Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Secret Gardener

Although my cousin is a famous gardener, I had rather assumed, by certain trial and error, that specific green gene had escaped me (as did the sports gene, and the gifted gene, and the gene for making money). Fifteen years of an unfailing effort to create a garden in my little, sunny Santa Fe home had proven my assumption perfectly: although my thumbs are delightfully opposable – there is not a speck of green anywhere among these freckles.

Over those years the only garden success I had was turning perennials into annuals. Every May, without fail, I would take to my little plot of high desert earth with resolute determination. And every August I would reap the same reward: one determined hollyhock rendered flowerless by weevils, a weft of woeful lamb’s ear and a scraggly little purple ice plant. By the following May I would be once again determined and certain to have found the solution. Year after year, the butterflies and hummingbirds that I so coveted would arrive, pause, wince and sail on to more fertile and fragrant fields. I never gave up.

And each failed garden, it seemed, was matched perfectly with another best selling garden book or television appearance graced with the perfectly tousled blond hair of my dapper, handsome cousin (yep, a couple more genes there that I missed), adding another annual dose of insult to injury.

It’s May 2008 and somewhere between the happy isles of Hawaii and golden sunsets on the Aegean – I find myself home, which is now in Oklahoma, with a week off. Spring is on the wane here, summer teases with warm muggy nights and mornings filled with the heady aroma of things growing and breeding and brooding. My hands begin to ache – quivering and lurching for the unclaimed plots of earth in my backyard like a divining rod to an unseen pool of water. I succumb to the madness and churn that red clay-filled soil through my fingers, smear it on my body, fling it my hair, mold it between my toes.

There is something very different about this fertile ground I hold in my hands. I feel somehow connected to it in a way I was not in other distant places I have once called home. I realize this soil is my soil; the sodden earth my feet first touched when I learned to walk; the same soil that sustained me for years with vegetables from my grandfather’s garden; and the same bit of earth that my first beloved pets found final refuge in.

This red earth runs like a river through my soul and it begged for me to create something beautiful from it. Having no time or talent for the potter’s wheel – I knew what I had to do: one last attempt at a garden and with only a little more than 24 hours to do it.

The first thing I did was box up all my cousin’s books -- all the winsome smiling and sweeping blond hair and gorgeous gardening advice – and donated the whole lot to the garden club. I then drove to the little locally owned nursery that sells plants from under an interstate highway overpass not far from my neighborhood and with reckless abandon bought anything that suggested a toleration for sun and boasted that little stamp of hummingbird or butterfly approval.

Returning home with only hours to spare, I heaved and hoed, churned the dirt, wrestled the errant Bermuda and arranged the plants like tarot cards divining the future; butterflies here, hummingbirds there, insect food, bird food, people food -- the circle of life in the full sweep of my garden plot. I made three trips that day to the nursery-under-the-bridge to fill in the empty spaces and to pay tribute to the past. I planted a clematis and passion-flower vine to honor my grandmother and a jalepeno plant to honor my first love. Infer what you will!

The sun set on my final day at home. Athens was the next port of call. The garden was now planted but no time for mulching or fertilizing or anticipating what insects might devour it while I was gone. My garden was now in hands of the unforeseen forces of the universe… that and the thrice-weekly automatic watering system that I hoped would be sufficient. I took one last look at the scraggly half-dollar sized nursery plants and the little rows I had raked with seed and wished it the best. My hands were happy, my heart rent; the urge to plunder the earth now requited.

Six weeks later, I came home to this (Blogger compresses these images - you need to click on them to view them they way they were meant to be seen):

Flowers everywhere -- bursting in blooms, vibrantly green, and growing faster and taller than I thought naturally possible and with not an ounce of fertilizer, mulch, pesticides (I would never) - nothing, nada. My sister had warned me on the phone; "Do you arrive before dark? Well I think you'll be surprised what you're going to find in the backyard. It seems you have a secret gardener."

A forest of sunflowers that had grown a foot a week and were easily two feet over the stockade fence. "What would the neighbors think?" my petunia loving mother asked.

Six-foot tall cosmos

Hyndrangea blooms the size of cantaloupes

Passion flowers arching and reeling over the deck

Prairie cone companions

Elderberry flowers with the promise of bird food in the fall

A red flower eating purple-stockinged ballerinas

This flower is supposed to attract hummingbirds - it looks like it too devoured a little pink-stockinged pixie head first.

