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
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