. None of his children liked squash, but Dad faithfully grew and cooked his mushy zucchini and yellow squash and fed it to us all our lives.
My first summer on my own, I was new to the mountains and too busy to think of gardens. In the fall, I moved into my own home, a small brown house on an unpaved corner in a hollow west of a village in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Wood stoves and the new lessons of power bills, phone bills, and rent occupied my newly independent mind for the first months of germinal life on Sugar Tree Road. One cold, snowy spring morning, I talked to Dad on the phone.
“Tilled the garden today.”
“It must be warmer there than here, Dad.”
“Are you going to plant a garden this year, now that you have a yard?”
“Well, I guess I might put a few tomatoes out, there’s a spot here.”
“Tomatoes, a row or two of green beans, and a few squash plants would do you just fine, ” Dad said.
“I guess I could plant some squash too, ” I said. “I eat it now, but I grate it and cook it with onions.”
So when the frost date passed in my little valley, May seventh, which seemed dreadfully late in the year to my southern Zone Seven sensibilities (I had sensibilities?) , I had a spot tilled and thought about planting a tomato or two. One Saturday morning, too damp and cold for May, I headed to the Village Mart to get a tomato plant from the tables in the shed next to the store. On the way into town, I noticed a wooden, hand-painted sign: “Mountain Springs Nursery, Open Saturday and Sunday” and an arrow pointing down a side road. My hands turned the wheel, it seemed the most reasonable thing in the world to do. Lilacs were blooming in my neighbor’s yard. I should plant a lilac in my yard. Ten miles later, in a greenhouse across from the owner’s home, I was introducing myself to the lean man in overalls and a brown hat. He was carrying my lilac in a gloved hand, and I patted the head of the blue-eyed retriever as we crunched down an gravel path toward a butterfly bush and a row of hostas. He told me the names of hostas I recognized by sight, their shape and shade filed into my head years back in the gardens of my grandmother. I bought the lilac and the butterfly bush, and promised to return for hostas. And I still stopped at Village Mart and bought two tall tomato plants and a few younger small ones. When I got home with a backseat full of damp plants, I called my mom and told her that when she came to visit I’d take her to a nursery I found.
A friend who works with me at the bookstore asked me if I liked Bleeding Hearts, there were two big ones in her small yard and she wanted to make room for Cranesbill geraniums. Some are born to gardening, and others have gardening thrust upon them. I’m not sure which is me, but the Dicentra spectabilis in my y backseat is on her way to my yard, to my garden.