Vibrant oranges


edible yellows

all stunning colors and covered with bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

There is nothing like the gossamer petals of a back-lit sunflower at sunset

or milkweed that turns into little hula girls dancing in a circle

there were flowers everywhere
Yes, I do believe I might just have a secret gardener. Whoever you are, you've made my summer. I can't thank you enough. In some ways it's the grandest welcome back home yet. I planted this garden as a hopeful tribute to my past and to honor my dirt-digging ancestors. Looking around at all this beauty, I can't help but feel that maybe, just maybe, I do belong back here. Well, let's say we belong back here; me and my secret gardener.

Oh, and dear cousin of the golden locks:

Eat your heart out! Love, Baldy


Louise said...

Beautiful pictures and FANTASTIC story! I hope your Secret Gardener stays around. And beware of the cosmos! I've learned to love it in Albuquerque, but NEXT YEAR it will be out of control. That makes me love it move, but it doesnt' care what else is growing in it's way.

Alan Scott said...

So from the beauty of your flowers, it seems that you do share the 'green thumb' gene with your handsome cousin (I've got a few of those, too, but they also got the 'tall' gene. :( )
When I lived in Dallas, I chose to grow roses, which are a little much for an amateur gardener, but they were worth the trouble!
Beautiful flowers!

Cath said...

What a fantastic post! And a wonderful garden. I love my garden too, and like you, planted everything myself, learnt by trial and error and I delight in the colours and the growth each spring. Maybe I have a secret gardener too. It would explain a lot.

You write this so well. It was a joy to read. I got here from authorblog where Louise (above) nominated you for Post of the Day - great nomination.

Doug Taron said...

Beautiful writing, fine photos and a wonderful garden. Dang, TR, you set the bar so high on this whole blogging thing.

The Diva said...

Hey T.R., I think P. Allen has nothing on you. As to a turn of phrase, that's some good writing, my friend. I think your cousin is great gardener, but he grows things in a totally different climate. Blogs are wonderful because we can offer advice about our red earth.~~Dee

EG CameraGirl said...

I could use a secret gardener. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Those are some beautiful flowers. SWF Have a great weekend!

Sandpiper (Lin) said...

Wow! Fantastic post, TR! I wouldn't mind have a garden with all those flowers.

Pat - Arkansas said...

Love it, love it, love it! I laughed out loud when you reported that you'd boxed up your cousin's books. From the looks of your garden, benign neglect is just what it needed -- or you really do have a Secret Gardner. I've had the pleasure of attending a lecture by your famous cousin, and visiting a local nursery where he held sway. He and I even share a first initial and the same middle name, although I don't think his first name is Pat(ricia).

Enjoyed your wonderful photos and narrative!

Julie said...

What a wonderful story. I did have to laugh when you lauded your ability to turn perennials into annuals.

kjpweb said...

Hah - that was funny - and a good lesson in "If you first fail - try again! How's your cousin's heart?

Cheers, Klaus

Barb said...

P. Allen is your cousin and you missed the green thumb gene and the green money gene? Well, at least your garden is thriving! hahaha!

Kahshe Cottager said...

I came for Sky Watch but was waylaid by the beautiful flowers! Loved the pixie shot - it made me chuckle! I am trying to coax a garden in the rocky landscape of the Canadian Shield at our cottage!

Suldog said...

Came here on the recommendation of Louise (via Authorblog, hosted by David McMahon.) Very glad that I did. Wonderful photos, entertaining writing, what more could I want? Good job!

Anonymous said...

You are blessed with such a garden. The colours! FAB. You ! Even more FAB.

Lea said...

Every petal is vibrant and stunning. Super pics. Lush garden. Delicious words.

Thank you.


Mary said...

Tim, you might notice that my sidebar is loaded with garden blogs. But, I gotta tell you, this is the best garden BLOOM day I've seen! Your reflections are as beautiful as your photos. Garden Fairies are with you!

I'm not gifted at growing a garden, either, but I planted wildflower seeds this spring well suited for hummingbirds and butterflies. Just yesterday, I jumped for joy to see my first sunflower bloom. It's beautiful.

Enjoy that Oklahoman soil under your feet for a while because you catch that next flight...


Mary said...

oops. "...before you catch that next flight." :o/

Debbie said...

Lea summed it up for me. I love your descriptions of the flowers. Made me see them in a whole different way.

And I like the comment about you setting the blogging bar so high.

You sure are a master at this. You should do a book. I love seeing and hearing about the world through your eyes. Thanks so much for sharing it with us home bound souls.

Lana Gramlich said...

Wow...that's so awesome!
My coworkers constantly give me cuttings & seeds to plant out here, but nothing ever grows. I think our soil's too acidic. I don't fret, however. Living in the woods, I have JUST the view I love. Not to mention that some of the local wildflowers are better than some of my coworkers' donations, anyway. :)


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